Everyone in Hollywood wants to own the “next” Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet from DC Comics’ evolving approach, to the ill-fated Dark Universe, no one has been able to recapture the magic. Now, there may finally be a successor, coming from an unexpected source: Indonesia, home of the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe, based on the Bumilangit comics company’s library of more than a thousand characters.
While it remains to be seen whether Bumilangit can sustain momentum for the eight (!) films already announced for the next six years, the BCU has the passion and talent to become a serious alternative to Marvel. And if Gundala, the first film in the universe, is any indication, an alternative with better choreographed fights and a vast mythology deeply connected to Southeast Asian history and legends.
Indonesia has a long history with comic books, with stories drawing from folklore and tales of heroism appearing in the early 1950s. By the ’80s the country’s comic industry was booming, with teen romance comics, martial arts comics, and superheroes becoming hugely popular, through a lack of translation resources made broadening the audience almost impossible. Gundala, who debuted in the 1969 comic book Gundala, Son of Lightning, as a scientist supercharged with the power of lightning, arrived only seven years after the debut of Thor in Marvel Comics.
Bumilangit mastermind Bismarka Kurniawan graduated from Cornell University as an engineer, but always had a passion for comic books. In 2003, he began rounding up the intellectual property of some of the most popular comic book characters in Indonesia, managing copyrights and digitizing fragile old comic sheets under the banner of Bumilangit Entertainment. The company now owns over 1,000 characters and publishes dozens of different comic book series a year. According to Kurniawan, who spoke to Polygon out of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, his original mission was to simply get as many characters together as he could, and then experiment with the IPs with merchandise. Movies were not even in the picture.
But then the movie industry in Indonesia skyrocketed. The catalyst was a 2015 decision by Indonesian president Joko Widodo to allow foreign investment in film production and distribution. With a growing middle class hungry for films, the legal tweak resulted in more movies, increased sales in movie tickets, and more movie theaters. According to Bloomberg, the last three years have seen what amounts to two new movie screens open every day in the fourth most populated country on Earth. “When Widodo announced that I said we need to start making movies now,” Kurniawan said following TIFF’s international premiere of Gundala. “We wanted to get ahead of the wave of increasing interest in movies.”
Getting people interested in a movie about one of the most popular superheroes in Indonesia wasn’t a challenge, the comics magnate explained. “From the moment we decided to make a movie I was already thinking of a larger universe. This was already after Iron Man, and we needed our own version of that, a superhero that could unite a team. For us that ended up being Gundala. And the moment we announced it, we started getting fan art and songs. We put on an album of songs created by fans and inspired by the character of Gundala, and this is the first movie to have ticket pre-sales in Indonesia.”
Even if Gundala is bigger than an average production for an Indonesian film, the film was still shot on the tight schedule of a small indie. At the Q&A following the film’s premiere in Toronto, director Joko Anwar explained how he shot the film across five cities and 70 locations in only 50 days, meaning the many martial arts fights were rehearsed only once, and then shot in one take.
The compromising production doesn’t reflect the end product. Gundala is a movie that feels like watching the entire Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy in just under two hours, cramming in an origin story, a sequel where his powers get tested by personal conflicts, and the third movie in which the people are inspired by the hero and rise up against a larger enemy that threatens society.
It’s ambitious, a bit overstuffed, but seriously awe-inspiring, considering where and how the movie was made. Anwar and his writers reimagined the scientist-turned-superhero from the comic books and a previous 1981 film adaptation in order to ground him in the gritty reality of modern-day Indonesia, with the hero now being the orphaned son of defiant labor unionist who fights a corrupt politician. The movie’s score is a straight Hans Zimmer homage, which makes even the funniest or most mundane scene feel grand and epic. Cecep Arif Rahman’s fluid and intense fight choreography brings it all together.
Though Gundala has only been in theaters for a couple of weeks, Kurniawan and Joko Anwar are deep in production on the next Bumilangit features – all eight of them. “It was important for us to lock up all the A-list actor and filmmaking celebrities in Indonesia,” explained Kurniawan. “We’re making this to show that you can make something as big as a superhero universe in our country, and because people are excited for these characters to go up on screen.”
In the wake of Gundala, Anwar has risen to be the Kevin Feige of the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe, supervising “Phase 1” over the next few years.
“He is the best storyteller in my country” Kurniawan said. “You wouldn’t believe the level of attention to detail that he gives every story and character. Even for the supporting cast, Joko writes an entire sheet of paper with background information like their date of birth, what school they went to, and a character and story arc.”
The next adaptation is Si Buta dari Gua Hantu (or The Blind Man from the Ghost Cave), directed by Timo Tjahjanto (The Night Comes for Us). Tjahjanto will also supervise every action sequence in future movies, train all actors in the universe, and design the fighting techniques for each hero — which is good news for anyone who’s seen The Night Comes for Us.
Kurniawan believes the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe could be a global phenomenon, but for now, his focus is on breaking out on his home turn. That means tailoring each adventure for the core audience that’s expected to show up. “There is something inherently Southeast Asian that is hunting these heroes, something connected to the geography which explains why the supervillain in this movie has all this mysticism around him. We’re not using alien technology or stories in this universe. Instead, our heroes have powers based in local legends and mythology that grounds the characters in Indonesia and Southeast Asian history and culture.”
The BCU is a gamble for Kurniawan; not only is his team writing scripts for sequels before their prequels are made, but he’s building an interconnected series of stories before knowing whether the first one succeeded. Four new Bumilagit Cinematic Universe movies will go into production next year, with two of them hitting theaters at a time of reported “superhero fatigue.” The producer isn’t worried — his plans are long term, and he’s ready to sit and wait.
”I know some movies might be successful,” Kurniawan excitedly told Polygon. “Some will not, but we need to wait for the complete character arcs to build the big team-up event at the end of our phase one, and then see how we keep building up from there.”