Death of a Superhero (Ian Fitzgibbon, 2012)

By Burke, Liam | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Death of a Superhero (Ian Fitzgibbon, 2012)


Burke, Liam, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


A wimp is humiliated in front of his girlfriend by a "big bully" while at the beach. Frustrated, the skinny teen decides to "gamble a stamp" on a book of "Dynamic Tension"--exercises written by Charles Atlas--"The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man". Later (the passage of time is unclear), the one-time wimp returns to the beach a "real man", punching the bully and getting the girl. This simple seven-panel comic advertisement, "The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac", first appeared in pulp magazines in 1928, and ran continuously in comic books into the 1970s. Its durability is no doubt attributable to its synergy with superhero narratives. As Brown notes, these advertisements "revolve around the male daydream that, if we could just find the right word, the right experimental drug, the right radioactive waste, then we too might instantly become paragons of masculinity" (32) with others offering similar readings of the advertisement ("Charles Atlas"; Bukatman 60; Cord 334).

Comic books and superhero narratives have a long history as vehicles of (usually male) adolescent wish-fulfillment and escapism, which is best articulated in the transition of comic book characters from anonymous "mild-mannered" weaklings to unassailable heroes. These transformations allowed readers to identify with the protagonist's secret identity while aspiring to their heroic persona. As with "The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac" comic creators and advertisers have played on this identification, with Stan Lee often including aspirational phrases in his comics such as, "the world's most amazing teen-ager--Spider-Man--the superhero who could be--you" (The Amazing Spider-Man #9: February, 1964). As Umberto Eco noted in his oft-cited essay, The Myth of Superman, in the manner in which" Clark Kent appears fearful, timid, awkward, near-sighted and submissive, [he] personifies fairly typically the average reader who is harassed by complexes and despised by his fellow man" (14-5).

Released the same summer that Peter Parker went back to high school (The Amazing Spider-Man) and The Avengers battled The Dark Knight Rises for box office supremacy, the Irish drama Death of a Superhero (Ian Fitzgibbon 2012) offered a more grounded reworking of these classic comic book archetypes. This Dublin-set film follows 15-year-old Donald Clarke (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), who faces the typical dilemmas of a teenager: school, sex, friends and family, but his difficulties are compounded as Donald has recently developed cancer. Donald's mother scours the Internet for miracle cures; his father talks of overseas holidays that are never likely to happen; while his friends and older brother attempt to carry on as though nothing has changed. A talented artist, Donald, permanently sporting a beanie hat that hides his hair loss, prefers to retreat into a fantasy world of costumed-clad adventures, dastardly doctors and buxom babes, realised through animated interludes and superimpositions that recall 1940s Superman serials. (1) Occasionally, Donald gives flight to these characters, rendering them in graffiti across Dublin's south-side.

When Donald is brought home by the Guards after playing chicken with a DART train, his mother (Sharon Horgan) sends him to "shrink No. 6", Dr Adrian King (Andy Serkis), a psychiatrist who specialises in thanatology (the study of death). Donald quickly applies grandiose comic book terms to his new psychiatrist labelling him "Dr. Death", but despite some initial friction, the unorthodox Dr. King wins the angry young man over and they begin to address some of Donald's fears and resentments. Unexpectedly, Donald strikes up a relationship with the new girl at school, the defiant and free-spirited Shelly (Aisling Loftus), and his cancer goes into remission. At this point the comic book fantasies become less prevalent. However, a cooling of Donald's new relationship and a terminal prognosis send him crashing back into his fantasy realm. …

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