Death of a Superhero is a 2011-made Irish-German co-production, which never saw a cinematic release in Northern Ireland other than as part of the 12th Belfast Film Festival – the same fate suffered by the much more dull Stella Days. Directed by Ian Fitzgibbon (Spin The Bottle, A Film With Me In It, Perrier’s Bounty) and a bit of a departure from crime comedies, Death of a Superhero is a sombre drama about a young man coming to terms with terminal illness, ineffective chemotherapy, terrified parents and girls.
Donald (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is dying and though he tries to put up a front for his parents (Sharon Horgan – Run and Jump - and Michael McElhatton – November Afternoon, All Soul’s Day, I Went Down, Saltwater, Intermission, Adam and Paul, Mickybo and Me, Spin The Bottle, The Tiger’s Tail, Fifty Dead Men Walking, Perrier’s Bounty, Parked, Albert Nobbs, Shadow Dancer), inside he is wracked by thoughts of nihilism and suicide. A thanatologist cum therapist Dr. Adrian King (Andy Serkis) breaks through his defensiveness and they form a bond, which will ultimately give Donald a new outlook on life. At the same time, Dom falls for the rebellious Shelly (Aisling Loftus).
Donald is a talented animator and he has created a private, highly personal comic book world for himself, inhabited by a doomed superhero, that significantly reflects his own experiences. The film intercuts between live-action and animated sequences, the animations representing Donald’s thoughts and actions. Donald will often retreat to this animated world, although here his heroic counterpart is frequently seen restrained and under threat of imminent death. These sequences also feature a series of highly sexualised women, who represent Donald’s own burgeoning sexuality. Intimacy is something Donald has had little experience of and these fairly chauvinistic caricatures speak equally of his willingness to lose his virginity before he dies and his lack of experience with the opposite sex in real life. Shelly, calling his animations ‘porn’, will disrupt his ideas about women, though it leaves the film with a kind of Madonna-whore dichotomy that it never outgrows.
In summary, Death of a Superhero is a film about cancer and has all that can be expected from such a film. Its clichéd and a lot of what is done here has been done before but there are moments where a detectable sincerity and a willingness to tell the truth can manage to slip through. The performances are all very good with Horgan and McElhatton the most interesting as parents who cannot cope with what their son is going through. Serkis is good although in The Good Teacher role, which is as clichéd as anything but which somehow always manages to work – even when Adrian allows Donald to smash up his boat because it is therapeutic. Aisling Loftus is very good in a role that could have ruined the film – it remains a not very rewarding role but somehow Loftus, with her unpredictable performance, makes a lot out of it. The superhero stuff is silly but it is nonetheless a meaningful and useful way of getting inside Donald’s head, as well as a somewhat unique approach to a story like this.
Despite this, the film falls flat in the end. The typical sentimentality rears its head and though the film does pack an emotional weight, there is a sense of unreality and stupidity. Donald, of course, inspires everybody by the end. As soon as we see Adrian’s boat, abandoned in his front garden, we know that, by the end, he will be moved to take a sailing trip, probably after Donald has died. The sea plays a part in the end just like in a lot of Irish films about physical or emotional journeys – Lamb, Into The West, Disco Pigs and Dollhouse.
The animations end with ‘success through adversity’ in which the hero uses his very weakness to destroy his enemies, which says a lot about the message the film is trying to pander. It is of the ‘inspiration through illness’ malarkey, a difficult Hollywood message and one that Irish cinema would do well to get away from – My Left Foot is great despite it mainly because Christy Brown, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, was a much more ambiguous figure and because the film itself is very funny; Inside I’m Dancing, however, couldn’t come out from under its unbecoming sentimentality. Death of a Superhero comes somewhere in between – compassionate, likeable and by turns realistic but ultimately a little childish, a little too desperate for closure, for something good to come out of the story of a 15-year old terminal cancer patient.
Death of a Superhero, then, is a confident if traditional cancer story that doesn’t quite succeed in avoiding the trivialisation and sentimentalisation of its subject. Dr Adrian King feeling the need to sail away in his boat makes sense only because it has been done before, not because of anything to do with his character or the film’s storyline. It gets by mainly on the strength of its cast.
See also: Perrier's Bounty