New To Blu: Gundala (2020)-Reviewed

(Image Courtesy of WellGo USA)

Marvel wasn't the first studio to try their hand at an interconnected universe but they're without a doubt the most successful. It's no surprise that every other major studio from Universal to Warner Bros. have tried and mostly failed at creating a cinematic universe. From the disastrous The Mummy to the largely mixed attempt at a DC Cinematic Universe, the old axiom of "Lightning doesn't strike twice" is repeatedly being proven to be true. The problem seems to be that none of these studios want to lay the groundwork that Marvel so patiently did. Starting with 2008's Iron Man and under the direction of Kevin Feige, the universe has been a success because it invested audiences in single characters, built out their worlds and then brought them together in a way that felt logical. Studios like Universal and WB want that interconnected success and want it now. In trying to catch up to Marvel's 10+ year head start, these studios are cashing everything in and throwing character after character at the wall without doing the work to get you care. The concern is more that people will nod and smile at brand recognition than realize that Tom Cruise's baffling Mummy superhero or Henry Cavill's Superman have almost no personality.

It's for these reasons and more that Indonesia's foray into the cinematic universe feels so fresh and exciting. Especially as westerner. Using characters from the publisher BumiLangit and calling itself the BumiLangit Cinematic Universe, this endeavor seeks to connect Indonesia's vast array of superheroes the same way Marvel did, one step at a time.

First up is Joko Anwar's Gundala. 

Gundala follows Sancaka, a young boy whose father is murdered after protesting harsh working conditions. His mother then goes missing while looking for work to provide for him, leaving Sacaka alone. As we see Sancaka fend for himself and grow into an adult in the streets of Jakarta, one constant follows him: he's terrified of lightning. When pressed as to why, Sancaka says it's because "it's always following me." Little does he know that as an adult, it will be the lightning that not only saves his life but gives him god-like powers to ward of evil-doers.

(Image Courtesy of WellGo USA)

This is pretty standard superhero stuff, orphaned child forced to fend for himself is gifted great power. And we all know what comes with great power. However, Gundala is interesting because of how much he ties into Indonesian history. Created in 1969 by Harya Suraminata for BumiLangit Comics, he burst onto the scene amidst a nation that was just coming out of massive social unrest. Often fighting on behalf of unions and workers, Gundala was the everyman hero who could stand up for those who couldn’t. 

The film plays with all of this. From his origin as a child, orphaned because of protest suppression to his status as the workers’ hero, Gundala  fights for the people of Jakarta. In many ways, the film has more in common with the superhero films of the 90s.  A mob boss named Pengkor (Bront Palarae), surrounded by wacky villains with gimmicks who I’m sure we’ll see more of,  controls the government. His scheme (maybe the most bonkers villain scheme since Joker poisoned cosmetics) is to contaminate the nation’s rice supply with a substance that will, stay with me, infect fetuses in pregnant women in such a way that they’ll grow up to be immoral. It’s very, very silly but oddly refreshing to see a relatively low stakes superhero film in an era where every other version of this involves worldwide peril and a blue energy beam shooting to the skies. It’s a genuinely political film too, often commenting upon how corrupt the government is while tying it all into Gundala’s story. The protests and social unrest that follows the rice contamination feels wildly prescient and makes this a far more relatable film than one might think. 

Playing Gundala is Abimana Aryasatya. While a bit of a blank slate for most of the film, it works because as the nondescript everyman forced into action, Gundala could be anyone. Aryasatya, handsome, brooding and able to elicit laughs when needed, is everything you picture when you envision a hero. He manages to channel the sadness of a Bruce Wayne with the “aw shucks” gumption of a Peter Parker with the “I can do this all day“ fortitude of a Steve Rogers. No matter how many times he gets hit, he keeps getting back up. Aryasatya makes you believe the journey Sancaka goes through and is the perfect star to build this universe around. 

(Image Courtesy of WellGo USA)

On the topic of perfection, hiring Joko Anwar, perhaps Indonesia’s most prolific modern filmmaker, to kickstart the universe is a brilliant move. Most known for terrifying horror flicks like Satan’s Slaves and this year’s excellent Impetigore, Anwar injects this brave new world with so much personality and vision. A big criticism about the MCU is that many of the directors’ visions become muted behind corporate mandates to fit a certain mold. Here, seemingly free to be himself from a filmmaking standpoint, this is absolutely a Joko Anwar film. He combines the horrific imagery he’s known for in some of Sancaka’s nightmares with incredible martial arts that put American superhero fights to shame. His visual style is so present and is as vibrant as ever. It goes a long way to setting this apart from typical fare. It’s a stunning and dynamic  film visually with cinematographer Ical Tanjung’s camera always on the move. 

If there’s anything that holds this back, it’s the unfortunate reality that holds many superhero films back narratively. The impetus to fit this into a larger universe often overrides the titular character’s journey. Gundala gets lost in the shuffle far too often as the film continues to pour new information on you. Couple that with this being an origin where the hero takes too long to get his powers and suit up, there’s a bit of a stop/start nature to film. I’m sure to those in the know, the cameos and mid-credits stinger will be exciting. But those are the same things that hamper so many Marvel films. Superhero films are at their best when the larger universe building is limited and natural and the narrative can stand on its own. This rides that line a bit too closely and it’s not always successful. 

(Image Courtesy of WellGo USA)

Thankfully, through Anwar’s kinetic direction, Tanjung’s gorgeous DP work and Aryasatya‘s strong lead performance, Gundala still manages to set itself apart enough that any narrative stumbles can largely be overlooked. It’s the first time an attempt to start a cinematic universe has felt exciting in years and is so undeniably of its filmmaker that it never feels like another cheap MCU clone. Gundala is a genuinely exciting film that invests you into a brand new onscreen superhero, his world, his villains and the heroes yet to come. Full of breathtaking fights and political intrigue, the limits to where our hero can go are endless. 

Indonesia’s film scene has long been overlooked and as filmmakers like Anwar or Timo Tjahanto continue to do interesting things, the future couldn’t be brighter. A burgeoning superhero universe could be the center jewel in an already diverse and exciting crown. To say who’s up next would be to spoil the stinger scene but let’s just say the BumiLangit Cinematic Universe looks like they might be cornering a milestone it took Marvel over 20 films to hit. If you’re like me and feel a little burned out on the aggressive sameness of the MCU, seek out Gundala because the BLCU could be the antidote to what ails you. 

-Brandon Streussnig