Donald Clarke (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is 14 years old. He is dying of cancer and expresses himself through drawing a comic book of a superhero and his arch nemesis. Donald’s parent cannot understand his seemingly destructive behaviour and grieve for him before he is gone. Donald is lost and lonely, and desperate to be treated like a normal kid.
Death of a Superhero was the Closing Film at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, but instead of being a heartrending tale of a dying child, this film is about the celebration of life. Donald is fantastically played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster who captures the audience’s attention as a young man, all to aware of his mortality, and angry at having to face the end of his life so soon after it began. Brodie-Sangster broke hearts as Sam in Love, Actually and is set to do the same again. Donald never feels sorry for himself, but despairs at having to hold his parents together when he is so obviously falling apart himself. His anger is understandable, and never petulant. As an English actor, Brodie-Sangster managed the Irish accent incredibly well and, accompanied by his bald head, allowed the audience to forget that they were watching ‘the kid from Love, Actually.’
Andy Serkis is the calm to Brodie-Sangster’s storm as Dr Adrian King. Adrian is a thanatologist – a specialist in death – that Donald’s desperate parents bring him to after several therapists have failed. Adrian never challenges Donald’s anger and resentment, and never allows himself to be drawn by the teenager’s anger. Serkis is quiet and thoughtful and – unlike the roles that he is famous for – utterly human.
Aisling Loftus is Shelly, the ‘different’ girl at school and the object of Donald’s affections. She treats him with curiosity but respect, and her wry, acerbic wit allows Donald a reason to live. Michael McElhatton and Sharon Horgan manage admirably, but are entirely overshadowed by the nuanced and warm performances at the centre of the film.
The film is a combination of Donald’s story and that of his imagination; he fights cancer, and the superhero he has created battles with his archenemy, The Glove. Donald needs a way to deal with his illness, and his imagination provides this. He is seemingly self destructive, but toys with the idea of controlling his own death; this makes the character utterly relatable. Sadly, the film loses its way somewhere in the middle as the story changes from celebrating life to loss of virginity, but just as Donald is about to jump the shark, he pulls back and returns to the one person who made him feel alive.
The animation is cleverly realised and allows Donald’s inner thoughts and feeling to be revealed without pages and pages of clunky and expositional dialogue.
In all, Death of a Superhero is a real and engaging look at the final days of a teenager dying of cancer. Nothing is sugar coated, but it is not dwelled on either, making Death of a Superhero a story of life, not death.