Director Adam Randall and screenwriter Joe Barton’s new film iBoy puts a new spin on the superhero flick.
Based on Kevin Brooks’ 2011 teen novel of the same name, iBoy is heavy on moody grit and gloom, both in the violence enacted on the lead characters and in the seedy inner-city London alleyways it reimagines for Netflix.
iBoy is the story of Tom, played by Bill Milner (X-Men: First Class), who has fragments of an iPhone embedded in his brain after a traumatic blow to the head. The accident gifts him with unexplained superpowers that allow him to tap into everyone’s personal gadgets and more.
He’s a living, breathing surveillance state. With these powers, he plans to avenge his friend, Lucy (Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones), who was violently assaulted by his neighborhood’s resident hoodlums.
Will he ultimately use his powers for good? We spoke with Milner and director Randall to find out.
“At first glance, it could look like quite a typical urban sci-fi sort of superhero movie, but what really drew me to it was its character development,” Milner tells Rotten Tomatoes.
While there’s plenty of action sequences and special effects to satiate your sci-fi appetite, iBoy values the relationship between its two leads over CGI glitz. After all, Tom goes after the bad guys to avenge Lucy, not to quench from need to vigilantism.
“Despite the fact that it’s in the sci-fi background, this sci-fi setting, it’s actually very real and it’s about the characters and the people,” Milner says.
“I guess [the superhero genre] is sort of an American genre. It’s normally a big blockbuster, something that’s immediately appealing to young people,” Randall adds. “[We’re] telling the story of very relatable, real British teenagers [who are] dealing with some difficult issues that teenagers have to deal with, particularly teenagers living in inner-city projects.
“Telling those stories and those emotions and showing those characters,” Randall says, “but doing it through an entertainment genre film rather than the more usual way over here of [doing it through] social realism and gritty drama, which doesn’t necessarily appeal to the audience that it’s about. I thought that there was a really great opportunity here.”
“First of all, Tom is an unlikely hero. He’s also not really a hero, which is perhaps what I like about him,” Randall says.
When Tom gets these powers, he’s dead-set on avenging Lucy by making her assailants pay. But it’s a typical hotheaded teen reaction, when Lucy doesn’t really want his help.
“He gets these powers, and he reacts and moves through the story purely based on emotion and eventually a kind of ego,” Randall says. “He doesn’t react in a way that is necessarily heroic, [and] he doesn’t actually necessarily do any good. He says that he wants to avenge Lucy, but she’s quite clear that she doesn’t want anybody to avenge her. This was hugely important to us: Lucy is just herself. Lucy decides that she’s going to carry on with her life. She’s the one who’s strong and has a way of dealing with it. He’s just kind of punching and going crazy in order to try and apparently ‘save her,’ but really, it’s about himself.”
Though Milner and Randall are quick to point out Tom’s flaws as a hero, they both insist that they’re not criticizing.
“Because he’s flawed, hopefully he’s relatable or at least we can have empathy for him in that he’s a teenage boy who’s spent most of his life shutting off the world outside and suddenly it’s come flooding in, and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with it,” Randall says.
Given the film’s high-stakes drama, it’s little surprise that the 16-year-old Tom finds himself in over his head with his newfound powers.
“It’s really interesting to watch a young 16-year-old boy deal with all of these responsibilities, and it doesn’t always go to plan,” Milner says. “You often have that internal struggle in superhero films, but I think it’s particularly interesting for someone of such a young age dealing with quite deep topics. It’s not so sweet and innocent.”
“Not so much,” Randall deadpans. “In a way, I think it’s first of all that great power is fun and fulfilling to get back at these people, to get power over these people that’ve had power over him and Lucy his whole life as the local thugs. It’s more, ‘With great power comes great regret.’ ‘With great power comes great irresponsibility.’ Great power comes with the ability to do damage, and you lose yourself completely. That’s a key part of the film: With great power comes the opportunity to become a monster if you’re not careful.”
“We spoke for a long, long time about the use of powers and how they manifest themselves and how far we want to take the specific powers element of it,” Milner says. “The thing is with these powers there are no limits. There is so much that you can imagine that can be done. So we would often sit there for hours, just minds racing about all the possibilities.”
“He can basically connect into anything that is connected,” Randall explains. “The more you start to break it down, you realize that the power is unlimited because our world is now run on digital networks, so he can hack into anything. I guess his superpower, in a sense, is the fact that he can do all this in an instant and pick out the key things he needs. He can have millions of phone conversations floating around and he can pick out the one that he needs to hear. He is like Google search. He is a supercomputer.”
In the five years since Randall became attached to the project, he’s seen firsthand the landmark technological developments in products like Google Glass. The human-supercomputer hybrid seen in Tom may not be that far off, after all.
“Technology has moved on so much since I’ve read the book. So much has changed, it’s incredible. So many things have come out that basically make iBoy’s powers less and less spectacular,” Randall says. “It’s almost become not that far removed from reality now. It’s almost become about someone who’s a little more extreme rather than just a completely fantastical experience.”
Milner says that while filming, the book’s author Kevin Brooks was very hands-off, but the filmmakers remained loyal to feeling and the world of their source material just the same.
“There are things that we really like about the book, and there were things that maybe work better in a book and less well on film,” he says. “We have respected the book and really held onto the important things, but we’ve also kind of shaked it and made it better for a screen-style storytelling.”
Also intact are the novel’s darker themes.
“The book is very violent and dark and gritty — the same horrendous attack happens to Lucy, and Tom reacts in the same way,” Randall says. “We changed a lot from the book. We changed Lucy’s character, the arc of that a lot and added different characters and a kind of narrative structure of it, but in terms of the overall tone and feel of it, I think it’s pretty faithful.”
Though they hadn’t worked together before iBoy, both Milner and Randall say the chemistry between the co-leads was immediate.
“They got on incredibly well,” Randall says. “There was such warmth between the two of them, and there was a huge amount of giggling and laughing going on between takes. Their dynamic was just so believable and touching and natural.”
Reflecting on Williams, Milner can’t help but compliment her performance: “She is so good, she’s brilliant. I’m in awe of her performance. I think she does a fantastic job in the film. We had so much fun making the film, not just because of what we’ve produced, but all the memories and the time we actually had on set was really, really special for all of us. It’s a friendship for life there.”
While he’s been a working kid and teen actor for years (perhaps you’ll recognize him as Young Magneto in X-Men: First Class?), iBoy is Milner’s first major introduction to American audiences in a leading role.
“It’s something very new to me,” he admits. “When I was a lot younger, I was doing some kind of bigger roles. Then when I was a teenager, I kind of struggled a bit more to keep that up, I think. When you’re going through that sort of period in your life, it’s hard to nail down your casting and stuff like that.
“But I’m obviously out the other side of that now and it feels really good to be leading a film, and one I’m really proud of with such a great bunch of people,” he says. “It’s great to have people seeming so excited about it. It means a lot.”
iBoy is currently available to stream on Netflix