Gundala, based on a comic book series by Hasmi, is set to kick-start the ambitious Indonesian superheroes’ shared universe projected as ‘Jagad Sinematik BumiLangit‘ or ‘BumiLangit Cinematic Universe‘ (mainly inspired by the renowned Marvel Cinematic Universe and the now-defunct DC Extended Universe). To set the grand plan—which includes 8 movies for its first phase with, at least, 19 known characters announced—in motion, Gundala must translate the comic book story into a grounded, do-able and entertaining cinematic experience that can distance itself from the million-dollar Hollywood influence. To helm this showpiece, Joko Anwar (A Copy of My Mind, Satan’s Slave) is the most obvious choice to have the integrity and vision to decipher all the codes.
Anwar treats the movie as an origin story introducing audiences to the titular hero and, at the same time, to the geographical setting of the BumiLangit Cinematic Universe. It’s a chaotic country where criminal rates skyrocket and occasional riot might suddenly erupt. Social gap has always been the country’s silent nemesis; at the same time, mobsters get a hold on political elements, steering the government from beyond the darkness. This is an era of darkness (if you are familiar with Anwar’s works, the whole situation might immediately remind you of the setting of Kala) and in a time like this, people need hopes—a messianic figure to lead them out from the haze. This is the perfect moment for a hero like Gundala to shine.
The movie takes the liberty to rewrite the titular character’s origin differently from the source material. It starts at the beginning following a kid named Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan) who had to witness his father got killed during a labor strike and watched as his mother left in an attempt to find a better life. Abandoned and alone, little Sancaka wanders off the wild streets and toughens up in the harsh world. He fights his way off the street until he grows up (adult Sancaka is portrayed by Abimana Aryasatya), working as a security officer in a printing factory. That’s where he learns of cancer in the govt’s body whose influence creeping out, oppressing grassroots society.
Given the director’s vocal political commentary, it’s no surprise that political turmoils become a motor to move the narrative forward. Half of the parliament is under the influence of the puppeteer, a crimelord named Pengkor (Bront Palarae). Growing up as an orphan, Pengkor also toughens up on the dirtiest slum before he acquires his parent’s stolen wealth. Horrible childhood has given birth to two different figures—the optimistic one that will soon be called as Gundala becoming a symbol of hope; yet, the pessimistic one, Pengkor, sees the worst in people and views hope as the dangerous addiction.
Anwar confidently gives the narrative universe a universal context, to which any other movies that follow can always find a ground. While lying the foundation for the greater picture, Anwar puts myriads of details to make sense of the shared universe. With thick political substance, pivotal characters and the urgency of the plot, Gundala finds its plot a little too convoluted and crowded with details. While the pace is uneven during the second half of the movie and some editing does not feel seamless, Joko Anwar never neglects the basic story-telling credo: to plant each moment earlier; therefore, no plot points appear out of the blue (except that one deus-ex-machina moment in the third act). Nevertheless, this intriguing superhero blockbuster is undeniably a work of strong visions.
The Raid-esque hand-on-hand fighting sequences (choreographed by Cecep Arif Rahman, The Raid 2, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) compensate for the lack of Hollywood-style, CGI-laden action spectacles. Those necessary spectacles are non-decorative as they become an integral part to move the story forward. What you cannot deny is the influence of Anwar as a versatile director. He would go on making Easter Eggs to his previous movies and, even, stage some sequences that flaunt his proficiency in crafting horrors, thrillers, and some deadpan comedies.
Undeniably crowded and convoluted, Gundala still excels as an enticing action spectacle, a grounded superhero origin story & a stepping stone that sets a benchmark for its cinematic universe. Joko Anwar has provided a formula for the upcoming movies in the universe—which will span in two timelines entitled ‘Patriot’ era, the Gundala era, and the ‘Jawara’ era set during Indonesia’s Middle Age. It will be interesting to see how both timelines might collide. If my prediction turns out to be correct about how the two timelines might affect each other, we know exactly whose visions to thank for.
Gundala will change the Indonesian cinema’s trajectory forever. Even more, it will change how the world cinema conceives superhero movies outside of Hollywood. It’s flawed but the industry will learn.