Marvel’s Avengers series might bring in billions at the box office, but Indonesia is taking on the likes of Captain America and Iron Man with its own superhero franchise, tapping into growing global demand for diverse characters.
The first movie of the series, Gundala, which was directed by one of Indonesia’s most prolific filmmakers Joko Anwar, and released locally to critical and popular acclaim, is now set to play in cinemas across North America.
With a back catalogue of more than 500 Indonesian comics, the studio Screenplay Bumilangit is hoping to create its own Marvel-style “Cinematic Universe” with films featuring interconnected characters and settings.
Gundala, based on a 1969 comic, tells the story of an impoverished factory worker’s son who fights corruption and injustice after a lightning strike gives him superhuman powers.
“The story that people are going to see in our films is not about aliens attacking the Earth because that’s not our problem. Hollywood is going to deal with that,” Anwar said.
“We’re dealing with our country’s oppressors and their super powers will come from our mythology,” the 44-year-old said, adding that his twin passions growing up were films and Indonesian comic heroes.
The success of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, which both grossed more than US$1 billion worldwide, as well as Wonder Woman, which made more than US$800 million, has pushed US studios to search for more diverse stories and characters to reflect audience demand.
The former featured a predominantly black cast, was directed by African American Ryan Coogler and tackled the battle for a fictional African kingdom, while the latter two star female superhero leads, which is rare.
Marvel is now making their first Chinese superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, based on a character that first appeared in 1973.
Indonesia’s once-booming comic book industry waned in the late 1980s as fans flocked to Marvel and other foreign offerings.
However, the country’s filmmakers are confident that the new series, which infuses this classic mythology and modern life, would have unique appeal at home and abroad.
“We’re not only trying to provide some nostalgia, but also to expose younger generations to our own superhero stories,” Bumilangit creative general manager Iwan Nazif said.
“I think the exposure is even greater with the Gundala movie, as it raised the curiosity of both comic and film enthusiasts about local superheroes,” he added.
The second planned story follows female character Sri Asih, who has the strength of 250 men and leads a pack of other superheroes. The film, based on a 1954 comic book, is being produced by female director Upi Avianto.
Other characters in the pipeline include Mandala, a warrior wielding a machete who can destroy objects without even touching them, and Si Buta Dari Gua Hantu, which is about a blind martial arts fighter and his sidekick pet monkey.
“I never knew Indonesia had all these superhero characters until Gundala,” film buff Septian Dwi Putri said. “And I didn’t think Indonesia could have a proper superhero movie with decent script. The special effects weren’t bad either.”
However, with swathes of Indonesia on lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the process has ground to a halt, production manager Imansyah Lubis said, adding that crews are unable to meet, shooting sites are closed, and even buying or renting equipment raises hygiene issues.
Prior to the pandemic, Indonesia’s film industry had been on the ascent after hitting a low point in the 1990s, when there were almost no local productions.
As the country of 260 million sees its middle class expand and incomes rise, there is growing interest in cinema. The sector logged a record 50 million ticket sales last year.
Still, international blockbusters remain the big draw, and local filmmakers admit it is difficult to compete with Hollywood’s vast finances.
Gundala was shot in just 52 days and cost about US$2 million. The most recent Marvel film Avengers: Endgame had a budget of more than US$350 million, while DC Comics’ Joker, for which Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar for best actor, is estimated to have cost more than US$55 million to make.
“It is extremely difficult to make, because of the budget and human resources limitations,” Anwar said.
Despite this, and the challenges of COVID-19, he said that “we are in the golden age of cinema.”
Gundala grossed US$4.7 million at cinemas nationally, more than doubling its production budget, and a worldwide release would bring further revenues.
Still, mainstream success would mean winning over people like Iron Man fan Disna Harvens.
“I was honestly skeptical at first, but I didn’t find it cringe-worthy,” he said after watching Gundala.
“As a die-hard fan of superhero movies, I hope I’ll live long enough to see all the Indonesian superhero movie installments,” Harvens said.
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