Last February, Todd Stadtman and Tars Tarkas invited me on the Infernal Brains podcast to discuss space ladies with them. We covered a lot of films, but I didn’t get to one film Todd suggested we watch, Darna Vs. The Planet Women (1975). I finally did recently and he was so right—Darna Vs. The Planet Women was a movie I needed to see. Since then, I’ve watched Darna And The Giants (1973) and Darna At Ding/Darna And Ding (1980). And these movies bring together so many fine things: a costumed comic book superhero, space ladies, supernatural creatures, black magic robots, disco fabulousness and the sassiness of Vilma Santos’ Darna.
Mars Ravelo created Darna in 1949. (He had created, written and drawn an earlier incarnation,”Varga,” in 1947). Ravelo’s a central figure in Filipino comics, creating not only Darna, but Captain Barbell and Lastikman. Darna appeared in several Tagalog comic magazines including Pilipino Komiks, Kenkoy, Liwayway and Kampeon Comics and her own title. In the origin story, a girl named Narda receives a mysterious stone with the word “Darna” on it. She is instructed to swallow the stone and thereafter whenever she exclaims, “Darna!” she gains superpowers and a pretty swank outfit blending American superhero and traditional Filipino elements. Darna can fly. She is super strong. And she knows kung fu. As a female hero who sometimes wears a red, starred bikini top with blue bikini bottoms and stops bullets with her bracelets, Darna is often compared to Wonder Woman. But in her longevity and widespread popularity, her protection of the world from intergalactic threats and even her later retconned alien origin, Darna has more in common with Superman. And, yeah, there is the Captain Marvel/Shazaam thing. Ravelo created a superhero who he hoped would inspire the Filipino people and was based in part on his mother. And if the people happily waving at Darna as she flies by in the films are anything to go by, he succeeded. Darna often fights space ladies and becomes a sort of space lady herself in later stories. In fact, she fights cool ladies of all kinds: Hawk-Woman; the snake-haired Valentina; robot space queen X3X; the mad scientist Dr. Vontisberg; an evil sorceress; a giant; and the multi-colored space ladies of Arko Eris. Darna faces all perils, whether aliens, supernatural creatures or more mundane escaped convicts.
In 1950, Ravelo teamed up with Nestor Redondo and thus came forth some pretty sweet comics. Redondo is probably most famous among readers of American comics for his work on Swamp Thing. A wave of Filipino comic creators including Redondo, Frank Redondo, Alex Niño, Gerry Talaoc and Alfredo Alcala moved into American comics in the 1970s and they are responsible for some of the most distinctive art of the time in weird, war and adventure comics. In 1972, Redondo contacted his old Liwayway colleague (and one of my favorite artists) Tony De Zuñiga about working in the US comics industry. By the time of the Santos Darna movies, Redondo was working on Swamp Thing, House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Weird War Tales. While Redondo could easily find work in the Filipino comics industry, even after the collapse of his own company CRAF Publications, it’s not entirely surprising that he would look for work elsewhere.
In September 1972, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. He had been elected to a second term, but justified suspending his country’s democracy by claiming that rebels threatened the nation. Darna And The Giants, Darna Vs. The Planet Women and Darna And Ding were all made in the ten years between Marcos seizing power and when he began to reluctantly let it go. This is the same era in which the Philippines became a desirable shooting location for movies documented in Machete Maidens Unleashed (2012), a look at American exploitation films shot in the Philippines, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), about the making and Kurzian madness of Francis Ford Coppolas’ Apocalypse Now. As is pointed out in Machete Maidens Unleashed, Filipino directors, writers and actors who were living in a climate of fear and suspicion, could work on American films—even ones depicting resistance to authoritarian military states—with relatively little trouble. If you’ve seen some of the women in prison movies shot in the Philippines, you might have noticed that there were a lot of rebels, unjustly imprisoned people and maniacal authoritarian military officers. The Marcos regime either didn’t watch these movies, didn’t recognize themselves in them, or didn’t care. American filmmakers benefitted from low costs, access to insane stunt performers and military helicopters in the Philippines and DC and Marvel benefitted from Filipino comic artists taking work outside the Philippines. But Darna was wholly a Filipino creation. The films were made for a local audience. Where Coppola could afford to complain about the helicopters he’d been promised being late and actor Sid Haig was troubled by helicopters switching from live to blank rounds, Darna’s filmmakers had a lot more complexity to navigate.
The first Darna movie played in 1951 and starred Rosa del Rosario. Since then, there have been fourteen films, two Captain Barbell films, in which Darna appeared, and three tv series with many actresses and a few actors playing Darna (including Nino Muhlach in Darna And Ding). But a huge part of Darna’s appeal for me is Vilma Santos. Her Darna has moxie. I might not have researched the character or looked for the comics if not for her. Santos starred in four Darna movies, but her first, Fly, Darna, Fly! / Lipad, Darna, Lipad! (1973), appears to be lost.
