Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 20, 2020)
Perhaps because the genre started in the US, superheroes seem like an inherently American institution. However, over the 80-plus years since Superman debuted, plenty of other nations gave superpowered characters their own slant, and in that vein comes 2019’s Gundala.
An Indonesian product adapted from a comic that started in 1969, Gundala introduces to Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya), a young man who lived on the streets for years after his father died and his mother disappeared. In this underprivileged setting, Sancaka attempts to keep his head down and out of trouble.
However, when Jakarta becomes embroiled amid violence and corruption, Sancaka finds himself unable to stay on the sidelines. He adopts the vigilante persona “Gundala” and attempts to fight for justice.
If you sense a connection to Batman there, I suspect you’re not alone. Granted, Sancaka grows up under radically different circumstances than does Bruce Wayne, as the former suffers from deprivation whereas the latter enjoys the lap of luxury.
Still, more than a few similarities emerge. Both characters lose their parents at a young age, and both exist in depraved, crime-ridden cities that need someone to battle against corruption.
All these connections aside, Gundala manages to feel like its own film and character. No one can escape the echoes of the Dark Knight, but Gundala still manages to stand on his own two feet.
In addition, unlike the Caped Crusader, Gundala boasts supernatural powers. He can harness the power of lightning, an ability that makes him resemble a mix of Batman and X-Men’s Storm.
When the film pursues its story, it can sputter, partly because it lacks a terribly compelling main villain. It also takes a pretty long time for Sancaka to formally adopt his superhero persona.
That doesn’t seem like a fatal flaw – heck, Batman doesn’t really “begin” until a good hour into that movie either – but the story can feel stuck in neutral for too long.
In Begins, we get good development as we await Bruce’s return to Gotham and adoption of the cowl. Gundala pushes along its plot elements in a semi-rudimentary manner that can feel like a chore at times, as though the film doesn’t really want to bother with all this exposition but it feels it must explore these domains.
And it does need to go through them, but it probably could do so more rapidly. Enough intrigue emerges across the film’s first hour that it keeps us with it, but it could use a quicker pace.
Even if Gundala suffers from some lack of originality and pacing issues, the movie still entertains, mainly due to well-executed action scenes. The story manages to integrate Sancaka’s learned marital arts skills for exciting battles, and his ability to utilize lightning adds a spark.
When Gundala engages in these sequences, it soars. Director Joko Anwar gives the fights real spark and intensity, factors that allow them to blossom.
I wish the rest of Gundala fared as well as the action scenes, but even with some narrative issues, the film mostly entertains. It packs enough superhero excitement to prosper.
Footnote: a tag scene appears during the end credits.