Gundala Movie Review

Indonesia (2019) Dir. Joko Anwar

This may came as a shock to some people but comic book superheroes are not the lone property of the US, and by extension, film adaptations are not exclusive to Hollywood, making this Indonesian entry into the genre a genuine surprise as well as an education.

Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan) grew up an orphan following the stabbing of his father (Rio Dewanto) during a work protest, and his mother (Marissa Anita) leaving to secure a job in the city but never returning. Living on the streets, Sancaka is befriended by Awang (Faris Fadjar Munggaran), an older boy who teaches him how to fight before leaving him with the advice never to trust anyone or interfere in other people’s problems.

Now an adult, Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) is a security guard, keeping out of trouble until he defends Wulan (Tara Basro) and younger brother Teddy (Bimasena Prisai Susilo) from two thugs. When they return in force, Sancaka is struck by lightning, giving him superpowers that enable him to defeat them all with ease. With Jakarta being so corrupt, Wulan encourages Sancaka to use his abilities for good.

Unless you are a hardcore comic book fan discerning enough to seek works from across the globe, chances are this is the first time you’ll have heard of Gundala. In Indonesia, he is their equivalent of Superman or Batman, and indeed, you can see echoes of both MCU and DCU in Gundala’s DNA. Similarly, this is the first film in the BCU – Bumilangit Cinematic Universe – a series of eight films featuring the heroes of Bumilangit comics to conclude with an Endgame style blow out in 2025.

Created in 1969 by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata, Gundala ran for 13 years, with a film adaptation first appearing in 1981, which if images are any indication, is akin to the 70s efforts to bring MCU characters to life – i.e. cheap and cheesy! Thankfully, writer-director Joko Anwar took on the unenviable task of modernising the Gundala story in both its social setting and in the aesthetics (read: the costumes).

Very much an origin story in the great tradition of superhero beginnings, Anwar presents us with a rather packed 115-minutes, bursting with subplots which don’t add much to the main story. And in keeping with its franchise aspirations, teases of other heroes and a future villain in both the main film and a mid-credits sequence (natch) are thrown in for good measure, more likely to be Easter eggs for existing fans.

It’s not difficult to see the parallels between Sancaka’s life and those of his American counterparts – witnessing his father’s death, orphaned by his mother’s disappearance, and gains powers from the elements – and I’m sure it will seem like a localised cash-in as a result of this. However, there are a few subtle differences which prove crucial to making Gundala stand on its own merits.

Amusingly, Sancaka is afraid of lightning, always hiding for fear of being struck by it, so the irony of the thing he is petrified of giving him strength is cute in inculcating the sage advice of facing our fears. Then there is knowing when to interfere and when to butt out. Sancaka is told by his father that standing by and doing nothing make you inhuman; after being let down by everyone Awang warns Sancaka not to insert himself into other’s problems.

Having assumed the role of the masked vigilante – not named until the very end – both lessons prove valid after a steep learning curve, making the pros and cons very clear. So whom is Sancaka fighting against? At first, he is helping Wulan and local market traders from the bullying of the wealthy which leads to a much bigger foe in deformed crime boss Pengkor (Bront Palarae).

With government ministers in his pocket, Pengkor can literally get away with murder. Ridwan Bahri (Lukman Sardi), a high-ranking minister, is conflicted by his actions but helpless to fight back until Sancaka’s arrival offers hope and he sides with the hero. An outbreak of contaminated rice that will cause pregnant women to have immoral babies (yeah, I know) forces Ridwan to pass a bill for an antidote from a firm, secretly owned by guess who.

For the main crisis, this is sadly rushed with little time to develop, a casualty of throwing too much into an already full story to make it feel more substantial. Pengkor is drawn quite well as a villain, his backstory as tragic as Sancaka’s, showing how one scenario can yield opposite results. Whereas Sancaka has superpowers, Pengkor has money and an army of orphan assassins, including a Taoist-type wizard and a psychotic schoolgirl.

On the fight front, this film is packed with them. Whether it is young kids or adults, we are never far away from a decent martial arts scrap, a refreshing change from laser beams and spider webs – bursts of lightning notwithstanding. However, there is too much contrivance on Sancaka needing to fight in the rain so lightning can recharge him, serving to remind us how hokey this is despite the potent social commentary of class discrepancy in Jakarta.

Reportedly made for the equivalent of $2.1 million and shot in just two months, none of this shows on screen, one thing Anwar can be proud of. SFX are impressive for such a small budget, though the wirework is a tad overplayed, whilst the cinematography is suitably moody and evocative. Abimana Aryasatya might be a huge native star but he lacks charisma and presence as Sancaka, plus is taller than his foes making the fights a bit awkward when ducking their punches. Muzakki Ramdhan as young Sancaka however is fantastic.

Gundala is an anomaly, coming across as confused attempt at a Hollywood comic book flick yet works well as an alternative to the bombast and excess of said films. Not perfect but compelling and earnest enough that oddly, I am curiously keen to see more from the BCU.

3 thoughts on “Movie Review – Gundala

  1. You are right. I have never heard of Gundala before. But I will admit that it’s an intriguing name. I might be interested to see more of it.

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    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I too was surprised to learn of its history, thinking it was a regional superhero knock off, but it seems Indonesia has its own version of the MCU (albeit with very familiar looking characters) that could be interesting to see more from if they have the same cultural twist to them as Gundala has.

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