tv series

‘Darna’ review: A gritty, modern retelling with the guts to fly higher

Ryan Oquiza
‘Darna’ review: A gritty, modern retelling with the guts to fly higher

COMING SOON. ABS-CBN releases the first trailer for 'Darna: The TV series.'

JRB Creative Productions' Instagram

The burning subject on everybody’s mind is: how did Jane de Leon fare as the iconic hero?

One of the most striking promotional images released for the latest Darna adaptation is a poster of a disaster-stricken town with debris and wreckage all around it. At the bottom is a snake that slithers out of the darkness, looking for unsuspecting victims to prey on, but the only things left are torn-down vehicles and houses reduced to rubble. An anomaly emerges from the ashes: it’s a figure of a heroine in the sky illuminated by the heavens, the antithesis to death and destruction — a beacon of hope.

The choice to set a dreary tone in contrast to Darna’s wavering flicker of light is deliberate. The Philippines isn’t the same place as it was in the 1950s, the decade Mars Ravelo unveiled the famous heroine from Planet Marte to the country. The past and present political and economic climate speak for themselves, and it’s almost as if the poster was figuratively recreating it.

“I wanted Darna to be less soap-y, more gritty and natural, more real. But also retain the character of [Darna as] bigger-than-life and, of course, different from everybody else,” Director Chito S. Roño shared in an interview

Therein lies the conceit of ABS-CBN’s series: “What does placing Darna in the current context look like?” After all, would placing an extraordinary and overqualified heroine in a country that scorns and rejects those figures still fly in today’s day and age? Fortunately, the series finds new meaning in realism, unearthing a careful juxtaposition between light and dark, even if that line is often blurry. Jane de Leon’s Darna may be a gritty coming-of-age tale, but it never once forgets the idealism and kindness that sustained the character through all these years.

Since it was first announced in 2014, the Darna project has undergone multiple casting and crew changes. Before De Leon was cast and Roño took over directing duties, ABS-CBN had initially planned on creating a feature film. The project had previously been tied to directors Erik Matti and Jerold Tarrog and actresses Angel Locsin and Liza Soberano. Due to injuries, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ABS-CBN shutdown, the series was postponed many times until it reached its August 2022 release spot. 

The story translated from film to television has inevitably changed. Instead of showing an established and experienced Darna, as may have been the case in the Locsin-led movie, the series portrays a reluctant and inexperienced Narda, who is still under the tutelage of her mother, Leonor (Iza Calzado), later revealed as the first Darna. Returning side characters include Ding (Zaijian Jaranilla), Narda’s younger brother, and the wicked Valentina (Janella Salvador in her TV comeback), Darna’s archnemesis. Rounding out the star-studded cast is Joshua Garcia as Brian Robles, a young police officer who serves as Narda’s love interest, and ’70s Darna actress Rio Locsin as Roberta Ferrer-Custodio, Narda’s grandmother.

Now, the burning subject on everybody’s mind is: how did Jane de Leon fare as the iconic hero? Like in most Filipino primetime events (see Miss Universe and the UAAP Cheerdance Competition), audiences pride themselves in having a Master’s and PhD in judging performances, mainly due to their love for the pageantry and showmanship. De Leon got flak from so-called Darna critics even before the series aired, which is unsurprising given the character’s legacy (and the fans’ enormously high standards). What De Leon brings so far in the first week of episodes is a sincere and genuine presence that holds as much reverence for the heroine as we do. (READ: ‘Panoorin muna nila’: Jane de Leon admits to being affected by ‘Darna’ critics)

Her portrayal harkens back to Marian Rivera’s interpretation in the 2009 GMA series, owing to the reluctance she feels in embracing her alter ego. Though in the previous series, Darna’s initial refusal was due to the constant condemnation she’d receive despite doing the right thing, De Leon’s version refuses the hero’s journey because she thinks she is lacking compared to her mother. This feeling is accentuated by her inexperience in fights and her desire for a normal high school life. De Leon looks and feels like Narda, the little girl who doesn’t have it all figured out yet but is tasked with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. 

Iza Calzado’s Darna, who steals the show in her first flight, embodies the bravado of Anjanette Abayari and the gravitas of Angel Locsin. The red and gold bodysuit, specialized winged medallion, and polished golden bracelets look perfect on the actress, who is perhaps one of the biggest “what-ifs” of the character. The battle scene involving her and an extraterrestrial monster is more thrilling than it has any right to be. The visual effects look like a mix of stop-motion, miniaturized sets, and practical wizardry. Little details like adding reflections on the water during flight scenes or incorporating sculpted silicon alien suits show the care and attention the VFX team poured into the show. It’s not perfect (why’d they have to animate plates and utensils?), but it’s a welcome step towards raising local standards.

Janella Salvador’s turn as Valentina unsurprisingly turned heads even before she brought an actual snake to the red carpet premiere. To use online parlance, she “slayed” as a more humane and relatable villain who can capture people’s hearts through her populist talking points. In a scene, she says: “The real reason we’re suffering is that there are so many criminals in our city. This is the aftermath of the corruption committed by our high-ranking officials.” It’s striking to hear these words from the mouth of a Medusa-inspired nemesis, but it sets up an interesting gray area that Darna must uncoil, and it’s going to take more than kicks and punches.

Roño’s direction is fast-paced yet disciplined, accompanied by writing that contains political subtext promising to intertwine with Valentina. However, a glaring issue is that there isn’t enough time to truly focus on the show’s more somber moments. The death of Leonor, a huge flashpoint in Narda’s life, is brushed aside and breezed through in just 10 minutes. Narda’s guilt for her mother’s death is also washed away by someone simply saying, “It’s not your fault,” as if rushing to the next plot point. It’s a shame that we only got one episode before Narda’s status quo gets completely turned upside down. 

Overall, the jury is still out on whether De Leon can pull off Darna as we’ve yet to fully spend time with her in that role, but evidence shows she has more than enough tools for it. The Darna series sets up an interesting tale of growth in an unforgiving environment, where injustice is rewarded and heroism is punished. It managed to stick the landing — now, all that’s left is to fly even higher. – Rappler.com

‘Darna’ airs every 8 pm on the Kapamilya Channel, Kapamilya Online Live, Cinemo, A2Z, and TV5. Episodes are also available on YouTube and iWantTFC. 

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is the chief film critic of SINEGANG.ph and one of the hosts of the film podcast Sine Simplified. He has written for both PhilSTAR Life and CNN Philippines Life. He is an alumnus of the Ricky Lee Screenwriting Workshop. He is currently studying at the University of the Philippines Diliman.