Set between the physical world of a teenage cancer patient and the imaginary comic book world he brings to life in his sketches, Death of a Superhero is a visually and emotionally stimulating film charged not only by fantasy, but by the simple and universal desire to experience love before death. The risk that films about terminal illness (especially cancer) inherit is that audiences typically find these film too depressing, but every time Death of a Superhero takes us to a place of pain and despair, it is accompanied or lifted by positive spirits of youth, art, desire, family, friendship, love.
Donald doesn’t see the point in anything. He’s dying– no amount of radiation or therapy, no level of support can change that. This realization is killing his spirit and his ability to connect to others, so he retreats into a world all his own. Through the comic book art he puts on paper, and can occasionally be found around town in the form of anonymous street art, he creates a fantasy version of his own life, a version where evil and death repeatedly try and fail to destroy him. But, when Donald opens his eyes to recognize and feel the strength his connections to his family, his friends, a girl and a therapist/ death specialist, he also recognizes the point in trying to live his best life, however short it may be.
Thomas Brodie-Sangster is both careful and purposeful with his portrayal of Donald, not only playing the troubled cancer patient, but making us see both the things that make him an average teenager and the things that make him an exceptional teenager, which is also a credit to the writer, Anthony McCarten. McCarten, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, tells a story that we know. The relationship between Donald and his therapist Dr. King (Andy Serkis) can even be construed as trite (psychiatrist who lives alone by the sea missing his dead wife, drowning in heavy sweaters, stacks of books and paintings is the only one that can get through to a troubled young man?), but fortunately there is a lot more to the character and the story than that.
What we get to truly engage in and be moved by is the juxtaposition of his life, already full in so many ways, and his potential life. We are moved by his exceptional talent, impressed by the work he’s done, wondering where it could go if not for his sickness. We feel for him as a teenager curious about sex, but who more than anything wants to fall in love.
With Death of a Superhero Director Ian Fitzgibbon creates a film that evokes emotion and excitement by setting the stage for both Donald and his art to come alive in seamless fashion. These comics are not only an exhibition of talent, they are a window into his heart and mind, and that is not lost among the many different elements of the film.
Death of a Superhero makes its US Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in the Viewpoints programs.