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This Summer Brings Movies, the Rise of the Asterisk, and Steroids!

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While this spring is riddled with the resonance of winter, summer can always be looked forward to, where eventually the threats of storm warnings and advisories will die away. And summer will soon bring the perfunctory celluloid sales pitches, striving to draw each of us to the biggest “blockbuster” or “action-packed thrill ride of the year,” replete with ellipses that cut out any negative portions of reviews, only offering tidbits that suggest how “excellent [this film could be if the script weren’t pieced together from rejected fortune cookie].”

However, this summer brings life – and perhaps notoriety — to the asterisk; in fact, it’s already begun, as the perjury trial of Barry Bonds commenced last week, providing, as Ben McGrath suggests, “our great reckoning, a legal remedy for a generation’s worth of cultural complacency”1 over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

By now, it’s generally assumed that Bonds – and myriad other athletes – used steroids, given the way that he “bulked up before the 2000 season and [had] acne on [his] back, which prosecutors allege is a side effect of steroid use.”2

So, a few years after Bonds’ baseball career officially raisinated on the vine as teams chose to keep themselves – and their players – away from abject suspicion, this trial fastens a new importance to the summer of 2011 inasmuch as July brings us the trial of Roger Clemens, undoubtedly the game’s greatest and most resilient pitcher – until a few years ago. Then, suddenly people remembered why Boston originally parted ways with Clemens, who was in the “twilight of his career”3 until he made a miraculous recovery in Toronto on his way to winning four more Cy Young Awards, all of which came after he turned 35. Fairytale-esque? Clearly, and that’s why we loved to root for both Clemens and Bonds, two men descending from the presumed zenith of their careers, only to dominate the rest of the league on their way to retirement – despite the blatant physical changes in both men.

Shortly after Clemens’ trial begins, “there waits the all-time Tour de France victor Lance Armstrong, currently named as the target of a drug-related federal grand-jury investigation,”1 making us all recall how wonderful it was when Armstrong successfully defeated cancer and then went on to win four additional consecutive Tours through the mountains of France, proving once and for all that defeating cancer provides the former victim with seemingly preternatural ability.

Or, perhaps the impetus for these alleged PED users was the facing of their own mortality, the chance they would fall out of the public spotlight and become a name lumped with other footnotes of those who were almost the best, but not quite. Perhaps. But, perhaps we’ve groomed these athletes to make these choices. Perhaps the knowledge of weakness and the desire to overcome it are endemic to our cultural makeup. For further illustration of this thesis, no one needs to look much further than the release of Captain America: The First Avenger, which makes its timely debut in July.

Originally appearing in March 1941, Captain America’s battles with the Axis powers appropriately articulated America’s anger and angst during World War II. At the same time, his conception is a bit more nefarious if we take a socio-political look at the trailer, which begins with a scrawny Steve Rogers waiting in a line at an Army recruitment office with brawny and muscular men who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the greater good and the betterment of the world. Thus, Rogers is instantly the outsider, connecting with those of us who don’t fit the archetype of “defender.”

At the same time, the desire burns deeply within Rogers, who pleads, “just give me a chance,” but who is quickly dismissed by the doctor, who asserts he is “saving your life” before pounding a giant red “REJECTED” stamp on Rogers’ paper. So, not only does Rogers not fit the archetype, but he has also been rejected, another occurrence that fosters emotional appeal, and places the viewer as collective battalion behind the young lad who just wants to stand up for what’s good and right.

What goes unsaid is that Rogers – because of his exaggeratedly diminutive figure – would be virtually useless in fighting a war and relegated to the position of human shield, so our compassion – and maybe even empathy – for Rogers stems from his dreams being deferred.

However, a silver lining presents itself when Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) offers an opportunity for someone in his unit to be the “first in a new breed of super soldier,” the one man who represents indestructability and who can “escort Adolf Hitler to the gates of hell,” a noble endeavor that only Tarantino has successfully illuminated on film.

Ultimately Rogers is chosen to become this ubermensch because “the weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power,” which is interesting inasmuch as, here, Rogers’ desire to serve and protect his country – which will ultimately bring him praise, acclaim, and possible fortune – is aided by a serum that creates a total body transformation from scrawny, mediocre weakling to a muscular figure with a superb physical and mental acumen to achieve the pragmatic goal of dominating the Axis powers. In a similar scenario, the aforementioned alleged PED users – and for the sake of argument, those who have already confessed to using or have tested positive – used similar serums (what else would you call a “cream and clear” regimen?) to achieve praise, acclaim, and fortune by dominating the opposition. If needed, we could take the argument further by using the “Evil Empire” New York Yankees as stand-ins for the Axis Powers.

Sure, perhaps Captain America’s actions are justified because lives are at stake – as opposed to royalties and merchandising rights – and perhaps this entire issue is negligible because he is, admittedly, a cartoon, but as Jason Dittmer posits in “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post- 9/11 Geopolitics,” “the producers of comic books (and Captain America, specifically) view their products as more than just lowbrow entertainment; they view their works as opportunities to educate and socialize,”4 and if part of the education gleaned from such characters – along with positives – is to achieve success through unorthodox means because it’s for the greater good, who is to suggest this is a wonky perspective, particularly if – in the case of athletes – the greater good might be added philanthropy or positioning one’s family in the realm of the illusory American dream?

And, if Captain America’s “characterization as an explicitly American superhero establishes him as both a representative of the idealized American nation and as a defender of the American status quo,”4 then perhaps Bonds, who “approaches even casual conversation with the defensiveness of a hostile witness, [and] is not inclined [to give his contrition]”1 has every right to abhor his castigators who cheered him on with the ignorance of their own culpability.

1. McGrath, Ben. “King of Walks.” The New Yorker 87.6 (2011): 52-58.
2. “Ex-Giants Trainer Testifies and Bonds Trial.” Espn.com source.
3 Silverman, Michael. “No return fire from Sox brass tried to keep ace.” Boston Herald. (1995).
4 Dittmer, Jason. “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post- 9/11 Geopolitics.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95.3 (2005): 626-643.

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