This past summer, the production of the pending Darna movie project suffered a major setback when Liza Soberano dropped out due to a serious injury of her finger. I wrote about that months ago and the fact that Soberano cried during the ABS-CBN interview (she admitted she let the fans down) only showed how heavy and painful the loss of the Philippine pop culture icon was to her deep inside. Not only that, the original director Erik Matti is no longer involved and has since been replaced by Jerrold Tarog.
As of this writing, the filmmakers are still quietly searching for a suitable replacement for Soberano.
As the search goes on in this age of social media and Hollywood-produced superhero movies that dominated the Philippine box office, the hot question remains – is a Darna movie still needed?
To understand things better, let’s go back to the beginning.
Created by the late Mars Ravelo, Darna debuted in 1950 in illustrated print media and went on to appear in comic books, comic strips, magazine special features, television and movies to name some. Through the decades, Darna went on to become a Philippine pop culture icon and there were those who even compared her with Wonder Woman.
In Philippine cinema, Vilma Santos (who is now a public servant) made her mark with the public when she played Darna more than once. Other actresses who played the superhero in other movies were Sharon Cuneta, Anjanette Abayari and Regine Velasquez to name a few.
The 21st century
In the 21st century, Darna was unsurprisingly modernized in a TV series starring Angel Locsin and produced by GMA Network. The series became a hit nationwide and helped keep Ravelo’s icon relevant to Filipinos while also boosting Locsin’s popularity. A few years later, GMA lost Locsin to its rival network ABS-CBN and “replaced” her with then newcomer Marian Rivera who went on to become a star. While still holding the rights to Darna, GMA launched in 2009 a new series with Rivera as the superhero. Like the 2005 series before it, it became a hit as well.
While it was a success, the deal between GMA and the surviving members of Mars Ravelo came to an end. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, the Ravelos signed up with rival network ABS-CBN with upcoming Darna projects in mind. What made this new deal different was that it was in the form of a motion picture project through its movie-making arm Star Cinema.
Making a live-action Darna movie turned out to be tricky and time-consuming. In 2017, the project generated a lot of buzz and excitement when the young and pretty Liza Soberano was hired to play Ravelo’s creation. She was easily referred to as the “Millennial Darna”.
Of course, in this age of social media and smartphones, Filipinos expressed their reactions online. While there were those who welcomed Soberano as Darna, there were some who had problems with the actress’ American accent and heritage (note: Soberano was born in the United States) and some even claimed that she was “not Filipina enough” to play Darna who in the realm of fantasy is Narda, who is often portrayed as a simple Filipina.
And then there were some people who preferred Angel Locsin over Soberano. Take note that almost a decade before Soberano signed up to play Darna, Locsin was hired by ABS-CBN and starred in many big projects with the network achieving lots of success in both television and movies. As such, it was no surprise that there were still many craving for Locsin to play Darna under the banner of ABS-CBN.
Before losing the role, Liza Soberano worked really hard to play Darna. Videos and images of her physically training for the role were released online and it has been reported that she researched the icon behind the scenes. Soberano, by the way, studied at SISFU (Southville International School Affiliated with Foreign Universities) in BF International, Las Pinas City.
Do people really want to see a Darna movie at all?
While Star Cinema is slowly making the Darna movie, it is only fair to ask if people really want to see the movie at all. Do Filipinos, who collectively paid a good amount of money to enjoy Hollywood-made superhero movies in local cinemas since the year 2000, really need to watch Darna on the big screen?
Now I am not a filmmaker nor have I gotten involved in the nation’s film industry but as a long-time geek, observer and former journalist, I should say that the odds are against Star Cinema.
Traditionally here in the Philippines, local film productions that became hits were the romantic comedy and horror types of movies. There were a few historical epic films that became hits along the way. A few fantasy movies were released and made some good money. Given the fact that these kinds of films became hits with Filipino moviegoers and given the fact that the Filipino action film genre has faded away since the early 2000s (note: Filipino action movies have been rarely produced since then), it comes to show that Filipino moviegoers are not that interested in locally made action scenes.
Action scenes combined with computer-generated images (CGI) are among the most attractive features of Hollywood superhero movies to Filipinos. There is nothing like watching Spider-Man’s classic fights with Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004), Wonder Woman leading the fight against the Germans in the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman (2017), Batman fighting a gang of thugs in the warehouse in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and the massive battle between the superheroes and the evil ones in plains of Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) all happen on the big screen!
Definitely those forms of spectacle look great, feel intense and were enjoyable to watch again and again. Moviegoers here in the Philippines paid good money to experience those sequences. For sure, all those on-screen action sequences were carefully crafted, choreographed and painstakingly laced with CGI at a high cost.
