iBoy is a recent Netflix original release. The premise is absurd but simple: a young man being chased by thugs calls for help on his phone. But before he can reach anyone, the thugs shoot at him and the phone explodes. Smartphone shrapnel enters his brain, and when he wakes up in the hospital, he quickly discovers that he has somehow gained… phone powers. He can see all of the digital communication filling the city around him and he can hack technology with his mind.
The premise is obviously silly, but I don’t think that’s enough to discount it. If you think about it, the origins of any superhero are just as absurd. Spider-Man got his powers from a radioactive spider bite. But because Spider-Man (in both movies and comics) is such a fun character with compelling struggles, we’re able to accept how unrealistic his origins are. I think iBoy deserves the same chance. It is a concept that resonates with the spirit of our times, after all, just as Spider-Man did when he was created. People in the 1960’s were concerned with nuclear radiation. Today, at a time when humans are more attached to their phones and other types of personal technology than ever before, it makes sense to have a new young superhero who reflects that new way of life.
Unfortunately, iBoy never manages to justify its absurd premise. There are several key problems with the film. The first is that Tom, the main character, is far too powerful. He has no weakness. And so, for much of the movie, there is little conflict. Instead, the viewer watches a slow unfolding of the main character’s inevitable vengeance on some thugs. It’s only near the end of the movie that he comes close to harm.
The second problem is that Tom never gets much character development. In the very beginning of the film, he is given incredible powers. In our digital age, the abilities given to him would make him the most powerful person in the planet. It seems like he can control anything that has a computer—even cars! The creative possibilities—and temptations—are endless. And yet, he is never shown to apply his powers in anything else besides trying to punish the thugs who harmed the girl he loves. That is fine, of course, but as his single focus in the movie, it makes him seem very one-dimensional. Tom never grows in his powers, nor is he ever tempted to use them selfishly.
But by far the biggest problem with the film is its tone. The film tries to be a very grim urban thriller, but all the while is founded on an especially ridiculous twist. It’s not only a jarring combination, but kind of tactless that such a silly, fun premise is mixed with such dark and serious themes. Superhero movies can be grim, but we’re talking about a movie where the main character gets his power from his phone exploding into his brain. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want it to be a superhero movie, but that’s the problem. You can’t have a story with such a premise be anything but a fun, cheesy superhero film.
That’s not to say the entire flick is a waste of time. Maisie Williams delivers an excellent portrayal of a traumatized young woman who has been betrayed by childhood friends who grew up into thugs. Thematically, the ubiquitous presence of technology in the film can help us contemplate the ubiquitous presence of technology in real life. In a metaphorical sense, we all have the shards of smartphones implanted in our brains. Anyone who has a smartphone is always connected to the constant buzz of the world. It’s fun to see a character live out that process in a magical way. My wish is that the filmmakers could have captured the fun possibilities inherent to such a silly premise.