“If we see injustice before our eyes and do nothing then we’re no longer humans” the idealistic father of a future superhero instructs his young son, trying to impart a sense of humanitarianism as a basic moral good. It’s a lesson the boy will find himself unlearning and resuming later, his innocence well and truly destroyed by an often cruel and cynical society only to be reawakened to the idea that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Among the most recognisable names of Indonesian cinema, Joko Anwar turns his hand to the creation of a local comic book cinematic universe, adapting the 1969 comic Gundala by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata for the present day filtering contemporary Jakarta through classic Gotham.
Operating as an origin story for the titular hero, Gundala opens with the young hero Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan) unable to prevent his father’s (Rio Dewanto) death due to his fear of electrical storms when he is first set up by a duplicitous factory boss and then assassinated while leading a protest for fair pay and conditions. Soon after, Sancaka loses his mother (Marissa Anita) too after she is forced to go to the city for work and never returns. Ending up a ragged street kid, he’s saved from an attack by a rival gang by an older boy (Faris Fadjar Munggaran) who teaches him how to protect himself physically and mentally by convincing him that the only way to survive on the street is keep his head down and walk on by even if it looks like others are in trouble. 20 years later the adult Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) is an aloof young man working as a security guard at a print house where his sympathetic mentor Agung (Pritt Timothy) begins to remind him of his father in his conviction that “living is no use if you stop caring and only think about yourself”, while he also finds himself defending the woman next-door, Wulan (Tara Basro), and her young brother Teddy (Bimasena Prisai Susilo), from hired thugs sent to intimidate them because of their involvement in a protest against the forced redevelopment of a local marketplace.
Events seem echo around him. The major villain Pengkor (Bront Palarae) is also an orphan but on the opposing side as the son of a cruel plantation owner murdered by his not altogether ideologically pure workers whose desire for fair pay and conditions he had resolutely ignored. According to cynical politician Ridwan (Lukman Sardi), Pengkor became a union organiser of his own, leading an uprising at the abusive orphanage he was placed into by a cruel uncle hoping he’d die and free up the inheritance, thereafter becoming a kind of godfather to the fatherless with a thousands strong army of eternally grateful orphans he saved acting as sleeper agents for a coming revolution.
Pengkor’s nefarious plan involves fostering a conspiracy surrounding contaminated rice said to make the unborn children of the women who eat it turn out “immoral”, a generation of psychopaths unable to tell right from wrong. Fairly unscientific, it has to be said, but playing directly into the central questions of the nature of “morality” in a “immoral” society. Can it really be “moral” for bosses to exploit their workers and get away with it, for politicians to cosy up to gangsters and remain complicit with corruption, and for a man like Pengkor to be the only hope for orphaned street kids otherwise abandoned and ignored by a wilfully indifferent society? Pengkor decries that hope is the opiate of the masses, but that’s exactly what Gundala eventually becomes for them in his “electric” ability to resist, eventually rediscovering his humanity as he designates himself as the embodiment of “the people” pushing back against the forces of oppression and seeming at least to win if only momentarily.
Young Sancaka’s fear of lightning is, in essence, a fear of his power and his social responsibility something he is quite literally shocked into accepting. In a world of quite striking social inequality, he finds himself the lone defender of the oppressed whose very existence spurs others, including previously cynical politician Ridwan, into rediscovering their own humanity in the resurgent hope of a better future. As someone puts it, peace never lasts long but you keep fighting for it because every moment is precious. Not so much a battle of good versus evil as a battle for the meaning of good, Anwar’s Gundala recalibrates the anxieties of the late ‘60s for the modern era and creates an everyman hero not only to resist them but to foster a spirit of resistance and humanity in the face of heartless cynicism.
Original trailer (English subtitles)