Gundala (Indonesia, 2019) [TIFF 2019]

In Hollywood, attempts at replicating the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have come and gone over the past decade. Other studios have yearned for both the creative and financial success of the MCU, but, as the saying goes, lightning never strikes twice. Over in Indonesia, this saying may have a different meaning as BumiLangit Studios hopes to launch its own cinematic universe with Gundala, a comic book character who literally derives his superpowers from lightning. As directed by Joko Anwar, Gundala is a valiant effort that is clearly aiming to be a commercially successful – if not, artistically sound – cinematic product.

Based on Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata’s popular comic book series Gundala Putra Petir (first published in 1969), the film serves as an origin story for the titular character. We’re introduced to Sancaka, a young boy who finds himself orphaned after a series of unfortunate circumstances. Played as a grown up by Abimana Aryasatya, he has become a secluded security guard for a manufacturing plant who has learned to keep his head down and avoid trouble. But despite his best efforts, Sancaka ends up helping the city defend against the tyranny rained by the villainous Pengkor (Bront Palarae), who plans on poisoning the city’s rice supply. After being struck by lightning, Sancaka learns about his superhero abilities and is charged with defeating Pengkor and his minions. In the background, a larger mythical world involving superheroes also starts to unearth itself towards the end of the film.

While Gundala has a fair share of problems, at its core, it is certainly striving to be a fun cinematic experience with clear hints of popular commercialism. From the film’s opening credits, where the studio’s logo is presented in an almost parody-like manner to Marvel Studios, there’s no question that Anwar et al. are on a mission to recreate what the MCU has done. Already being deemed the BumiLangit Cinematic Universe, Gundala was recently released in Indonesia and has delivered strong numbers at the box office. There are reports that additional superhero stories are on the way, so on that front, the film is certainly a success.

When it comes to actual quality of Gundala, this is where the film unfortunately falters. As a superhero film, the story arc here is simply not that compelling or interesting. Sancaka’s childhood tragedy of losing his parents never resurfaces in his journey of becoming a superhero, and there’s also a lack of clarity when it comes to what Gundala’s powers actually are. The film would have also been better served if the mythology of the comic books – which is presented towards the end of the film – played a more prominent role in the storyline. Roots are clearly planted for subsequent films, but this kind of titillation is almost frustrating given the relative lack of substance offered by the current film in question.

What’s especially disappointing is the film’s action, where Indonesian films have easily become the de-facto champions when it comes to action choreography. A superhero universe featuring some of cinema’s most talented fighters would be a spectacular idea, but given the lackluster kinetics of Gundala’s fight scenes, that seems like nothing more than a distant dream. The film even features Cecep Arif Rahman of The Raid 2 (2014) and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019), who is easily one of the most visceral performers I’ve seen in a while, yet still manages to provoke little excitement when he shows up on screen.

Any expectations for Gundala to actually replicate the scope and magic of an MCU film would have been unfair, and its relatively weak debut as an anchoring film of a comic book cinematic universe can therefore be forgiven. What’s not forgivable is the film’s failure to choreograph enthralling fight scenes, given the talent pool and reputation of Indonesian cinema. Having said that, it does generate enough interest to make one curious about how the universe will eventually evolve. Let’s hope BumiLangit Studios steps up their game in their next outing to create a more worthy cinematic universe.

Gundala was shown on September 11 and 12 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be shown again on September 14.