Captain America: Juiced-Up Hero?

Q:  In the recent “Captain America” movie, a puny kid becomes a muscled-up superhero through injections of a special “serum.”  Doesn’t that sound like a two-hour commercial for gear?

A:  The film was based on the Marvel Comics character, who was conceived by writer Joe Simon in 1940 as a consciously political creation. World War II had begun, and the Third Reich was terrorizing Europe under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. The comic book’s very first issue showed Captain America, in his patriotic red, white and blue costume, punching Hitler himself in the jaw.

In both the movie and the comic book, Captain America is the alter ego of Steve Rogers, a kid from Brooklyn who’s so scrawny and sickly that he is rejected from enlisting to fight the Nazi threat.  But he gets a chance to volunteer as a test subject for a top-secret defense project seeking to create physically superior soldiers. Rogers gets injections of a muscle-building, performance-enhancing “serum” that make him bigger, faster and stronger than other men. The injections transform him from a weakling into a super-soldier, and he kicks a whole lot of Nazi butt because of his artificially created abilities. The first issue of the Captain America comic book sold a million copies and launched a character that remains the most patriotic superhero of all, filling movie theater seats (and soon selling DVD’s)  more than 70 years later!

As to the idea for Simon’s fictional serum, the only real-life muscle-building, performance-enhancing serum being actively researched and developed at the time was – you guessed it, the anabolic steroid testosterone. Pharmaceutical researchers in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands had only discovered how to isolate and synthesize the compound in 1935. It’s rumored that the German athletes, under extreme pressure to win in order to prove Hitler’s theory that the Germans were the master race, were juiced on testosterone at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It’s also believed that testosterone was administered to the Nazi troops during World War II in order to increase their strength and aggressiveness. As far as I know, the U.S. military didn’t experiment with steroids on our troops during the Second World War. But in the comics and film, Steve Rogers certainly got a massive dose of the serum, as did his Nazi nemesis. The serum was such a potent performance enhancer that unlike real steroid users, Rogers didn’t even need to lift any weights to be juiced!

In 1940 America, it was simple: The U.S. was good and the Nazis were bad. Utilizing chemicals, rather than the hard work of intense training, to create a physically superior person to fight the Third Reich wasn’t looked at as bad. But today, when gifted athletes like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Lance Armstrong are being publicly ridiculed as “cheaters” for their suspected use of secret serums, it’s puzzling that American audiences are cheering the strength and stamina of Captain America’s fake, serum-created muscles with a deep sense of national pride. Why?  Can a chemically enhanced powerhouse still be a beloved hero and a role model for America’s impressionable youth? The story of Steve Rogers says, “Yes!”  Simply being a fictional character isn’t an exemption from ethical rules, otherwise you couldn’t tell the heroes from the villains in films or novels. Does Rogers get a pass on juicing because he fights Nazis in a war? Maybe, except that it’s not like Rogers’ pharmaceutical enhancement is portrayed as an ethical failure justified only for the purposes of a greater good. The pharmacological wizardry itself is glorified and celebrated!

When is a chemically-induced performance advantage “fair” and when is it not? Aren’t artificially-created muscles either a fraud under any circumstances or not a fraud at all? Why is the exact same conduct heroic for a soldier but despicable for an athlete? Isn’t the threat of an escalating arms race of chemical enhancement in a World War even worse than in sports? After all, the stakes are far higher so there’s even more of an incentive to push the envelope into the danger zone.

The subtitle of the 2008 steroid documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” was “*The Side Effects of Being American.”  In the film’s footage, then-senator Joe Biden piously asserts that performance-enhancing drugs are “un-American.” But Captain America – arguably our nation’s original “juicehead” – serves as a reminder to say, “Not always.”

© Rick Collins, 2011.  All rights reserved.  For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice.  Reprinted with permission from Muscular Development magazine.