Read Chapters 1 and 2 first!
Both male leads are obvious masculine archetypes. Billy is the “Nice Guy” who gets walked all over and is rather socially awkward, spending his days pining after a girl he can’t get the courage to talk to and fuming that she would go out with the guy who does. Captain Hammer is the mythical captain of the football team who gives the Billy’s of the world wedgies at lunch.
To suggest that Billy is closer to Joss Whedon’s perception of himself (and more similar in this regard to his fans as well) is not a stretch. Even if this is not true for all of the audience, it is always easier to identify with the underdog, which we are encouraged to do from the opening shot. Therefore, I will begin with Billy/Dr. Horrible, as he is inarguably the main (and title) character.
The hard truth about Billy is that he is really no better (or at least not much better) than Captain Hammer. As much as the audience wants him to be, subtle cues let us know he is just as self absorbed and narcissistic. For example, in the first shots of the film Billy is addressing “us” via his “vlog” (video weblog) and while emphatically stating “look, I’m just trying to change the world, ok?” he looks into his screen and adjusts his goggles to make sure they’re “just so”.
These are not the actions of the self deprecating Nice Guy Billy portrays himself as, but the ego strokings of Captain Hammer. That he is so unaware of his self-centeredness and so antagonistic to the egoism of Captain Hammer does not paint a very flattering portrait. Yet we forgive him his vanity because after all, at least he cares about Penny, doesn’t he?
But, why does he care about her? As we learn during the song “My Freeze Ray” Billy has never even successfully spoken to Penny, which begs the question, how exactly has he managed to fall in love with her? In fact he objectifies her just as much as Captain Hammer does, if not as explicitly. Like so many men before him, he looks at her as a pretty accessory. One who can be bought with shiny things even; “and she may cry / but her tears will dry / when I hand her the keys / to a shiny new Australia”, instead of as a person to respect and get to know. Rather, we see he doesn’t respect her as a person very much at all.
When they talk for the first time as she is "hunting wild signatures" for the homeless shelter and he blows off her activism as unimportant, only “treating a symptom”. Additionally, they never even have an honest conversation; he is always presenting the side of himself he thinks she will like, never owning his aspirations to be a super villain. Yet, I think the latter point is more about his own ambivalence about his own goals than his objectification of Penny.
This ambivalence is depicted well after Billy and Penny’s first conversation. “She talked to me,” Billy says. “Why did she talk to me now? Maybe I shou…” he sighs, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do / don’t plan the plan if you can’t follow through”. This is a pivotal point for Billy’s development as a character. It is here that he has the chance to choose what is more important to him; developing a relationship with Penny, or achieving the good will of the ELE. Little does he know that this choice also seals a death sentence for Penny, as it sparks the escalating “pissing contest” between him and Captain Hammer which ultimately ends her life. This crossroads is effectively his last chance to be Billy, and not evolve into Dr. Horrible. Well, we all know how that decision-making turns out.
In contrast, Captain Hammer’s character suffers from no such ambivalence. He knows exactly who he is, he is comfortable in that role, and his attention seeking nature is expressed openly and without self consciousness. In our introduction to him we are positioned from below, looking up at him as he rides atop a courier van. This positioning is telling as to what sort of character he is; it denotes power. He is someone to “look up to”, although as we find out as the narrative unfolds this is an ironic message because in fact he is the villain of this story.
Captain Hammer is a “hero” but it is very clear that he does good deeds quite simply because they attain him the recognition, fame, and female companionship he craves. Additionally, he proves himself thoroughly not to be a hero in the films conclusion; where Billy is reluctant to kill even his arch-nemesis, Captain Hammer has no such hesitation in ending a life.
While it is easy to thus compare Billy favorably to Hammer it is important to remember that Billy’s desire for change stems directly from his “need” to rule the world. A lust for power, even when arising from lack of recognition or validation in one’s life, is no more altruistic than a desire for constant attention and (various) female companionship. Coming back to the symbolic narrative their battling represents we see that the competing interests of the “corporate tool” and the “revolutionary” continually end in the silencing of the powerless but hard working community activist.