When you have the word “superhero” in your film title and open in Seattle on the same day as The Avengers, you run the risk of people thinking your movie is about a comic hero. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though, with Death of a Superhero, from director Ian Fitzgibbon.
The story follows a 15-year-old named Donald (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), living in Ireland, who has brain cancer and dim hopes for survival. He is full of rage toward the world and escapes into an imaginary world in his mind where a superhero battles villains, all while hoping to lose his virginity before he dies. Along the way he meets Dr. Adrian King (Andy Serkis), a thanatologist (“death doctor”) who helps him deal with his feelings about his own mortality, and a kindred spirit in Shelly O’Riley (Aisling Loftus), who makes him start to forget about sex and think about love.
In essence, this is the story of a young man full of rage who turns to a therapist with a similar background to come to terms with his problems, while at the same time making an impact on everyone around him…sound familiar? Perhaps it sounds a bit like Good Will Hunting? I don’t consider that to be a bad thing, since I like that movie. In fact, I would say this film has taken the same formula and improved upon it. Ultimately, Good Will Hunting is about a guy who has all the ability in the world but is afraid to use it; this film is about a kid with brain cancer, and it has “death” in the title. You don’t have to be a mathematician to add up how that is probably going to end. The stakes feel higher, the tragedy feels greater…it is hard to watch at times.
The subject of cancer generally feels a bit clichéd in film and TV. It is an easy way to garner sympathy from an audience and is a simple visual queue that death is always present. Mostly, it seems to be used in a TV-movie-of-the-week type capacity, although we seem to be hitting a bit of a renaissance in terms of cancer-based projects, with things like 50/50 and The Big C coming to mind. Those are projects that treat the characters with humanity, with flaws and fears, hopes and dreams. Death isn’t a glamorous endeavor, but it doesn’t need to simply be sad, either.
A huge amount of credit needs to be given to actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster. The task of playing a teen stricken with cancer could easily become melodramatic, but he attacks it with an earnestness that feels totally relatable. He does a job on par with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s work in 50/50. For such a young actor, he deftly balances rebelliousness and vulnerability, without coming across purely as a victim.
It is always a pleasure to see Andy Serkis act. He’s a master of motion capture acting (Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), so it is nice to see him break away from that to actually appear on camera. But while he gets top billing in the film, since he is the biggest star, he is very much a supporting character. If anything, it would’ve been nicer to see more of him in the movie. The relationship between Adrian and Donald is touching, and it feels more natural than the one between Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Similarly, Aisling Loftus is a breath of fresh air. Her character is a strong individual who won’t let her past circumstances define her, and who has an ability to see past the outer layers to discover who people really are inside. I will definitely be keeping an eye peeled to see what this actress does down the road, because she hits all the right notes with the character.
The film does a great job in having a lot of depth to the scenes; there are many layers that make it engaging. The story is based on a novel by Anthony McCarten, and since I enjoyed the film so much, it makes me curious to check out the source material. From what I can tell, it is supposed to have a similar vibe to the film, which makes sense when you realize McCarten was responsible for the script adaptation. One of the coolest aspects of the film is its use of animation to tell the stories going through Donald’s mind. The animation is beautifully done and flows seamlessly in and out of the live-action portions. If anything, I was disappointed there wasn’t more of it, since it is so well done. Additionally, they use beautiful cinematography to capture the gorgeous locations they filmed in. And I loved the soundtrack; the music selection fits within the scenes perfectly and is quiet haunting.
This is an amazing movie that, while a bit predictable, will knock the wind out of you after you watch it…and leave you thinking about it well after it is over.
The film opens today at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.
Final Grade: A-