GUNDALA: RISE OF A HERO, an Indonesian Superhero Universe Begins

Superhero cinema is global, after all

Apparently Gundala is a massively popular comic book hero in Indonesia, who is part of a much larger interconnected universe. And even if, like me, you were totally unaware of this fact, writer/director Joko Anwar will make sure you are very aware of this larger story by the time you finish watching his film adaptation of the beloved superhero.

I’m at a point in my life where I’m sold on any action cinema that’s coming out of Indonesia and am happy to seek out productions with these specific specs even if they don’t have much or any relation to the Raid films and the teams who made those. (Although there is at least one major talent involved in both the Raid films and this one: Raid 2 and John Wick 3’s Cecep Arif Rahman). Indonesia has simply broken out and their genre films are making waves around the world. I’m happy to give them a shot when I have the chance. Unfortunately Gundala didn’t really land for me personally, though it has a number of strong qualities.

Perhaps most importantly, the action really is on point in Gundala. The film isn’t really given a traditional American rating, but it would probably port over to an R rating due to the strong violence. There’s some real down and dirty street brawls as our protagonist (played quite well by Muzakki Ramdhan as a boy) learns to fight on the streets and then as he gains powers and goes up against virtual armies of foes. It’s slick and stylish just like the film’s trailer promises.

It’s also got a solid “origin story” vibe which I assume comes from the source material. Our protagonist Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) loses his parents and becomes a tough and hardened street urchin. His father was a crusader who died violently before Sancaka’s eyes as he fought for workers’ rights as a union leader. Then Sancaka’s mother tragically disappears one day as she seeks out better paying work in a nearby city. Our villain, Pengkor (Bront Palarae), is also an orphan, though one who bears burn scarring all over his body from a tragic event in his childhood. Pengkor is somewhat of an orphan king, working in the background and shadows while raising an army of sleeper orphan assassins who are loyal to him for taking them under his wing. That part feels sufficiently melodramatic for a comic book sized morality play, for sure.

After the solid initial set up, however, the film began to lose me ever so slightly more the longer it went on. It was challenging to understand exactly what Sancaka/Gundala’s powers really were, or why he had them in the first place. He’s perpetually haunted by lightning as a child, having been struck by it repeatedly. It’s a cool motif that end up leading to him having some kind of ability to channel lightning. But while I may have lost the details in translation, I just never really understood the “rules” of Gundala’s powers or the origins of them, and this made for a frustrating viewing experience as his abilities seemed to wax and wane indiscriminately.

There also are simply SO many superhero movies and tv shows being created now that it really is hard to stand out from the pack. While slick and well choreographed Indonesian martial arts sequences sure do help in that department, the rest of the film feels very familiar to anyone who’s seen even a handful of superhero movies. And Gundala falls prey to perhaps two of the most frustrating tropes in all of superhero cinema: those of the “way too complex” villain plan, and the “ characters introduced solely to build an interconnected universe”. It’s actually been weeks since I sat down to watch the film, and what fleeting grasp I had of what the villain’s plan was has now left me. But suffice it to say it involved many twists and turns that just didn’t make a whole lot of sense… something to do with a poisoned water supply that would make babies be born without morals, and then a counter-plan to trick-force a vaccine on society? It was implausible and oddly troublesome to watch amidst a global pandemic in which public trust in vaccines is troublingly low.

And far be it from me to deny Indonesia their superhero cinematic universe. I wish this series the best and hope many sequels and side-quels are born out of it. But I’ll probably step off this train, myself, after this first installment. While I love a good superhero yarn I am occasionally finding myself exhausted by America’s own Marvel Cinematic Universe and frustrated by some of the tropes and wheel spinning I find there. Gundala is reaching for a similar vibe, and the very fantastical elements that make it unique to Indonesian cinema make it feel all too familiar for me.

The Package

While Gundala doesn’t look terribly “cool” to me from a costume design perspective, it is a pretty good looking movie overall and is every bit the sweeping comic book Indonesian epic it set out to be. So those interested may indeed want to seek out the Blu-ray. There are a small handful of bonus features that did help give me a little context on the history of the Gundala property and Joko Anwar’s approach to bringing the film to life which I found insightful and which helped increase my appreciation for the film even if I didn’t ultimately come to love it.

And I’m Out

Gundala: Rise Of A Hero hits Digital and Blu-ray/DVD July 28th, 2020 from Well Go USA Entertainment

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