There’s no getting around the latest Netflix original’s monumentally dumb premise. A British teenager has an accident that causes shards of his smartphone to become lodged in his brain. This grants him iPhone superpowers, leading him to battle crime as the heroic vigilante iBoy.
Okay, okay, stop giggling. Yes, it’s stupid. Yes, it doesn’t make sense. And yes, ‘iBoy’ is a godawful superhero name. But consider how ridiculous it is for a teenage boy to be bitten by a radioactive spider and getting spider superpowers, or four pet turtles being splashed by mutagenic goo and becoming ninjas, or a scientist being irradiated and turning into a big angry green man or… Well you get the picture. My point is that superhero origin stories are usually pretty silly and you shouldn’t be so quick to judge iBoy, an unexpectedly compelling and contemporary take on the classical superhero template.
Our Peter Parker analogue is Tom (Bill Milner), an awkward teenager from the East End of London. He lives in a brutalist council block just on the border of the City, damp-stained concrete contrasting nicely with the shimmering glass skyscrapers. The story kicks off when Tom pays a visit to fellow block resident Lucy (Maisie Williams), who he has a secret crush on. He arrives to find her front door is ominously kicked in, her elder brother unconscious on the floor and the sounds of an apparent rape coming from her bedroom. Tom freezes as balaclava-clad gang members emerge, then bolts as they give chase. As he frantically tries to call the police, the gang shoot him in the head, driving parts of his phone straight into his brain.
Ten days later he awakes in hospital having miraculously survived with minimal damage. All too soon he realizes something has changed: he can see shimmering paths of data floating through the air and if he concentrates hard enough, he can tap into them. He decides to devote his superpowers into wiping out the gang that assaulted Lucy and shot him, beginning a campaign of terror and humiliation that quickly spirals out of control.
Director Adam Randall and writer Joe Barton, adapting Kevin Brooks’ YA novel of the same name, make what is essentially a contemporary British reimagining of Spider-Man pretty gripping stuff. For a story based on a YA novel, it quickly heads to some pretty damn grim places. Maisie Williams’ Lucy spends the film traumatized and suicidal after her gang rape, the criminals Tom battles are realistically murderous gangsters, Tom shows increasingly sadistic tendencies and the script is peppered with realistic swearing (Tom’s reaction to meeting his nemesis: “you’re not the devil, you’re just a cunt”).
The impact of all of that is that iBoy is genuinely exciting: its willingness to head into such bleak territory making it nicely unpredictable. On top of that, Tom’s superpowers are a seductive post-Snowden power fantasy, making the state’s surveillance apparatus work for you while leaving him physically vulnerable. He makes clever use of them, too, beginning with the relatively mundane acts of peeking at people’s phone records, all the way to tapping into police helicopter feeds and analyzing a thug’s medical records to know where to hit him. His powers also look great on screen, with Tom seeing each individual as a node in a neon river of data winding up into the heavens.
There are only a couple of flies in the ointment. First is that the young actors vary in quality a bit. Some are great (especially Charley Palmer Rothwell’s particularly odious thug Eugene), but some are a little rough around the edges and rather flat. Also, while Tom’s superpowers are exciting, their nature often leaves him standing on the sidelines of the action observing what’s happening rather than participating. Take away the Sherlock-ish CGI data bubble surrounding his head and iBoy would spend large portions of the film blankly and silently staring into space.
That being said, by the time the credits rolled my skepticism had completely washed away. I’d readily settle down to watch the further adventures of iBoy (iMan?), the film’s London setting, its class consciousness and boldly mature strokes making for a potent and attractive mix.
iBoy is a fully charged superhero tale that soon overcomes its admittedly ludicrous premise.