That being said, what can the Darna movie offer local moviegoers in terms of spectacle? Can the filmmakers come up with something stylish (if not original) with the action with Darna that can convince moviegoers to come back for more? How much money can the filmmakers afford to invest in such spectacle? For sure, there will be moviegoers who can’t help but make comparisons with Darna’s on-screen spectacle with those of movies from Marvel and DC.
There is also the challenge for the Darna filmmakers to tell a compelling story and have the moviegoers connect with the characters. Sure there is Darna (Narda is her civilian identity) but who else could they add as key cast members? The least the filmmakers could do is involve supporting characters who would end up annoying moviegoers. If the Darna movie would have humor, the producers should make sure that the comedy players should avoid annoying the viewers as they try to make comic relief.
Challenging also is the implementation of the villain to give Darna problems and compel her to act heroically. There is the long-time enemy Valentina but how can the filmmakers make her relevant and not look corny to the locally viewers who have gotten so used to villains in Hollywood superhero movies. Creating a brand new, all-original villain for Darna on the big screen could be a last resort if ever none of the Mars Ravelo-created villains would fit in. A weak cinematic villain is a big no-no.
And then there is the challenge of dramatizing and modernizing the origin of Darna on the big screen. This can make or break the movie because emphasizing the origin requires a good amount of build-up and however the story is written (with the expected big battle near the end) the movie should have balance. It is key to entertain the viewers, to connect them with the characters and make the plot relevant to them. If there is way too much build-up (read: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), moviegoers will end up getting burned out and the spectacle won’t save the movie. If the film has too much social commentary, it could turn off moviegoers.
Another issue is maintaining the relevance of Darna with the Filipinos as time passes. Each year that passes, a superhero movie of Marvel or DC Comics gets released in cinemas nationwide and adding more to the relevance of the superheroes in those movies is the presence of comic books and trade paperbacks of superheroes in retailers. I’m a comic reader and no matter how hard I try, I could not even find a Darna comic book at the retailers (including the comic book specialty stores) and not even reprints of old comics are available. As for the past TV series and movies of Darna, they can be viewed on YouTube but those productions are not too appealing to me.
Merchandise of Darna and the other Mars Ravelo heroes Lastikman and Captain Barbell are not that common commercially. The Ravelos however, in partnership with ABS-CBN, sell such merchandise (under the title Ravelo Komiks Universe) online.
During my time at the recent Toycon, there was a Ravelo Komiks Universe at the main exhibition floor which showcased statues and some merchandise of Darna, Captain Barbel and Lastikman. There were even hired models portraying the Ravelo superheroes in full costume.
One last issue to discuss here is movie competition. Hollywood superhero movies pretty much made tremendous commercial, and even social, impact here in the Philippines since the year 2000 when X-Men proved that superhero films can be taken seriously and be enjoyed for what they are. There is no denying that Marvel and DC Comics movies are major moneymakers among Filipinos. Wonder Woman grossed over P520 million nationwide in 2017. The disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse made over P400 million in 2016. Iron Man 3’s gross in 2013 was over P625 million. Lastly, Avengers: Endgame made over P1.6 billion this year!
Superhero movie competition is already tough and for sure moviegoers will compare Darna to those foreign superhero flicks on every detail. As if that was not hard enough, there is also movie competition with non-superhero flicks like Jurassic World (over P500 million) and the Star Wars movies to name a few. Some comedies and romantic comedies occasionally sell a lot. There are also those computer-generated animation films as well not to mention some Filipino movies that sometimes turn into major blockbusters.
With these issues discussed, making a Darna movie is hard to do and selling it, if ever it gets made at all, is an even bigger challenge for Star Cinema. As a movie market, the Philippines and its moviegoers have an undeniable appetite for foreign movies and if it is spectacle they crave for, they search for it from Hollywood from the superhero movies, the sci-fi movies, the hard action films, fantasy movies, etc. Adding further to the challenge of making the Darna movie succeed is the advanced publishing of schedules of releases of future movies like Wonder Woman 1984 which will be released worldwide on the first week of June 2020.
If ever the film will be made, could Star Cinema’s Darna turn out as the complete package of really special superhero fun, engaging storytelling, memorable characters and great spectacle in the near future? Will it be released during the Metro Manila Film Festival or during the January-November period? How can Star Cinema make Darna relevant to young moviegoers, geeks and the many Filipinos who love watching Hollywood superhero movies?
The answers should unravel in the near future. There is, however, the possibility that the Darna movie would end up getting cancelled. Personally, I would not be surprised if that happens.
Don’t get me wrong. While I am not a fan of Darna, I still am interested to see a modern day film adaptation of Mars Ravelo’s superhero and hope it will happen with an engaging story, characters worth connecting with and carry lots of entertainment value. While I enjoy watching Hollywood superhero movies, I still will give the Darna movie a chance if it ever gets made as a solid film.
How about you, readers? Do you want to see a Darna film on the big screen?
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