Tribeca Movie Review: Death of a Superhero (out of competition, Viewpoints)

Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Donald

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Amid a plethora of maudlin tales about young people cut down by dread diseases, Death of a Superhero rises up as a creative burst of brilliance in an otherwise desolate landscape. It features a wonderfully-measured Andy Serkis (freed from his usual layers of latex and all manner of electronic wizardry that camouflages his impressive motion capture performances in such films as The Adventures of Tintin, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings series) and rising talent Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Nowhere Boy, Bright Star, Love, Actually). An Irish/German co-production, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, the film has been making the rounds at multiple film festivals, and is currently accessible on cable (via Video on Demand).

Death of a Superhero is a synchronous coming-of-age/coming-of-death story, delivering a mix of live-action and graphic renderings that serve to explore the multi-faceted mindset of the teenage Donald, a bright, angry boy who can barely handle life, let alone life-threatening cancer. Thank heavens he’s blessed with a brilliant artistic talent, giving him the emotional outlet he needs via his sketchpad as he spends countless hours with his alter ego Superhero, pitching him in multiple battles against a Dr. Frankenstein-type madman called “the Glove.”

The juggling between fantasy and reality is nothing short of perfect. Like Donald, the film refuses to sink into the mawkish and, at the slightest threat of the bathetic, we are whooshed back to the boy’s drawings, where the be-gartered “Nursey Worsey” taunts Superhero with her deep cleavage and S&M lingerie. Through his artwork, we learn even more about Donald’s character, such as his teen boy lust for the female body, his ghoulish sense of humor, and his ever-pervasive sense of terror. While bald Donald and his Superhero both cloak their skulls, it’s only Superhero who sports a large red circle on his chest. Visual mark or not, the two of them share in the knowledge that they’ve been targeted for a mutual demise.

As Donald, Brodie-Sangster is a marvel, conveying a restless young man who never knows which emotion might streak through him next. Will it be his fury, or his willfulness, or a momentary flash of joy? As is often the case with these stories, the hero finally finds his footing with the one psychiatrist who accepts him for who he is, rather than trying to impose any sort of canned therapeutic help. Serkis’ ever-patient, cardigan-sweatered Dr. King is just that ideal shrink. When Donald isn’t sure whether he’ll be committing suicide in the near future, Dr. King tosses it off with a “Well, let’s not make another appointment.” In a later scene, Donald means to intimidate the doctor by throwing a fit. But it backfires, with Dr. King coaching Donald into practicing a more effective roar. From rage to laughter, the bond of a newfound friendship between doctor and patient is sealed.

Aisling Loftus as Shelly, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Donald in "Death of a Superhero"

Screenwriter/novelist Anthony McCarten does a beautiful job in adapting his own book (shortlisted for the German Youth Literature Prize), skillfully weaving in something as normal and funny as a 15-year-old virgin’s quest to experience sex. Suddenly, we’re allowed to take a trip around death’s door, as Donald’s closest friends and brother attempt to procure a prostitute for him. They even get the good doctor involved. Adding in an element of teen comedy to this deeply moving story not only works to lighten the whole, but ultimately makes it all the more real. And even more profound.

The cast is all-around excellent, from Shelly, the whip-smart new girl in town who piques Donald’s interest (a lovely Aisling Loftus), to the father (Michael McElhatton), desperately trying to ease his son’s pain any way he can, and the mother (Sharon Horgan), so steeped in denial that she refuses to accept the truth that’s soundly slapping her in the face.

Between the strikingly primal graphics (hand-drawn in a rare 2-D cell animation, created by the German animation company Trixter), the compelling soundtrack, picturesque Dublin locations and sensitive, well-paced direction by Ian FitzGibbon, Death of a Superhero is a Tribeca Film Festival standout.

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Rating on a scale of 5 bald truths: 4

Directed by: Ian FitzGibbon
Screenplay by: Anthony McCarten
Based on the novel by: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Andy Serkis, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Aisling Loftus, Michael McElhatton, Sharon Horgan, Jessica Schwarz
Running Time: 94 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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