Donald (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) spray paints
his therapist's boat in Death of a Superhero.
For a few wonderful minutes in Death of a Superhero, it appears we're in for something truly inspired. Films with dying characters trying to complete one final task or fulfill their last wish all play out the same way, but Ian Fitzgibbon's film appears cut from a totally different cloth. Unfortunately, it never quite lives up to its potential. It ends up getting bogged down in the very conventions we expect it to buck, yet it does so in an oddly successful way. The very reasons Death of a Superhero is a minor disappointment are the same reasons it's a minor success. It's an odd case, to be sure, but one can't chide a film to much for following a formula when it follows that formula in an emotionally honest and satisfying way.
Donald (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is dying of cancer. Though he rebels in a few generally harmless ways (some pot, a little graffiti), he's more often than not quite detached from his sad reality, as he finds refuge in drawing. Most of his sketches involve the same few characters: A nameless superhero with a round scar on his chest, a bevy of busty and beautiful babes with tails, and The Glove, a maniacal villain with long, razor-sharp nails. These characters become so important to Donald that they begin to visit him in the real world, just as his parents start to worry that he's becoming a little too obsessed with this hobby.
They seek out help for Donald in the form of Dr. Adrian King (Andy Serkis), a "thanatologist" (or therapist who specializes in death) to whom Donald grows close. He also finds comfort in Shelly (Aisline Loftus), a classmate with a biting sense of humor and a deep admiration for Donald's artwork. With a newfound appreciation for life, Donald seems to be making an emotional breakthrough. Unfortunately, there isn't a person or thing that can save him from his fate.
The most unique element in Death of a Superhero is the film's blend of live-action and animation, which occurs on multiple occasions when Donald dreams (or hallucinates) about his imagined characters. The animation itself looks cool, but isn't exactly noteworthy. The way the two mediums are blended, however, earns the film big points. One scene in particular involves The Glove (animated) stabbing and lifting Donald (real person) into the air, and it's done in a shockingly seamless way.
It's a little disappointing, then, that the film doesn't feature more of this. Whenever it occurs, it's welcome, but the film starts out with so much of the technique before abandoning it for a long stretch of time in favor of decent, but unremarkable, character drama and development. By the time we reach the film's fairly predictable conclusion, everything comes together in a nice way, but the spark that was present during the film's terrific first act has long since gone out.
Without three great performance at its core, Death of a Superhero would never work. The first is that of Thomas Brodie-Sangster who you might recognize as the little drummer boy in Love Actually. All grown up here, his Donald constantly walks a fine line between being well-adjusted and manic. There are times when he shows maturity beyond his years and others when the weight of his predicament weighs heavy on his shoulders. Brodie-Sangster avoids the mawkishness that could have so easily permeated this film, and instead gives us a character with depth and complexity.
Andy Serkis, of course, is an established pro, the guy who gave us Gollum, King Kong, and most recently, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's nice to actually see him, if for no other reason than he can prove to the anti-mo-cap crusaders that he really is a great actor. In all seriousness, however, his work in Death of a Superhero is terrific. This role has the makings of something super cliched, but Serkis commands your attention with a certain quiet charisma that tells us everything we need to know about the character. He isn't exactly an open book, but he's capable of being a pillar of strength for someone, like Donald, who is in need. Then, there's Aisling Loftus, who's a little shortchanged as far as screen time and character arc goes, but she makes the most out of the love interest role, showing a spunk that will hopefully carry her toward bigger roles in more high-profile projects.
Besides a few clunky musical cues, Death of a Superhero is directorially assured. It's certainly a worthy film, but the teases of greatness we get early on set too high a bar for a film about something sensitive, like a kid with cancer. The film needs a few things in order to avoid being a total drag, but it's these very things—the humorous best friends, the sex and relationship subplot—that hold it back.