Review: Death of a Superhero (2011)

4


Cast: Andy Serkis, Thomas Sangster, Michael McElhatton
Director: Ian Fitzgibbon
Country: Germany
Genre: Drama | Comedy | Animation
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Death of a Superhero opened in limited release in North American theatres on May 4th.

As Kate Hudson has taught us just this very week, cancer doesn’t make for the easiest of onscreen subject matters, the potential pitfalls in misrepresenting the reality of the disease leading more often than not to tonally inappropriate takes that seem only to briefly touch on the truth of the matter. Adapted from his own novel, Anthony McCarten’s screenplay meshes the story of 15 year-old Donald’s struggle to accept his terminal cancer with his mental flights of fancy that see him cast as an almighty superhero bravely rescuing the helpless from their damned fates, an interesting derivation from standard fare that acts as a conduit to whole new intermediary ways of examining the subject.

Managing to take these animated figures and bring them forth into the live action without it ever seeming at all silly, Ian Fitzgibbon conducts affairs masterfully, showcasing his continuing growth as a director.

Spawned from Donald’s impressive comic-styled drawings of himself as his untitled alter-ego, Death of a Superhero alternates well-created animation scenes with their real-world counterparts, even once or twice combining the two within the same frame. It’s an original way to look into the mind of somebody staring Death in the face: we all know it’s coming, but how must it feel to know it’s coming soon? The conveyance of such a mindset is left to the shadowy snarls and shady lurking of a menacing character who owes a clear debt to Freddy Krueger. Managing to take these animated figures and bring them forth into the live action without it ever seeming at all silly, Ian Fitzgibbon conducts affairs masterfully, showcasing his continuing growth as a director. The imaginative mind between cracking comedy A Film with Me in It and the mildly successful In Bruges-lite caper Perrier’s Bounty, Fitzgibbon transposes his efficient comic sensibility to a more dramatic story particularly well, giving life to even the less effective jokes with his considerate tragedian balance.

McCarten’s comedy periodically stumbles in execution, his whimsy not always best suited to pairing with the underlying difficulty of the story’s ideas. It’s in the drama, though, that the film really finds its feet, the handling of Donald’s evolution toward acceptance always respectful of reality even amidst certain familiar plot aspects it necessarily clings to. The empathetic success of the piece is rooted in the cast’s consistent strength, Thomas Sangster’s Donald gracefully grounding his accomplished supporting players. Andy Serkis takes the role of Donald’s latest psychologist, imbuing a rather contrived character—of course he has his own demons to battle—with a humbling humanity that enriches this relationship beyond its rudimentary roots. Sharon Horgan is an emotive pillar of sympathy as Donald’s mother, further accentuated by the distant work of Michael McElhatton as her hopelessly lost husband.

Even for its admirably expressive meshing of comic book influence that offers a unique lens through which to examine the grief and anger of incurable illness, the film finds itself caught in the tight clutches of familiarity, restrained by the immutable presence of so many obvious forebears.

For all the genuineness of the performances, Death of a Superhero struggles to surmount a substantial mound of formulaic adherences. The predecessors of the plot aspects are many: Donald’s drive for sexual fulfilment echoes dozens of films from Superbad to Submarine; the relationship between troubled child and unusual psychotherapist is hardly a fresh one; the wild antics of youth culture are subject to no shortage of caricature. Even for its admirably expressive meshing of comic book influence that offers a unique lens through which to examine the grief and anger of incurable illness, the film finds itself caught in the tight clutches of familiarity, restrained by the immutable presence of so many obvious forebears. It’s to Fitzgibbon’s great credit that he manages to guide his cast safely through this field of clichés to an affecting dramatic payoff at the other end; a lesser director might have struggled to maintain emotional relevance amidst quite so many narrative issues. Death of a Superhero succeeds because it manages despite its problems to make ever-palpable the pain of Donald’s situation. It might succumb to protracted indulgences in overly employed indie whimsy, but it still works on the strength of relatable characters, people whose fear and anger so closely mirrors our own. After all, in the face of the terrifying prospect of our own mortality we’re all just scared little kids, burying ourselves in the deepest recesses of our imaginations to escape the truth.

[notification type=”star”]72/100 ~ GOOD. Death of a Superhero might succumb to protracted indulgences in overly employed indie whimsy, but it still works on the strength of relatable characters, people whose fear and anger so closely mirrors our own.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.