Friday, June 6, 2014

DARNA! THE RETURN (...ang pagbabalik, 1994)

This is what some people probably think superhero movies should still look like. It certainly looked primitive compared to the most contemporary American attempt at the genre, Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever, but given how the genre has evolved under the influence of Bryan Singer, Christopher Nolan, and the corporate mind of Marvel Studios, the similarities of the superhero films of 1994 look more significant than the differences -- and that's not a rip on Joel Schumacher, no matter how deserving of one he is. His Batman films, however overblown in scale, were retreats from the darker "operatic" vision of Tim Burton, reflecting Schumacher's own more colorful and positive experience of comics. Despite all the choking or chortling over the nipples on men's costumes, they were more innocent films, more in keeping with a default archetype of superhero movies. Darna ang pagbabalik is that archetype in simpler and perhaps purer form.

Co-directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, it's the most recent feature film about the Philippines' most popular superheroine, though there have been two TV series about the character since then, most recently in 2009. Created in 1950 by writer Mars Ravelo, who always gets a proprietary credit, and artist Nestor Redondo, Darna is a cross between Wonder Woman and the original Captain Marvel -- let's split the difference and say she's the Philippines' Mary Marvel. Rather than go into recently digested detail from the internet, I'll stick to what our movie tells us about Darna. She has a Shazam-type relationship with a young woman named Narda who becomes Darna when she pops a magic stone in her mouth and yells Darna's name. Darna has superhuman strength and the power of flight. How powerful she is exactly is hard to say, though at the climax of this film she pulls off a super-feat worthy of Superman or once-and-future TV star The Flash. She can change back to Narda by shouting that name, at which point Narda coughs up the magic stone. One suspects that many Darna stories involve Narda losing the stone somehow -- she loses it twice in this picture -- much as Billy and Mary Batson tended to get their mouths gagged so they couldn't say "Shazam." That may be the only way to give the villains a fighting chance.

The follow-up to a 1991 film, "The Return" opens with a flood forcing the people of Narda's village to flee to Manila while Darna (the heroically endowed Anjanette Abayari) beats up some mercenary-looking guys for the government. After the fight and the transformation, Narda is mesmerized by a snake and clobbered by a woman in a turban who steals the magic stone. The trauma reduces Narda to a childlike state, forcing her younger brother Ding to look after her in the big city.

The turbaned woman has set up shop there as well. She is Dr. Adan (Cherie Gil), a kind of televangelist prophesying the destruction of Manila by a terrible flood from which the faithful will be saved in a kind of rapture. She has a corps of backup dancers (but no dance music) and a turban that sometimes seems to have a life of its own. She is also, if I understood correctly, the daughter of Darna's arch-enemy Valentina, a gorgon-haired snake woman currently in a withered state. She needs the energy from the magic stone to keep from deteriorating further, and when Ding steals it after crashing one of Adan's live sermons, Valentina withers further, with the aid of early CGI, into little more than a pink wrinkled worm. It looks ludicrous yet there's some genuine naive pathos in Adan's wailing grief over her mom's pitiful state.

The re-powered Darna takes on a criminal gang in league with Adan's cult, but Narda eventually loses the stone again so Valentina can be re-energized. This sets up the big showdown as Darna goes hand to hand with her old foe before saving Manila from a tidal wave. As I said, "The Return" is an old-school superhero movie, so the tidal wave does not hit. The filmmakers lacked the budget to stage such a disaster, and the thought of letting it happen probably never occurred to them. No "destruction porn" here. The nearest thing to porn of any kind is the close attention often paid to Darna's cleavage.

The effects are a mixed bag, reflecting the filmmakers' willingness to try for authentic comic-book action. Darna flies via process shots, occasional crane work and crude traveling mattes, though the directors do one clever thing without effects to sell her flying. They stage several scenes on top of buildings, from Darna landing after a joyride with Ding to her fights with the gangsters and Valentina. Doing this gets Darna high up where she belongs, and that's somewhat of a reasonable substitute for more convincing flight scenes. Abayari definitely looks good in a Darna costume, though her action-hero skills are nothing special by modern standards. I doubt she learned any martial arts for this role. It was more important to strike the right superhero poses, particularly for the flying scenes. The music is generic superhero stuff of the period, or just before, with a main theme influenced more by John Williams's Superman march than by Danny Elfman's Batman or Darkman music. By 21st century standards it looks and sounds like kiddie fare, but probably no one ever thought of it being anything else. Its redeeming quality is its enthusiasm; that willingness to try, even with inadequate means, rather than not make an all-out superhero movie, is key. It helps this kind of movie to have an over-the-top villain, and Cherie Gil saves the day in this respect in a role that seems intended partly as a send-up of real-life counterparts of Dr. Adan and the people who believe in them. In other words, there was probably something for all ages to enjoy. Depending on how weary you've grown of the scale and sophistication of American superhero movies, you may be won over by Darna's primitive charm. On the other hand, the Mars Ravelo estate could be sitting on a gold mine if they can think of a way to go global with Darna, while Warner Bros. struggles to finally put Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time. But if going global with Darna means "Nolanizing" her in some way, it might be better to leave well enough alone.

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