How do you tell a coming-of-age story about a boy who may not live long enough to become an adult? That’s the dilemma faced by Ian Fitzgibbon’s adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s novel Death Of A Superhero, which stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a cancer-ridden teenager who draws comics, daydreams about sex, and puts himself in mortal danger on a regular basis, hoping that one day he’ll slip up and just die. Brodie-Sangster’s parents put him in touch with a therapist—a “thanatologist,” to be exact—played by Andy Serkis, who tries to talk the boy into embracing life while he still can. But this is one dying teen uninterested in seizing the day and becoming an inspiration to the community. He only perks up when he meets Aisling Loftus, a moody (and pretty) classmate who attracts him with her “to hell with everything” attitude.
The individual elements of Death Of A Superhero feel awfully familiar: the romantic relationship between two self-defined “freaks,” the unconventional shrink who helps a kid get over his rage, and even the cancer. But Fitzgibbon’s cast is excellent, and the movie’s animated interludes liven up what could’ve been thoroughly pat. The interaction between Brodie-Sangster and Loftus is especially well-played, as her nihilism paradoxically makes him feel that life is worth living. It’s easy to care about these characters, which gives Death Of A Superhero a lot of power as it moves inevitably toward what is clear from the start will be an unhappy ending.
Then again, it’s frustrating to see such strong characters stuck in so many stock high-school-romance/angst-ridden-teen scenarios: the pot-smoking scene, the room-smashing scene, the party where Brodie-Sangster drives Loftus away because he refuses to call her his girlfriend, etc. There’s a comfortable shape to Death Of A Superhero, which is understandable as a business decision, given how dark the subject matter is, and also disappointing as a creative choice, given the potential this movie had to be something uniquely stinging. Fitzgibbon and McCarten have succeeded in integrating cancer into a slick teen love story, but in the process, they’ve robbed it of some of its necessary pain.