Academy Award–nominated writer Joss Whedon (Toy Story) has a way with words. As pointed out in the PBS documentary Do You Speak American?, Whedon’s legendary TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “challenged linguistic taboos and introduced new words and phrases in nearly every show.” But to Whedon, musicals are where the truest words are spoken. “Singing is the universal language,” he told media gossip site Gawker this month, “along with being on fire.”

This joyful use of wordplay and song to express plot and hidden emotions was first glimpsed in Whedon’s self-penned Buffy musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling” (Buffy sings, “I’ve been making shows of trading blows/Just hoping no one knows that I’ve been/Going through the motions”) and is now in web form with the online musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

Originally conceived during the WGA writers strike late last year, during which guild members were not allowed to “officially” write for film or TV, Horrible was a relatively low-budget endeavor with Whedon’s brothers Jed and Zack and some very bored crew-member friends. It was shot on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood and features former Buffy writers Marti Noxon, David Fury and Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield) and frequent Whedon collaborator Nathan Fillion (Waitress).

The plot concerns a wannabe supervillain, Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris, emoting his evil ass off), his unrequited love for the cute little vegan girl at the laundromat, Penny (Buffy alum Felicia Day), and the horrific reality that she’s dating his arch-nemesis, Captain Hammer (Fillion, even more gloriously cheesy than the Tick – whose creator, Ben Edlund, gets a special thank-you in the credits).

As seen from Dr. Horrible’s point of view (he has a video blog, where he vents his frustrations and evil plans to an audience made up of, it turns out, the Los Angeles Police Department), Captain Hammer is the worst kind of overgrown fratboy. He lacks any self-awareness or humility (“Captain Hammer’s here, hair blowing in the breeze/The day needs my saving expertise,” Fillion sings while atop a speeding truck), and seems to foil Horrible’s plans (real name: Billy) without even meaning to.

Meanwhile, all Dr. Horrible wants is to get Penny’s attention. Problem is, he can’t muster the courage to talk to her, so he devises elaborately wicked plans to make it happen. As he sings in the catchy opening tune, “With my freeze-ray I will find the time to/Find the words to/Tell you how you make me feel.” This conflict is at the heart of Act 1 (there are three episodes – “acts” – each about 15 minutes long), which culminates in Captain Hammer saving Penny and she and the hero falling in love. Even standing alone, the first episode is a marvel of a short film.

This turn of events is nearly unbearable for Dr. Horrible, who careens into a downward spiral in the second and best act – “I cannot believe my eyes/How the world’s filled with filth and lies/But it’s plain to see evil inside of me/Is on the rise,” he sings in a show-stopping duet with Penny – and recommits to his goal of gaining entrance into the Evil League of Evil (led by the notorious Bad Horse, “the thoroughbred of sin”). Captain Hammer himself provides a final push to the dark side by heartlessly whispering his and Penny’s sexual exploits into Horrible’s ear.

“The hammer is my penis,” he explains simply.

Horrible loses steam in Act 3, which is both shocking and muddled in its resolution. Hammer’s solo, “Everyone’s a Hero,” comes off as needlessly cruel: “It may not feel too classy/Begging just to eat/But you know who does that? Lassie/And she always gets a treat.” Horrible does become a villain, but at a terrible cost, and Whedon seems to indicate that what we’ve been watching is the epic downfall of a pretty decent guy: a morality tale. In retrospect, the plot is headed that way, but not the tone, which until the finale is light and clever.

Even taking into account the ending, which some bloggers are already railing against, the fact that a 45-minute web musical about a supervillain can evoke such visceral reactions speaks not only to the talent of Whedon and his cast – Harris in particular, despite having starred in acclaimed Broadway productions Proof, Cabaret and Assassins, will find an entirely new following after this – but to the possibilities of the medium itself. The servers hosting the first episode crashed the morning it was made available due to overwhelming curiosity.

A DVD is in the works (Whedon promises a first-ever “musical commentary”) plus a soundtrack album, a graphic novel tie-in and a possible stage adaptation.

Granted, not everyone who dreams of making a short Internet film has a crew of dozens of professionals at his disposal, but Whedon has thrown down the gauntlet for future Internet events.

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