LIVING DEAD: Donald (Brodie-Sangster) is diagnosed with terminal cancer in Death of a Superhero.


DIRECTOR: Ian FitzGibbon

CAST: Andy Serkis, Thomas Brodie-Sanster, Aisling Loftus, Michael McElhatton, Sharon Horgan, Jessica Schwarz


RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes


POIGNANT and moving, with occasional flashes of fun and humour, Death of a Superhero addresses teenage obsession and mortality with equal measures of practicality and fantasy.

Centred around a 15-year-old boy diagnosed with terminal cancer, the film gives us the usual Western filmic images of a teen who struggles with school and making friends and wanting to lose his virginity, but then mixes it up with the vulnerability of a child facing his own death.

As teenager Donald (Brodie-Sangster) undergoes yet more chemotherapy he retreats into his head where he is a superhero, totally in control. In the universe he creates in his mind and on the pages of his journals, Donald is a muscled superhero fighting the mad scientist called The Glove.

In real life though, at his parents’ insistence, Donald starts seeing a psychiatrist whose speciality is thanatology – the study of death and the effects of dying. This is shrink number six, but Donald befriends Dr King (Serkis in a decidedly very human role), bonding over their mutual love of art.

The teenager shrinks more and more into his mind, but King’s matter of fact approach to death gives him a way to deal with what is happening in the real world.

Shot in Dublin, Ireland, the film gives us images of a city we don’t see very often on local screens. These form quite the contrast with Donald’s rich inner life and the bridge between the two is the way he toys with the idea of suicide.

On the surface we get smooth images of a child going through the throes of navigating adolescence – searching for love and his place in the world.

But the dark, violent graphic images of the superhero are more startling and aggressive and much more in keeping with what Donald is feeling.

The graphic images are more manga than cartoon, and the tone becomes darker as Donald starts to accept that he might not win this particular battle.

The cinematography and the blues folk-inspired soundtrack (featuring artists such as Angus & Julia Stone and Lucy Farrell & Jonny Kearny) create a delicate, intimate tone which stops shy of mawkish but tugs at your ears and eyes nevertheless.

The acting is low key and the realism stops the film from descending into melodrama, which would be easy, considering the storyline. Instead we get Serkis and Brodie-Sangster both allowing their characters to show human vulnerability, with some solid support from Aisling Loftus as a potential girlfriend for Donald, who has her own wild child issues, and McElhatton and Horgan as his loving parents.

The ending, with its harmonious resolution, is very pat and Hollywood in the way it all ties so neatly together, which rather undermines all the realism. But, it is emotionally fulfilling, even if not exactly trusting of the potential audience’s ability to handle a more harsh truth.

• Death of a Superhero plays at the Labia on Orange.

Think, Kick-Ass meets 50/50, then you’ll get where this one’s going.