Admittedly this one has been out a couple of years now, but I’ve only just discovered it on Netflix. It’s also available on Amazon and only for Region 1, but given most people are unlikely to spend £5+ on a low-budget indie they’ve never heard of. Netflix is pretty great in terms of giving access to stuff you’d otherwise never get to watch.
Boy Wonder is mainly the story of Sean Donovan, played by Caleb Steinmeyer, a troubled 17-year old who witnessed the carjacking murder of his mother when he was a young boy. Still living at home with his father, a reformed abusive alcoholic, Sean is quiet and studious, but also has a darker side to him: while his fellow students are partying it up, Sean’s training in his basement gym, honing his body for… something. Then one evening, Sean encounters a paedophilic drug dealer with his eye on a little boy. A would-be Bruce Wayne without the millions, Sean doesn’t have the benefit of advanced training or technology. Sometimes all you get is a gun.
While Kick-Ass suggested it was possible to be a superhero in the real world, Boy Wonder takes a more realistic approach to vigilantism. Steinmeyer, perhaps most recognizable as a young Locke from Season 4 of Lost, portrays Sean as a watchful youth with a quiet obsession for helping the helpless. Unlike most of his predecessors, though, Sean doesn’t do this so much for the victims or out of a desire for fame: the violence Sean perpetrates is a manifestation of his rage and loss. Otherwise Sean, unemotive, passive, shows every sign of suffering from PTSD. Though Steinmeyer hasn’t done much, if anything, on the acting front since then – Boy Wonder is his most recent IMDb credit – but he strikes a compelling Dane DeHaan vibe in what is essentially an exploration of childhood trauma.
After all, it’s trauma that led Bruce Wayne to become Batman, Peter Parker, Spiderman, and it’s hard to imagine that Kal-El would ever have been soaring our skies were it not for the destruction of Krypton. Unlike with its comic book equivalents, Boy Wonder takes the route of not-quite social realism. There’s hard-ass Latina cop Teresa Ames (Zulay Heneo) dealing with misogyny and divorce following her promotion to Homicide, and her layabout, truism-spouting partner, characters straight out of Homicide: Life on the Streets, and cookie-cutter mob boss Larry Childs (James Russo) standing trial, though likely, it seems, to get off scot-free. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to Sean’s doomed relationship with his father (Bill Sage), trying so hard to be a good guy after years as a feckless thug.
While you can root for Sean’s taking out the trash in the form of a casually brutal pimp, who vows to take out the beating that Sean delivers him on an unfortunate hooker, it’s difficult to condone him whaling on a scary but likely mentally ill vagrant on the subway. Recalling a scene in Spider-Man when Peter Parker finally wreaks his revenge on bully Flash Thompson, when Sean takes on his high-school antagonist Boy Wonder shows us the terrifying side of someone who believes they’re in the right and will take out their aggression on anyone they deem in the wrong. In the real world, the people who consider themselves heroes can be just as scary as the super-villains. Sean himself is somewhere between Rorschach and the eponymous Dexter.
While Boy Wonder explores the tragedy of this black-and-white moral view, of the Dirty Harry guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality, ultimately, with its comments on the failure of due process, the film, like its protagonist, comes across as somewhat ambiguous. Michael Morrisey‘s directorial style reminded me, if anything, more of Crash, the 2004 Paul Haggis crime drama that won Best Picture – the whole thing is strangely muted and dark. An intriguing element of Boy Wonder, never fully explored, is the suggestion that Sean sees Brooklyn, the city borough in which he lives, as more violent than it truly is: a quick cut between a mother screaming furiously at her child and her repeating the same words calmly but sternly teases at Sean’s delusional world view, but is never truly delved into.
Although its ending is unsatisfying to a degree – to what extent Sean has imagined the whole conspiracy is left unclear and there’s Teresa’s too-coincidental proximity to account for in several scenes – Boy Wonder has a solid casting, high production values, and adds up to an insightful if not hugely original take on the superhero/vigilante genre. Steinmeyer proves himself a talented young actor in need of a breakout role (hopefully he hasn’t retired from filmmaking) and Bill Sage in particular demands sympathy and revulsion with the difficult balancing act of a good man battling a horrible past. For this, if nothing else, Boy Wonder deserves 6.5 out of 10.*
*Sorry to confuse things further by temporarily reverting to an x/10 ranking system, but Boy Wonder isn’t a three star film – it’s slightly better than average – but it doesn’t quite deserve three and half stars either. 6.5 translates to three and quarter stars on a scale of 1 to 5, but it just starts getting confusing when you introduce the concept of quarter stars. Hope that clears things up.