Synopsis – Indonesia’s preeminent comic book superhero and his alter ego Sancaka enter the cinematic universe to battle the wicked Pengkor and his diabolical squad of orphan assassin
My Take – It is no longer a fresh news that ever since the ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universe turned out to be an inconceivable massive critical and commercial success, every other Hollywood studio, with their own set of characters, have been clamoring to cash in on their own interconnected films, albeit with the little success (R.I.P Dark Universe).
However, this surprising latest arrival on the scene is an adaption of a widely unknown terrain, Indonesia, who superb action flicks, like The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014), actively put the comparatively smaller yet very talent filled film industry on the map.
Helmed by one of the most prominent filmmakers of the country, Joko Anwar, this 2019 released Indonesian superhero film based on the comics character Gundala created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata in 1969, is co-produced by BumiLangit Studios, who own the rights to about 1,100 Indonesian comics characters, and has marked this one as the first installment in the BumiLangit Cinematic Universe (BCU), with eight films already planned through 2025, with director Timo Tjahjanto (The Night Comes for Us) already set to call the shots on one, and Joe Taslim (as Mandala) among others cast to headline each entry.
Which is no small feat, as the cinematic universe represents an attempt by a domestic studio, featuring local creative talent and drawing on homespun superhero mythology, to tap into some of that raw market demand. Thankfully, as a kickoff, this first film seriously pays off.
Though it is essentially a Batman Begins/Iron Man mash-up, the origin story feels unique and refreshing especially due to its audaciously bizarre yet rich mythology, crowd-pleasing martial-arts battles, all done with its own unique Indonesian style. Though by no means is it a perfect film, as it comes with its own set of flaws.
However, it deserves appreciation for its a commendable effort and although I had zero knowledge of these characters going into the film, I am most definitely excited about watching the upcoming installments from this latest interconnected superhero universe.
Set in an alternate Indonesia where corruption and income inequality are even more rampant than in its real-life counterpart, the story follows Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan), a young boy with a fear of lightning, who lives with his impoverished yet happy factory working Javanese parents. But with his father getting assassinated while leading a worker’s rights movement against his tyrannical employer and his mother disappearing, Sancaka is left to fend for himself on the crime filled mean streets.
While a fellow street dweller like himself named Awang (Faris Fadjar Munggaran) trains him to defend himself, he also bestows that Sancaka must learn to mind his own business to survive. And as an adult (Abimana Aryasatya) he becomes quite an expert in doing just that. Now working as security guard at a printing factory, Sancaka sees how the city has only gotten worse, especially with Pengkor (Bront Palarae), a disfigured mafia boss, controlling all the important aspects of the city to spread chaos and panic.
Unfortunately, Sancaka is forced into action to help his neighbor, Sedhah Esti Wulan (Tara Basro), from a gang of thugs, who quickly return in a larger number to exact their revenge on him, leaving him almost dead. However, when a bolt of lightning strikes him, Sancaka finds himself not only healed but imbued with a new set of superhuman abilities. Giving him the confidence and resolution required to save the city as a costumed vigilante.
Yes, the film follows a recognizable pattern of superhero origin story, including elements such as experiencing loss and separation from loved ones, issue of social and economic inequality, failures of political system, injustice and widespread crime, disfigured nemesis, suffering of the common people that even if united cannot win against the overwhelming structures of power. However, regardless of these similarities, the film feels like nothing ever seen before.
Though, a large amount of subplots often feels overwhelming but they anticipate the story driven by different rules, reflected even in the fact that in the film the end of the world means losing the ability to differentiate good and evil. It reorients the story from the cult of individuality or outstanding collectives and returns it to the people.
The first half of the film is particularly impressive, as writer-director Joko Anwar does a great job establishing the younger Sancaka during his gritty childhood era. It also helps that Muzakki Ramdhan is an amazingly gifted child actor who made his Sancaka role all the more engaging and believable.
But, if there is one aspect which stands out most is the sheer ambition of the film. While essentially telling a superhero’s genesis, as well as the background of his enemy, Anwar’s script also transfers the themes and characters of the comic into the modern world. His image of Jakarta as presented in the film is that of a place defined by misery, exploitation and darkness. From the very first moments of the film, showing Sancaka’s father leading a group of workers to the gates of a factory in a struggle to fight for their rights, director Anwar introduces the theme of class struggle and difference, a theme which becomes a common thread throughout the film, hereby making the titular protagonist, who following the early death of his parents has been stuck in a state of numbness, very root-able.
Also as one would anticipate, the film delivers highly on the action front, as it rarely stops to take its foot off the gas. Here, the action breaks out in tight alleys, on abandoned trains, moonlit rooftops, parking lots, and industrial warehouses, all leading to gorgeous yet gritty, grounded combat martial arts onslaughts.
However, like the Marvel films, this one too suffers from the tepid villain problem. Though he is given an excellent backstory, even with a horribly scarred face, crumpled posture, and husky voice, Pengkor comes out as forgettable. The same goes for his supposedly intriguing team of orphan assassins, who despite possessing different skills and abilities, get hastily introduced and end up making shockingly limp effort. Hence making the final act of the film feel rushed.
The sub plot featuring Ghazul (Ario Bayu) and his mission to release Ki Wilawuk (Sudjiwo Tedjo), who is set to be the universe’s main villain, instead held more intrigue. We also never find out how or why Sancaka survived the lightning strike. Hopefully answers to those will be provided in future films.
Performance wise, Abimana Aryasatya is an excellent lead and makes the burden of being a hero believable. Tara Basro fares reasonably well in what could be a token love interest. While his character is not well sketched, Bront Palarae does end up making quite an impression. In other roles, Lukman Sardi, Ario Bayu, Fariz Fadjar, Aqi Singgih, Cecep Arif Rahman, Rio Dewanto, Marissa Anita, Hannah Al Rashid and Pevita Pearce stand out. On the whole, ‘Gundala’ is an immensely fun superhero origin film that sets the right path for the upcoming BumiLangit Cinematic Universe.
Directed – Joko Anwar
Rated – NR
Run Time – 123 minutes