DVD Review: Death of a Superhero

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Emma O’Donoghue takes a look at Ian Fitzgibbon’s Death of a Superhero, available on DVD and on-demand.

Based on the book of the same name by New Zealander Anthony McCarten and directed by Ian Fitzgibbon (Perrier’s Bounty, A Film with Me in It), Death of a Superhero pours new life into the well-worn themes of death and mortality by exploring them through the medium of teenage fantasy.

Fifteen-year-old Donald (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is coping with all the usual pitfalls of teenage life – self-consciousness, the general irritation of overly-affectionate parents and the constant bafflement of the opposite sex. However, these concerns are further complicated by a much more serious problem. Donald is slowly dying of leukaemia, his chemotherapy simultaneously extending his life and draining it from him. As he watches his parents rail against a disintegrating grief, he finds solace in his remarkable talent for art and graffiti, reimagining himself as a stone-faced superhero battling a villainous doctor known as ‘the glove’ –  a hero who is both irresistible to women, yet unable to consummate any kind of physical relationship with them. Donald is terrified and, understandably, obsessed by death – in an effort to control it he makes several suicide attempts, to the horror of his parents who want to see their young son embracing what life he has left. After being sent on a series of failed counselling sessions, Donald finally meets psychiatrist Dr Adrian King (Andy Serkis), a wry and erudite thanatologist (thanatology being the study of death) who calmly asserts that ‘death always wins’ but that it is not something to be afraid of. Dr King must attempt to win the trust and friendship of Donald before his young patient completely loses control.

For a bleak story, Death of a Superhero vibrantly glows with humour and optimism. There are moments of genuine comedy, for example when Donald’s dad allows him to smoke weed to calm his anxiety, and when his other brother and friends take it upon themselves to find a ‘special lady’ for Donald to lose his virginity to before he dies. Beautifully shot in many familiar Dublin locations, the city comes alive through Donald’s eyes. The narrative is interspersed with comic-book style animation, a visual representation of Donald’s dark fantasies of fear, sex and death. Meanwhile, his attraction to the highly intelligent and self-possessed Shelly (Aisling Loftus) gives him a momentary distraction from his illness and a glimpse of what a ‘normal’ life could be like.

The casting in this movie is what makes it work so well. While the plot borders on predictable and clichéd, it is the performances of Brodie-Sangster and Serkis in particular that make this worth watching. The subjects of illness and death are handled with sensitivity and realism; where Death of a Superhero could easily have veered down a schmaltzy, over-sentimentalised path, it instead delivers a unique and powerful story that manages to leave the viewer both emotionally drained and uplifted by the end.

Emma O’Donoghue

Death of a Superhero is available on DVD and on-demand from Volta.ie

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