With Marvel and DC competing for the crown within the superhero-genre, the formula introduced by these companies has laid the foundation for other filmmakers and countries to show the world their heroes and their stories. While Marvel is busy producing its first movie with an Asian superhero, Indonesian filmmaker has already made a film based on the comics by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata which tells the adventures of Sancaka, who, after being struck by lightning, receives superhuman powers and becomes the superhero Gundala.
Even though they have trouble getting by, young Sancaka’s parents try to live a happy life, teaching their son the importance of looking after others and not ignoring injustice. While his father is out on a strike, Sancaka runs after him in an attempt to warn him about a plan to frame him, but he helplessly watches as his father dies, being stabbed several times. In a fit of rage, Sancaka attacks the crowd, destroying several riot shields and pushing away men twice his size using lightning before he eventually falls unconscious.
After his mother has also left him while searching for a new job, Sancaka grows up on the streets of Jakarta and learns what he must do to survive. As a grown man (now played by Abimana Aryasatya), he works as a security guard, trying to ignore the injustice around him. However, when his neighbor is attacked by several men, he steps in and fends off the attackers using the martial arts skills he learned while still living on the streets. As the attackers later try to retaliate, they awaken the superhuman powers within Sancaka who, after having been struck by lightning, is able to fight them off again.
Whereas Sancaka’s powers gain him quite some fame from the workers and vendors who feel exploited by thugs and crimelords, crime boss Pengkor (Bront Palarae), a disfigured and powerful boss of the Indonesian underworld controlling a vast network of thugs and trained killers, realizes this new hero may present a threat to his plan to extend his powers within the country. Eventually, he contacts all of his killers to finally get rid of this mysterious hero who has given so much hope to the people all over the country.
If there is one aspect which stands out in a project like “Gundala” it 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, Anwar introduces the theme of class struggle and difference, a theme which will become a common thread throughout the movie.
At the same time, and quite cleverly executed, Anwar presents the various stages of indoctrination the young boy must go through in order to survive. The early death (or disappearance) of the parents results in a state of numbness, a routine the hero goes through, which may serve as a mirror to the kind of society who has learned to look the other way when faced with injustice. Ironically, it is this society which is brought to the brink of chaos when confronted with the possibility of a generation without morals. Interestingly, it is Bront Palarae’s character who reveals these morals, ideals and concepts as indicators of the “old world”, thinly veiled modes of oppression which should be abolished through the inevitable state of chaos, which he wants to provide.
Nevertheless, this also hints at the most important flaw within “Gundala”. While the background of modern-day Indonesia is certainly interesting, it does not disguise the fact Joko Anwar basically tells a story that does not divert from the superhero-formula up to the point of becoming predictable, and even a little self-indulgent in the end. Without giving away any spoilers, Sancaka eventually not only becomes the representation of certain virtues, he also turns into a symbol for the very order that is so deeply flawed. The overall execution of the film – even though Indonesian films have certainly done better in terms of martial arts-choreography – is most certainly solid and entertaining at points, there is nothing that original that “Gundala” brings to the table, resulting in an overall quite unengaging movie with a questionable ideology.
“Gundala” is a flawed superhero movie, which will certainly entertain the audience hungry for more similar productions. While the change in scenery for the genre is quite refreshing, the charm and interest will most likely wane when Anwar’s film reveals what it is: just another superhero movie who thinks because it changes its mask it can cover up that it is just more of the same.