Death of a Superhero is a novel/movie script by Anthony McCarten.
Finished on: 20.7.2015
Donald has cancer. Terminal cancer. And he’s just fourteen years old. He mostly copes with drawing a comic book, filled with evil doctors and bigbreasted vamps, refusing to confront reality. So his parents bring in psychologist Adrian King who tries to crack Donald’s shell. King also struggles with getting through to Donald, at least at first, since Donald is mostly occupied with really wanting to have sex at least once before he dies. But then King hatches a slightly crazy plan.
Death of a Superhero is a book for boys, in the worst sense. And I’m not saying that because it’s a book that features comic talk and superheroes, I’m saying that because it plainly just doesn’t care for the women in it. And that made it really hard to read for me.
When I say that it doesn’t care for the women in it, I don’t mean that the women are mistreated and abused in it. What I mean is that the women in it don’t matter. They are no characters in their own right. They are only relevant in terms of Donald’s and Adrian’s story and character development. Mostly Donald’s. And since Donald sees women as vixens, as super-sexualized demons, that is a pretty one-sided relevance. There is one moment where Adrian confronts Donald about this, suggesting that maybe women and girls are, you know, human beings. But the novel ends with Adrian adding a devil’s tail to a painting of a woman himself, so that moment of clarity in between reads pretty untrue.
But then again, Adrian is so incredibly incompetent in his job, one wonders how he could ever become as renowned as he is supposed to be. Because if his handling of Donald and Donald’s wish isn’t incompetent, it is outright malicious. Adrian has this fourteen year old child who is so incredibly afraid of women and his sexuality, that he transforms all women in his head into literal devils and demons. And his perfect solution is to hire a sex worker for Donald. Without his parents’ consent (though that wouldn’t have made things better anyway). But it’s okay because he makes sure that it’s a classy sex worker who perfectly fits Donald’s ideas of how a woman should look like.
Never mind the fact that Donald is fucking fourteen years old [I’m not sure where the book is set. McCarten is from New Zealand where the age of consent is 16. It might be set in the USA, where the age of consent is between 16 and 18, depending on the state]. Austrian age of consent is 14. Whether Donald is able to consent or not, can be a topic of debate. But they don’t talk about Donald’s expectations. They don’t talk about why Donald is so obsessed with sex. Apart from this one moment mentioned above, they don’t talk about how he sees women/girls. They don’t talk about anything much. Because of course a boy his age not only wants to have sex, it is his fucking right to have sex. And when the world is unfair and withholds what is rightfully his – e.g. women’s bodies, somebody like Adrian jumps in and sets things right and saves the world.
It also doesn’t make things better that Donald doesn’t sleep with the sex worker, but makes the “morally right” decision to go after the girl his own age he likes and who promptly rewards him by sleeping with him, also solving the dilemma that bought sex isn’t actually “real sex”, it doesn’t really count. It doesn’t prove you’re a “real man”. She sleeps with him, despite the fact that the last time they actually met, he followed her into the toilet, expecting her to fuck him right there on their first date because he was nervous and misread the signs. She was appropriately and understandably freaked out that a fourteen year old boy would expect toilet sex from a fourteen year old girl on the first date. Then she hears that he has cancer and the next thing you know is they’re sleeping with each other. [At this point let me also mention that I was sufficiently creeped out by how McCarten describes this fourteen year old girl: as the kind of girl who likes to play the game of seduction. Hashtag Lolita.]
It is that underlying framing that drove me mad (helped along by a healthy dose of fat hate when they introduce, I forgot his name, the male nurse who helps Adrian find the sex worker). I finished the book because mostly I kept hoping that they would have some epiphany of the misogyny of it all, but no such luck.
Death of a Superhero has an interesting structure, a mix between script and novel that sometimes works very well and sometimes feels like McCarten decided to abandon a re-write from novel to script or script to novel about half-way through. At least, despite misogyny, weird structure and an overdone reliance on clichés, I was able to connect with Donald and in particular his parents, so the book did manage to be touching. But I was nevertheless glad when it was over.
Summarizing: Skip it.