DIR: Ian Fitzgibbon • WRI: Anthony McCarten •PRO: Michael Garland, Astrid Kahmke, Philipp Kreuzer • DOP: Tom Fährmann • ED: Tony Cranstoun • DES: Mark Geraghty • CAST: Andy Serkis, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Michael McElhatton, Sharon Horgan
Death of a Superhero follows Donald Clarke, played by Thomas Bodie-Sangster – teenager, comic-book artist and cancer patient. Donald’s concerned parents hire psychiatrist Dr. Aidan King (Andy Serkis) – who specialises in dealing with terminal patients – to try and get through to their increasingly angry & frustrated son. Initially, Donald has no time for this particular doctor, but King begins to employ some unusual tactics and the two form a sort of friendship. Meanwhile, Donald’s world is further complicated when new girl Shelly (Aisling Loftus) starts attending his school.
Death for a Superhero has a somewhat unusual production history. It’s based on a novel from New Zealand author Anthony McCarten, who was initially lined up to direct an adaptation. At some point, the Irish Film Board and local production company Grand Pictures hopped on board, soon followed by the German Bavaria Films. The setting was shifted to Ireland (specifically the areas surrounding the South Dublin DART line), and Ian Fitzgibbons took over directorial duties. German involvement – as well as the presence of Gollum himself – ensures the film is entrusted with a higher budget than most Irish productions enjoy.
The extra funds were utilised efficiently. It may be seem like faint praise, but Death of a Superhero is extremely, well, cinematic. It looks great, with director of photography Tom Fährmann consistently capturing compellingly moody images. The film has various animated flourishes in the form of straight comic book sequences, as well as a handful of scenes where Donald imagines his characters breaking through into the real world. These interludes are handled well, and help elaborate on our protagonist’s frame of mind without the need for clunkier storytelling shortcuts. It’s not exactly a subtle film, but it’s mostly thoughtfully directed by Fitzgibbons.
The film also benefits from a strong ensemble cast. Bodie-Sangster and Loftus particularly impress as the two star-crossed teens – both performances offer real depth. Strong support is provided by Michael McElhatton, Sharon Horgan and Ronan Raftery as Donald’s father, mother and brother – they each attempt to deal with Donald’s illness in very different and compelling ways. Serkis, meanwhile, doesn’t always have a lot to work with, but eventually the script allows him to build a potentially clichéd character into someone more intriguing.
Speaking of clichés, Death of a Superhero’s biggest problem by far is its inherent familiarity. Almost everything in the film – from the unconventional psychiatrist to the extended focus on Donald trying to loose his virginity – has been done before, and sometimes better. It’s always obvious how characters or ideas planted early on are going to recur later. The familiarity isn’t helped by the story’s similarities to last year’s 50/50 – while Superhero’s source material of course predates that particular film, it’s still sure to draw some comparisons.
Still, Death of a Superhero arguably manages to achieve a more effective tonal balance than 50/50 did, with comedy and drama blending together convincingly. Death of a Superhero also plumbs genuinely dark themes and depths – the audience is never allowed to forget the severity of Donald’s disease or that our hero is being forced to confront his own mortality. There’s little cheap sentimentality here. The film encourages the audience to make a real emotional connection with the characters, and there are several genuinely powerful moments throughout the film. The end product is, if not original, mostly affecting and distinctive.
Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Death of a Superhero is released on 30th November 2012
Read Paul Webster’s interview with producer Michael Garland and director Ian FitzGibbon from Film Ireland 140 Spring 2012 here