In Darna And The Giants, Narda is a young woman and her seemingly much younger brother Ding holds the magic stone for her, which she has to swallow and spit up every time. (In earlier comics and films, once swallowed that stone was swallowed for good). Large-eared, wrestling-singleted aliens are kidnapping the people of Narda’s village. Giants stomp any remaining villagers. Narda and Ding allow themselves to be captured and brought to X3X, an evil robotic space lady with a Doberman and boots so fabulous they receive their own credit. (As do Darna’s). They discover X3X is transforming villagers into giants, providing them with caveperson clothes—one lucky giantess gets a swank, horned helmet—and turning them loose to stomp people. The print I watched was unsubtitled, but X3X does expound some fine, evil in English. Those who won’t cooperate are crushed in a spiky contraption that is both shiny, futuristic and spiky, middle ages torture device. When X3X refuses to listen, Darna frees the prisoners, battles the giants and ultimately defeats X3X by destroying X3X’s supercomputer.
Darna gets a new origin story and a groovy new brown, red and gold costume in Darna Vs. The Planet Women (1973). This time, Narda is young, disabled woman hassled by village jerks. When her boyfriend, Ramon, attempts to defend her, the jerks attack him. Meanwhile, the Planet Women of Arko Eris have landed on earth. They kidnap Ramon’s mind and question it regarding scientists and a minister for cultural affairs they could kidnap to help with their terrible plan to steal the earth and park it by their planet to relieve their burgeoning population growth. However, they have left Ramone’s body frozen in mid-flight in the woods, where Narda and Ding discover it. Narda prays for help and a mysterious voice and light reveals a rock, with the word “Darna” painted on it, and instructs Narda to swallow it and say, “Darna!” Meanwhile, despite being brightly and disparately colored, the space ladies successfully infiltrate society, kidnapping each target in turn. Ultimately, bright colors and groovy power can’t stand up to Darna’s moxie and she wins a kung fu duel with their leader, Electra. As space ladies of their word, the Planet Women leave earth presumably to find another planet to hijack.
Darna And Ding is more lighthearted, with child star Nino Muhlach getting a lot of screen time as Ding and his own chance at swallowing the stone and becoming Darna. Darna And Ding is almost an anthology film.. We follow Darna on a series of adventures. She gets her powers, battles Hawk-Woman and one of those stompy giants very quickly, before we move into a longer segment in which she investigates a recent outbreak of risen dead. The excellently suited Dr. Vontisberg raises the recently deceased to hassle those who wronged her, as is the way of mad scientists. Some of the risen dead provide comic relief and I even laughed sometimes. And I enjoyed a scene of competitive mourning between funeral processions. Narda spends much of this segment chained to a wall in Dr. Vontisberg’s laboratory, allowing Ding to swallow the stone and fly around punching zombies. But once Narda becomes Darna, she talks Dr. Vontisberg into restoring the dead to life. Then Darna confronts a truckful of escaped prisoners. Two prisoners do comic relief Defiant Ones before the meanest shoots an old woman in the stomach and Darna snaps his neck. This was surprising after Darna reasoned with Dr. Vontisberg, but shooting an old lady in the stomach does take things pretty far.
In the final segment, Darna faces an evil sorceress who’s kidnapping children, tormenting Ding with black magic and keeping creepy dolls in Malate’s amazing Taoist Temple. I was a little concerned when I realized Narda and Ding were headed to Chinatown. And it wasn’t that bad. Sure, Celia Rodriguez plays a Dragon Lady pretty close to Dragon Lady from Terry & The Pirates, but there was no yellow face or yellow peril. The sorceress was just a woman who’d gotten into black magic too deep. And, did I mention that she creates a robot using black magic? Sure, she also creates an evil Darna to fight Darna, but we’re all accustomed to that now. There is just something so great about using the mystic arts to create a clunky robot so slow moving and with such terrible peripheral vision that a small boy can hide from the robot by hiding behind the robot. It makes me feel that mad scientists and sorcerors are letting us down. Sure, mad scientists raise the dead or aliens implement Plan 9, but it’s just so rare to see science and magic work together on a robot*. Do not necromancers and Dr. Frankenstein want the same thing? And what is a robot if not some kind of metal, sparking golem, zombie or creepy doll?
Of the three films, Darna Vs. The Planet Women is my favorite. But even my least favorite, Darna and Ding has charming and enjoyable elements, such as a clunky robot. There are so many things to like about these films. Darna punches and throws malefactors into the crooks of trees, kicks them into lakes and dropped an oil drum over one and spun him around. Once she burst threw a door to the rescue, leaving a Darna-shaped hole behind her. I like the female villains with their crazy plans and excellent outfits. It doesn’t feel like so many stories in which there has to be a girl for the girl to fight. And I don’t even really think of the gender of the heroes and villains while watching, I just watch. Santos has a lot of presence. I like that she doesn’t look like what we’ve come to expect a western superhero to look like, though I had some worries about the structural integrity of her top in Darna At Ding. She’s small, tough and she has moxie, teasing the villains and once threatening to drop a space lady’s special headband of psychic-science powers. Attitude and magic stones are great equalizers. I’m not familiar enough with Filipino film to be certain that there aren’t any subversive elements in Santos’ Darna films, but sometimes a hero righting wrongs and offering hope, fun and distraction is enough in a tough world. And Darna definitely offers heroics, hope, and fun.
*not perhaps since El Robot Humano.
Taking Darna as a positive role model has made Carol Borden briefly reconsider becoming an evil space lady or sorceress.
And friend of the Gutter Todd Stadtman has written extensively about Darna movies at Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill!
Video 48 has a scans of 1950 Darna comic storylines.
This piece was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on Aug. 14, 2014.