Grade: B
Not Rated (would be PG-13)

With the U.S. being the center of the Marvel and D.C. universes, it’s easy to think of superheroes as being an American thing. But Superman, “born” in 1938, debuted seven years after Japan’s Ogon Bat (“Golden Bat”), which is generally acknowledged to be the world’s first comic book superhero—that is, a hero with at least one super power.

Marvel and D.C. films are recognizably formulaic, so it’s fascinating to see how other countries “do” superhero films. Gundala is a 2019 cinematic origin story of the most popular superhero comic in Indonesia, a character created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata in 1969. And there are some striking differences.

For one thing, American superheroes, even before they fully develop their powers, appear in almost every scene. That’s not the case with Gundala, which offers a complex web of characters that get plenty of screen time without the hero present. That’s one big difference. Another is that Gundala has terrific fight sequences and plays more like a martial arts film with all characters on equal footing than it does a superhero flick—at least for four fifths of the film. Yet another difference is that the actual superpower and how it works is murkier than an American superhero film. And the filmmakers aren’t interested in traveling the shortest distance between two points to explain it. They get there eventually, but they’re in no hurry. You can pinpoint at least three moments in the film when an American superhero would have pivoted and hit that moment of discovery or resolve earlier than our Indonesian hero, because Hollywood likes to keep it simple.

What’s immediately striking is that Gundala has strong production values and seems to have been made with subtitles in mind. Though the film is fast-paced, subtitle texts don’t speed by and the dialogue is short enough to enable non-Indonesian viewers to read them comfortably. More than any non-English film I’ve watched over the past several years, this one required no conscious effort to juggle the “reading” of images and reading of text.

Gundala is pretty gritty for a superhero movie, though. An entire family dies, workers battle factory guards with the ferocity of Gangs of New York, people are thrown off buildings, and others are stabbed, sliced, punched, bludgeoned, blown up, or electrified. You notice this more because Gundala doesn’t have the same campy feel of an American superhero film—at least not until a zany Batman-worthy plot surfaces where the bad guys want to infect the fetuses of pregnant women with a drug that will render the offspring incapable of making moral judgments. There’s a twist, of course, and I won’t spoil it, but until those third-act antics Gundala plays out like a straight martial arts film about survival on the mean streets of Jakarta and the big gangs that seem to be under the control of a powerful  mob boss.

Is it entertaining? Yes indeed, though one page that director Joko Anwar did take out of the Hollywood superhero playbook was to end the film with an obvious finger pointing to a forthcoming sequel. But he does a lot right, from the fast (but not break-neck) pacing, fight sequences, and special effects to the art, costume, and character design. Things aren’t spelled out as much in terms of character relationships, yet that too feels fresh.

The performances are also solid. Muzakki Ramdhan is likable as young Sancaka, who is virtually orphaned after his father is killed in a factory riot and his mother abandons him to seek work in another part of Indonesia, never to return. Abimana Aryasatya feels like a logical extension of the boy as grown-up Sancaka, who will become Gundala without the same kind of fanfare as an American superhero. Along the way there are guide figures and people who enter his life, ranging from a streetwise hustler to an older sage and a young woman who would have been a love interest if Hollywood had their hand in it. And there’s that mob-boss villain who feels like the lone nod to western characters—a disfigured antagonist who has the looks of a Batman baddie, the external calm of a Bond villain, but the inner turmoil of someone ready to explode at any moment.

Superhero movies often come with a side order of super clichés, but that’s not the case with Gundala. It feels like a fresh take on superhero movies. How much of that is cultural and how much of it is the result of creator Suraminata or director Anwar is for an Indonesian to say. All I know is that my oldest son and I enjoyed this film and didn’t feel it sagged at all, despite a 120-minute run time.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 120 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Well Go USA
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Indonesian and English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Subtitles: English
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for violence)

Language: 5/10—An average number of lesser swearwords

Sex: 0/10—Nothing here

Violence: 9/10—Lots of fighting, lots of threats, lots of violence as specified above 

Adult situations: 7/10—This is all about a street kid trying to survive a particularly violent period in Jakarta’s history

Takeaway: It will be interesting to see what direction and what tone this budding franchise takes; as a superhero origin tale, it’s a solid B