Netflix’s newest original movie iBoy, which came out on January 27, is a superhero story wrapped in seedy techno-thriller packaging. It centers around Tom (Bill Millner), who has a longstanding crush on Lucy (Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams). Both teens live in an economically depressed London neighborhood dominated by gangs. When Lucy is raped as punishment for her brother’s refusal to join a gang, Tom is shot while tangling with her attackers. As a result, pieces of his iPhone lodge into his brain, giving him supernatural techno-powers.
It’s a grim story that could go queasily awry in its focus on a male response to a rape narrative. And while iBoy doesn’t entirely avoid that pitfall, it also handles Lucy’s agency with surprising grace. During one exchange, when she expresses a sense of surreality (“I’ve never been the victim. It doesn’t feel right.”) Tom responds, “I don’t see you like that.” Lucy fires back “Yeah you do. But it’s alright. You’ll get there.”
Plot aside, whether accidental or deliberate, the film also contains copious nods, homages, and references to sci-fi and superhero narratives that came before it. Here are some to note.
Although it revels in the gritty underbelly of society far more than Spider-Man does, iBoy has the same basic premise: nerdy boy gets sudden powers. Like Peter Parker, Tom has his own version of Aunt May: his tough-talking, romance novel-writing grandmother. Luckily, as she also grew up in the neighborhood and even knows the main crime lord — played by Penny Dreadful’s Rory Kinnear — she’s got more agency in the story than Aunt May.
iBoy’s use of text on the screen presents similar visuals to BBC Sherlock’s mind palaces. Granted, this could be unintentional, as there are only so many ways to show fusing technology and thinking in a visually appealing way. Nevertheless, as we watch Tom interact with the world using his iBoy powers, sending texts and mentally parsing through data, it’s hard not to see it as an echo of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.
3. The Dark Knight
When iBoy’s Tom stands on a rooftop, surveying the cityscape through his newfound iPhone vision, the tech-vision it gives him is remarkably similar to the tech-vision Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne rigs for himself at the end of The Dark Knight. As Bruce Wayne was illegally honing the power of Gotham’s phones to track the joker — just as Tom mentally hacks people’s phones — the comparison is apt. The Dark Knight never truly explained Batman’s phone vision in a sensible way, but iBoy doesn’t need to. It’s able to hand-wave it away as weird side effects (“If anything unusual happens, I want you to let me know straight away,” Tom’s doctor tells him).
Much like Westworld’s Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, Rory Kinnear’s Ellman is a refined, gentlemanly villain who pulls the strings. He gets to ooze menace with juicy lines like “It’s far from over. You don’t call the devil and then get upset when he turns up.” and “You’re going to do what I say or I’m going to burn your world down.” However, like Ford, he’s also mock-solicitous, apologizing to Maisie William’s Lucy for her ordeal: “By the way, I want to apologize personally for the indignities you’ve had to suffer. Young people today. Like animals.”
## 5. Kick-ass
Like Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Dave in Kick-ass, Tom is a rare superhero whose world is grimy and persona is fundamentally uncool. His London isn’t the stylized corruption of Gotham or the picture-perfect pretty ruins of a Zack Snyder movie, but a slap in the face of realism. His surroundings are far more similar to the film Fish Tank than a sci-fi or fantasy film. Similarly, like Dave, Tom is not a nerd who is fundamentally on the side of good, like Peter Parker. Not only is he a nerd, but he’s not necessarily right. iBoy’s saving grace is its self-awareness. When Lucy asks Tom to stop, and he professes to be engaging in vigilantism for her, she replies, “No, you’re doing this for you.” Misguided vigilantism is hardly superhero-slick.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Although iBoy’s biggest fault is featuring Tom far more than Lucy, it’s not without its applause-worthy moments of agency and power. Mild spoiler alert: her arc contains a scene similar to Buffy at the end of Season 2 when Buffy finds herself backed into a corner, taunted by a toxic man, fighting all alone. When Lucy eventually faces her rapists, she tells them, “You don’t get to talk about it. Fuck all of you. Tell me you’re ashamed.”
The tone and aesthetic of Tom’s vigilantism is strikingly similar to Iwan Rheon’s Simon in the gritty supernatural show Misfits. Like Simon, Tom’s only costume is a simple hoodie, as he surveys an urban wasteland from the rooftops.
iBoy is currently streaming on Netflix.