A bitter 15-year-old boy in Dublin who’s dying of cancer retreats into a comic-book universe of his own creation in order to cope with the knowledge of his inevitable death. On paper, that one-line plot description makes Death of a Superhero sound insufferably mawkish. But Ian Fitzgibbon’s film, an adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s novel of the same name, sidesteps most of the potential pitfalls of sentimentality inherent in its premise and ends up as a generally affecting and occasionally insightful drama about the ways people handle an awareness of mortality.
Death of a Superhero‘s comic-book angle, which Fitzgibbon represents with deliberately rough-looking animated segments interspersed in this largely live-action film, turns out to be merely one small element in a larger character portrait. Yes, Donald Clarke (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) has taken to immersing himself in his hand-drawn fictional world as a metaphorical means of expressing his deepest cancer-related fears; after all, his drawings feature, among other creations, a nemesis named the Glove who presents himself to Donald’s hero-avatar as an angel of death. But the film is as much about Donald’s psychology as it is about his own dark-hearted whimsies. Unlike his mother (Sharon Horgan), who tries to maintain a persistent positive outlook on her son’s predicament, Donald maintains a more “realistic” attitude—one that leads him to the occasional suicide attempt as well as to acts of civil disobedience that get him into trouble with police and school officials. But hey, what does it all matter, he reasons, since he’s going to die soon enough anyway, right? The fact that Donald actually likens life to a sexually transmitted disease at one point gives one an idea of his worldview.
Donald’s parents are so alarmed by his behavior that they enlist the help of a psychiatrist, Adrian King (Andy Serkis). Watching Donald and Dr. King strike up a tentative relationship of empathy and trust, as well as Donald’s budding romance with the feisty, wise-beyond-her-years Shelly (Aisling Loftus), one can’t help but think of Good Will Hunting. But Fitzgibbon, working from McCarten’s own screen adaptation, manages with the help of his very fine actors to find moments of piercing emotional truth within these potentially clichéd setups. When Donald admits to Dr. King that his suicide attempts are his way to potentially control the circumstances of his own death rather than allowing his cancer to dictate those circumstances for him, the moment comes off as a hard-won breakthrough, though one that’s tossed off lightly in the middle of the film rather than made a climactic dramatic pivot point (thankfully, there’s no equivalent here to Good Will Hunting‘s speciously tidy “It’s not your fault” scene).
Death of a Superhero‘s third act goes in a potentially crass direction—involving an attempt not only by some of Donald’s friends, but eventually Dr. King as well, to help get Donald laid just once before he dies—that threatens to undo most of the goodwill Fitzgibbon’s film had engendered up to that point. Even that not-too-promising story thread, however, resolves itself in an agreeably mature and moving manner. In its wide-ranging exploration of how this sickly young man copes with the knowledge that his days are numbered, Death of a Superhero turns out to be more intelligent, honest, and resonant than one might have expected.