While our beloved Darna is the most popular of Mars Ravelo’s creations, she is only one out of a whole roster of superheroes created by the celebrated Pinoy comics author over the course of his career. These heroes range from the derivative -- such as the rubber limbed Lastikman -- to the deservedly singular -- like Flash Bomba, whose super power is having really enormous hands and feet. Falling somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is Captain Barbell, who, like Darna, is a transformational hero in the mold of Captain Marvel. Like many of Ravelo’s characters, Captain Barbell has been immortalized on film on numerous occasions, being the subject of two television series in the last decade alone, and, since his introduction in 1963, the subject of five feature films. The fact that two of these films starred Dolphy gives you some idea of the level of seriousness with which the character is typically treated.
1986’s Captain Barbell, however, does not star Dolphy, but instead casts California born actor Edu Manzano as the muscular Captain and Herbert Bautista as his spindly alter ego. Indicating that the film was something of a prestige production is the presence of Filipino “Megastar” Sharon Cuneta, who makes an eleventh hour cameo as Darna. Cuneta would have been at the peak of her fame at this time, thanks not only to her success on screen, but also to a string of hit records and a popular weekly variety series. Likely her appearance is a reflection of the mutually beneficial relationship between her and Captain Barbell’s production company, Viva Films, for whom she worked almost exclusively throughout her career. Still, non Filipino audiences are more likely to be dazzled by the appearance within Captain Barbell of a very young, pre-Miss Saigon Lea Salonga, who plays the wholesome love interest of the Captain’s alter ego.
Judging from his film incarnations, the rules of Captain Barbell’s fictional universe don’t appear to be all that rigidly set. In some of the films, his mortal alias is referred to as “Enteng”, and in others “Tenteng”, while at least one movie gives him the name “Dario”. In any case, he is here Tenteng (Bautista), a slight statured orphan doing his best to scrape by on the mean streets. In typical Pinoy film fashion, Captain Barbell offers a bluntly matter of fact depiction of hardscrabble urban life as we follow Tenteng through his daily routine of sifting through garbage heaps for items that he can resell in his business as an itinerant junk dealer. Unfortunately, thanks to his small size and timid nature, Tenteng’s daily routine also involves being shaken down and intimidated by the local toughs. All of this starts to change when a mysterious old man pawns off a rusty old barbell upon him.
Upon dragging the barbell home and cleaning it up, Tenteng finds that it is in fact made of solid gold. Furthermore, touching it magically summons the old man, who tells him that, by holding the barbell over his head and shouting the name “Captain Barbell”, he can transform himself into (duh) Captain Barbell. The film didn’t have English subtitles, but I imagine that, upon being asked what Captain Barbell’s powers were, the old man replied with something along the lines of, “Like Superman, but with a barbell”. Tenteng then goes into all of the requisite reluctant hero business, but soon finds his hand forced by fate: There’s a werewolf on the loose!
Better yet, once Tenteng has sucked it up and finally transformed himself into Captain Barbell (Manzano), we find that the werewolf is not just a werewolf, but a flying werewolf (and, mysteriously, one whose werewolf makeup looks a hundred times crappier when he’s in flying mode). This leads to an aerial chase, which includes an only-in-the-Philippines moment in which Captain Barbell, seeing that the werewolf is vulnerable to things Christ-y, plucks up a big old cross and flies after him with it. Finally, things come to an ignominious end when Captain Barbell catches up to the werewolf and impales him, using the cross to pin him to the ground like a God-punched butterfly.
Of course, this whole werewolf episode was only a first test, as soon Captain Barbell’s real Big Bad is revealed. She’s Gagamba (Beth Bautista), a slinky human-spider hybrid who comes complete with a crew of fright masked minions who look like they raided the Halloween section at Walgreen’s. Chief among these is a midget in a Tor Johnson mask, which is a real “game over” moment as far as making Captain Barbell just about the best movie ever. Gagamba’s scheme, whatever it is, involves kidnapping lots of school kids and throwing them in a big cage, which pretty much signals Captain Barbell’s complete disinterest in exploring any kind of moral gray areas. This isn’t The Wire, after all, and if it were, you wouldn’t be seeing Darna show up at the last minute to help the hero save the day.
Captain Barbell was reportedly a pretty big hit during its day, and it’s easy to see why. As potentially alienating as I found its instances of goofiness and slapstick, there was always something harder edged waiting around the corner to balance them out. Its horror elements are played for maximum scares, and, in classic Pinoy fashion, the fact that it’s essentially a kids film gives the filmmakers no pause in showing screaming, terrified children being graphically reduced to ash by Gagamba’s forehead projected laser beam. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable mash-up of lighthearted comic book fantasy and taboo limning exploitation weirdness. After all, the most dispiriting aspect of Western children’s films is the implicit certainty that they’re going to be bound to some constrictingly rigid notion of appropriateness. The Filipinos, on the other hand, may excel above all others at being inappropriate, which is a quality that is much to the benefit of Captain Barbell.