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Death of a Superhero

D: Ian Fitzgibbon / 97m

Cast: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Andy Serkis, Aisling Loftus, Michael McElhatton, Sharon Horgan, Ronan Raftery, Ben Harding, Killian Coyle, Jessica Schwarz

Donald (Brodie-Sangster) is fifteen and suffering from cancer.  He’s also a talented artist and draws pictures of an unnamed superhero, but while this aspect of his life allows him to express his (mixed) feelings about his illness, it’s the opposite of how he deals with his parents (McElhatton, Horgan), his teachers, and the succession of psychiatrists they take him to see.  Angry a lot of the time, Donald struggles to make sense of his feelings and tries hard to regain control of his life.  He flirts with suicide, clashes with authority figures, and only begins to make sense of things when he meets new-girl-in-school Shelly (Loftus) and art therapist Adrian King (Serkis).

Death of a Superhero is a brave attempt to show us a teenage cancer protagonist who isn’t bravely coping with his illness, or making a supreme effort to live a “normal” life, or offering intuitive support to other sufferers his age.  Instead, Donald is angry and afraid and resistant to the good intentions of his parents and the people around him.  His artwork is appropriately dark and disturbing, and features a villain called The Glove who invades his dreams; and in one particularly effective scene, Donald’s body.  As he begins to come to terms with his illness, Donald also learns to take part in his own life again.

Death of a Superhero - scene

As played by Brodie-Sangster, Donald is a drifting soul, unsure of how to react to the people closest to him, or how to deal with his emotions.  Brodie-Sangster is entirely convincing, his demeanour perfectly expressing Donald’s feelings without any intrusive sentimentality.  As his unconventional therapist, Serkis is solid if a trifle too laid back, while Loftus impresses as the object of his burgeoning affections.  The rest of the cast offer equally solid support, and are ably marshalled by director Fitzgibbon.  The script – adapted by Anthony McCarten from his novel of the same name – is strangely unmoving, but given the less than humorous subject matter this doesn’t detract from the overall effect.  The characters are well-defined, and the drama is never allowed to descend into melodrama.

The animated sequences have a power all of their own but are used sparingly so as not to overwhelm the “human elements”, and they serve as indicators to Donald’s emotional moods.  (The Glove is a great villain though; it would have been good to see  more of him.)  The film’s focus does change towards the end as Donald’s friends try to ensure he loses his virginity, and while this lifts the movie out of the bleak territory it inhabits mostly, it’s at odds with the movie’s overall tone (even if it is a welcome shift).

Rating: 7/10 – an unsparing look at teenage mortality and the efforts of one young man to make sense of what’s happening to him; ultimately life-affirming and affecting, Death of a Superhero succeeds where many other movies have tried something similar and failed.

Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.