Tribeca Review: Death of a Superhero


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Death of a Superhero initially reminded me of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys — both are about adolescents and comics, both are adaptations, and both are YA coming-of-age stories. There’s a big difference between the two, and it’s not just geographic: Death of a Superhero is about a teenager dying of terminal cancer.

There are immediate red flags that go off when you read the term “cancer movie,” and though Death of a Superhero is a movie about a young man dying of cancer, Ian Fitzgibbon instead set out to make a teenage love story with a hard time limit. It’s a movie about first loves and only loves. He elaborated on this during our interview with him (look out for it Monday) because there’s a big distinction between the two.

Cancer movies can be sentimental and sometimes saccharine even if they’re genuine. Death of a Superhero is something more desperate. It bounces from sad to funny to angry, like a kid whose hormones are in a rage. And Donald has every right to be angry — it’s very likely that he’ll die before he’s an adult. Like he tells his parents: whatever happens, he’s f***ed.

Death of a Superhero
Director: Ian Fitzgibbon
Rating: TBD
Country: Ireland/Germany

Immanent death gives every moment some extra weight and every missed opportunity a little extra tragedy. For Donald (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), it means never getting laid and never having a girlfriend, or at least it does on the surface. Really, though, it’s about cutting short some great potential. The kid’s a good artist and well liked (thankfully there’s no bully character in the movie), and he’s got folks that love him. Donald’s cancer is just another touch of the universe’s indifference to human suffering.

Occasionally Donald contemplates suicide. Better that than withering slowly from chemo and radiation therapy. There would at least be some sense of control. Given how ragged his emotions become, control is something he desperately needs. What gives Donald at least a little handle on his emotions is art, and so he draws the kinds of sexed-up and jagged things from a teenage boy’s mind. The women are corseted teases with curled cat tails, and Donald’s surrogate hero is six-packed and powerful and everything he’s not.

There’s something striking about Donald’s appearance. He’s hairless, for one, and there are threads of vein just visible under his pale, translucent skin. He’s frail, but there’s this seething look to him; when he smiles there’s a genuine joy, and you can read the real disappointment in his face. Brodie-Sangster has this great command over the different angles of Donald’s personality. It’s a presence that comes through the screen.

There are a few things that carry Death of a Superhero beyond the familiar territory of cancer movies. A lot of it has to do with the performances, which is a testament to the talent of the cast and Fitzgibbon’s own acting background. I’ve mention Brodie-Sangster already, who’s commanding and sympathetic. There’s also a lot to be said about Donald’s would-be love interest Shelly, played by Aisling Loftus. She’s a bit of a misfit outsider, and also more experienced in terms of relationships and sex. Like the women that Donald draws, he finds her attractive but also mysterious and dangerous.

Apart from this budding love, the other center of the film is Andy Serkis as Dr. King. He’s Donald’s most recent in a line of therapists. Dr. King falls into the Good Will Hunting mold of counseling characters — a comfy/scraggly look, a complimentary demeanor, a meditative solitude — though that shorthand sells Serkis’s performance short. Many of his roles tend to be physical ones, like Gollum and Caesar, but here Serkis is more about the presence he can convey through quiet moments. He’s retrained, he’s compassionate, he’s also a little jokey. It works for a guy whose job is to get people comfortable with death.

It may sound like Death of a Superhero is this depressing, sappy story about a doomed chance at love, but it’s actually a really funny movie at times. There are these emotional highs and lows throughout the film that are naturally placed. For instance, some of Donald’s mates go around school asking girls if they’d be willing to deflower him. It’s funny, it’s a little pathetic, but it’s the kind of desperately well-intentioned thing you’d want to do for a friend. So while immanent death emphasizes urgency and missed opportunity, the film also uses it to bring greater vim to the funny moments of life. Dying gives people a good excuse to laugh.

One of the elements that reminded me so much of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys was the use of animated sequences. In Superhero, it’s done to emphasize emotional states, also in the same blocky, jagged style of Donald’s art. We get to see Donald’s fantastical, emotional life and how his imagination is responding to death. It becomes particularly important as the film carries on and situations in Donald’s life change a bit.

What I liked most about Death of a Superhero was its honesty. There are a few moments where you’d expect speeches or monologues about what it is to die young. Rather than speeches, Fitzgibbon gives us performances, short lines, and even heavy silences. The movie tells its story rather than explicitly stating to the audience what it thinks and what the audience should think. There is a scant handful of monologue moments, but they’re brief and done in the voice of a teenager in the moment, not an adult.

There’s one scene in the film between Donald and his father that’s all about the high and low, the performance and the silence. It all centers on Donald’s dad saying that he’s proud of his son and he loves him. It’s simple. The tender, quiet moment is bookended by jokes, surrounded even. And it works. A little levity after the weight. There’s all the joy and sorrow of a little tragic life in a few minutes — time’s short, so the movie makes it count.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.