Don't be fooled by the cheeky name. The protagonist of Boy Wonder doesn't slink around town in tights. He also, sure as hell, isn't anybody's sidekick.
Sean Donovan (Caleb Steinmeyer) is leading quite the double life. By day he's a shy and smart High School Senior in Brooklyn. By night he's the hooded boogeyman that all the local pimps and drug dealers should be afraid of. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a hero because I'm not sure he's really in it for the accolades. Ten years ago he witnessed his mother's brutal murder during a carjacking gone wrong. When he couldn't bring her killer to justice, he mentally retreated and made extreme choices that would dictate his future path. Now he roams the streets at night, armed with nightstick and gun, enticing slime-balls and thugs to pick fights with him just so he can make them regret it.
This may sound like the blueprint of a superhero origin tale but appearances can be deceiving. There are training sequences, action beats and thrilling chases. Yet the cumulative effect is far removed from your average graphic novel inspired heroics. Boy Wonder is first and foremost a tragedy focused on the torture that one young man puts himself through long after the world has broken him. He is a walking bruise; an open wound; a scream with no end. At this point, if he didn't have the desire to kill the evil around him, he'd have no desire at all. It's late in the film when we realize that he didn't just skip over his childhood, he's passed over life itself in favor of transforming into a walking corpse.
The key to understanding Sean lies in Caleb Steinmeyer's brave performance. Even when his face is drained of emotion and reduced to a tired pucker, his body language speaks volumes. He has a slight and wiry frame which makes all of his beatdowns (both received and delivered) so punishing to watch. Even when he's winning in a fight, Steinmeyer's reckless drive for violence and aggression suggest he's still losing the war he's waging with himself. This point is driven home in a masterful scene that shows us the difference between small acts of frustration that can be seen all around us and the inflated sense of rage that Sean attaches to them. His sense of normal is so damaged that he can't help but see the ugly in everything.
Sean may be an anti-hero but writer-director Michael Morrissey successfully manages to keep our sympathy squarely in his corner at all times. Morrissey also does an impressive job in allowing the layers of Sean's pain to be revealed in a gradual manner. It takes us a while to realize that Sean has reasons for not trusting his seemingly loving dad (Bill Sage). The reveal is handled with subtlety (a simple shot in a supermarket aisle) and then shoved into our faces with blistering brutality. Suddenly, without warning we are pushed even further into Sean's corner before realizing the slight manipulation on Morrissey's part. It helps that Sage is pitch perfect as Sean's conflicted dad. He is ashamed of the past but is trying so hard to give his son a normal life that we almost want to forgive the monster that he used to be.
Morrissey populates every corner of his film with characters that feel well-rounded and lived in. This is apparent in his treatment of the audience surrogate, Det. Teresa Ames (Zulay Henao), a pretty but tough cop who gives Sean the benefit of the doubt and protects him long after it has become prudent to do so. Morrissey doesn't fall into the trap of turning Ames into a bland, damsel in distress and thankfully Henao recognizes that. She gives Ames enough smarts that we never doubt she's in control of her situation. Morrissey works similar magic with even bit parts in the film which is critical since this is very much a low-budget character driven piece.
Stories about Real Superheroes have become more popular in recent years with Kick-Ass and Super coming to mind. While Morrissey clearly has similar ideas in play, I'm glad his execution skews even grittier than the examples I mentioned. The goal here is to acknowledge Sean's crumbling world of crime and decay as one that is scarily similar to ours. This harsh and sobering dose of truth is what gives Morrissey and his film its true power.