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Non-Review Review: Death of a Superhero

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012. This was the closing gala.

Cancer is a tough topic to address in film, if only because mortality offers a thin line to walk between sincere reflection and blatant emotional manipulation. It is an even greater problem when you’re dealing with a younger protagonist, one who has barely had a chance at life before the disease conspires to rip them away from the world and their loved ones. Death of a Superhero is far to schmaltzy for its own good, often pandering to its audience while trying to distract away from its cloying manipulations with predictable doses of humour and a wry cynicism that the hero must vanquish before his untimely passing.

Holding out for a hero...

There’s very little in Death of a Superhero that is hard to predict. And I’m not even discussing the final fate of the protagonist. We know that his anger and cynicism will fade to be replaced with optimism and affection as he grabs the remaining life, rather than rejecting it. We know what the third act twist will be from the moment our lead’s cancer enters remission early in the film. Even the humourous devices the story uses to distract us from the grim storyline are entirely predictable. Since this is a movie about a teenager dying, the thought of dying a virgin will undoubtedly become a key plot point – and it does. Similarly, medicinal marijuana provides a comic relief sequence towards the middle of the film.

Both sequences seem more than a little disingenuous, inserted because the film makers realise that the movie can only really turn out in particular way. Understandably, they want to lighten the tone for the audience while providing a life-affirming moral. While 50/50 managed this delicate task with restraint and consideration, Death of a Superhero feels a little obvious in its use of humour as a means of fending off the hard and cold realities of the situation. The fact that our young protagonist isn’t guided out of his depression by anything approaching a profound meditation, but instead through tried-and-tested clichés, leaves the movie feeling more than a bit shallow.

It draws on a great cast...

That’s a shame, because the early scenes of the film work quite well. Thomas Brodie-Sangster portrays the young character’s anger and rage remarkably well – he crafts a character who seems to genuinely rage at the cruel hand that fate has dealt him, and is struggling to cope. However, Brodie-Sangster doesn’t have the material to work with, and the character’s arc feels rather trite and predictable. It is, of course, young love that teaches him the value of his young life. Indeed, there are all the problems that one associates with the romantic-comedy version of “love”, including a completely unnecessary misunderstanding and a later reconciliation. The problem is that there’s no real substance to any of these ideas or themes or moments. They just unfold, because they seem to be expected in a film like this.

In fairness, Death of a Superhero does have a lot going for it, at least among the cast. As mentioned above, it has a solid lead. However, it also has a superb ensemble. Andy Serkis is fast emerging as a credible actor outside the motion capture suit, even if he doesn’t seem to choose the best movies. Michael McElhatton is great as the father struggling to cope, trapped with a relatively small role. Aisling Loftus continues to mark herself as a young talent to watch, deservedly picking up a special prize from the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle for her work here. However, the cast here is infinitely stronger than either the writing or the direction, and they can’t quite offset the cloying sensation that the movie generates.

Love on the rocks...

Also of note is the animation on the film, as our lead attempts to deal with his cancer by giving his thoughts form in the adventures of his own superhero. Naturally, these are teenage fantasies from the mind of a sick kid, so everything is a syringe, there are disturbing sexual undertones, and the hero is “kinda cool” because he’s dark and silent and edgy. The work here is grand, with the design of the dream sequences much more impressive than the actual animation. It seems like we’re watching a flash video at points.

The bigger problem is the way the film integrates them with the narrative, or fails to. The movie features them heavily at the start, and then seems to lose interest in these vignettes as an insight into our protagonist’s psychology. They disappear mostly from the middle, and then appear again at the end, as if the film realised it had to tie these images back into the main storyline. It starts off as a novel storytelling tool, to explore the lead character’s psyche in a way that he wouldn’t otherwise allow – but it ultimately ends up as a bit of an afterthought.

He's an artist of great skull...

Death of a Superhero feels like a very cynical little film, one that uses the notion of child mortality to leverage a greater emotional pay-off out of standard coming-of-age tropes and clichés. It has an interesting hook, which it fails to exploit, and an impressive cast, who are saddled with disappointing material. This superhero was dead on arrival.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

4 Responses

  1. Tackling cancer in a non-maudlin way must be very tough. I applaud them attempting it, but it sounds like they managed to make something that would be appropriate on the Lifetime Network. Not having seen the movie myself, the first thing that occurred to me is that the title seems to try to cash in on the superhero craze. I’d be a little upset if I expected an actual superhero facing cancer and got this movie instead!

    By the way, I wonder when he started going by Brodie-Sangster instead of just Sangster.

    • I probably make it sound worse than it is. It’s interesting to compare my grades by day. Saturday was a great day with The Raid (perfect 4), Baraka (high 3), Hunky Dory (low 3) and Dany Elfman Concert (would have been a 4). Today was weaker, with Headhunters (high 3), Courage (2), This Must Be The Place (1), Death of a Superhero (2). I wonder if the awesomeness of my Saturday gave me unrealistic expectations for today?

      And I’m not sure – I’ve known people who have made the change in real life quite late, and it’s generally for personal reasons that I don’t like to pry into.

  2. yes very unrealistic, brilliant movie i give 4

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