Some more thoughts on American Sniper













In the flash and tumult of American Sniper doing blockbuster business in the middle of January and becoming a big fake left/right political football, nobody has mentioned anything about the movie’s protagonist and the journey he goes on. The  movie’s detractors are preoccupied with Chris Kyle’s real-life coarseness (racist, xenophobic, sociopathic, I’m told) and the movie’s supposed pro-war, pro-Bush, propagandistic agenda.

With Marvel movies being the new paradigm in Hollywood (for six years and counting), I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned the comic-book angle of the narrative.

What does Chris Kyle (the protagonist of the movie, not the real-life guy) want? The screenplay announces it right off the top. “There are three kinds of people in the world,” says his father. “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.” Most people are sheep, he says, but then there are wolves, who prey on sheep, and then there are sheepdogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves. Chris decides in that moment that he is a sheepdog, that that is his purpose in life. His decision is based on his family’s traditions, his father’s authority and his own gut instincts.

When 9/11 happens, Chris’s path is clear: he will use his God-given sniper superpowers to protect his fellow soldiers in battle. The screenplay is super clear about all of this. Chris is not a murderer or a sociopath or a joy-killer, he’s a protector, a sheepdog. (Again, I’m speaking only of the screenplay here, I have no idea whatsoever of the “true story” of Chris Kyle.)

Then, one day at the base, Chris finds a fellow soldier reading a Punisher comic book in the barracks. It’s not a tossed-off reference, there’s a whole scene about it. The soldier makes a point of saying that what he’s reading is a “graphic novel,” even though he’s reading only a single issue. Whether the soldier’s nomenclature is correct or not is beside the point; the point is that the screenplay stops for a moment to invite us to think about The Punisher.

Who is The Punisher? The Punisher is a Marvel superhero (using the most liberal terminology for “superhero”). Frank Castle, seemingly inspired by Charles Bronson’s character in the hugely-popular 1974 movie Death Wish, is an ex-military guy whose family is brutally slain. He uses his unusually acute fighting skills to hunt down and kill his family’s killers, and then goes on to kill more bad guys, as he sees fit. Frank Castle is a vigilante, an anti-hero, a man who has lost everything and who routinely places his soul in jeopardy by meting out what he considers justice outside the context of law.

The Punisher is, to say the least, a dark character indeed, one of the darkest in all of mainstream comics, and one most difficult to put into movies, because to properly serve the character, a filmmaker would have to create a story where the audience has extreme reluctance to side with the protagonist. Frank Castle is not a sheepdog, he is a mad dog, he’s the Hulk if the Hulk’s super-power was lots and lots of huge weapons and an intense desire to inflict pain and suffering.

Chris Kyle rolls his eyes at his fellow soldier’s comic book (the Thomas Jane Punisher movie had just come out when the movie is set, and the Punisher was in the middle of a successful, gritty revival at Marvel), but later on we see that his entire squad has adopted the Punisher skull for their team logo, and they start referring to each other as “Punishers.”

Why is this in the movie? It’s not accidental, and it’s not tossed off. To include these kinds of specific references to The Punisher in the movie, the filmmakers would have to clear the rights to use the logo and the comics from Marvel. Why not just leave it out? Or, if the production designer had decided, after looking at research photos, that the Punisher skull looked cool, why not just put the logo on the trucks and helmets and leave it at that? But no, the screenplay bases a whole scene around the protagonist becoming aware of The Punisher and then slowly adopting The Punisher’s name and look as his own.

This, I think, is the key to the narrative of American Sniper and an answer to those who think that the movie celebrates a murderer. It begins with a character who wants only to protect, and then places him in a situation where “to protect” means shooting down women and children. The movie doesn’t say “Yay, shooting down women and children is awesome,” it instead asks us to consider what that does to a man’s soul. Chris Kyle has made a choice that puts his morality, his code, in an extremely difficult-to-justify place, and it wears away at him. Anyone who comes out of American Sniper thinking “Man, I want to be a sniper!” is someone who’s soul was already at hazard when they went in. When Chris goes from Protector to Punisher, he loses something, he loses his way and he loses his soul, and it takes him the rest of the movie to get it back. The final scenes of the movie are about how Chris, whose talent, he thought, was only to kill, learns to protect in a different way, but then falls victim to another soldier’s soul-sickness, the very same soul-sickness he himself overcame.

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3 Responses to “Some more thoughts on American Sniper
  1. Jason-L says:

    The Punisher is more inspired by The Executioner pulp-novels that were big in the late 60’s, early 70’s where Mack Bolan returns from Viet Nam to find his family murdered by the Mafia, so uses the skills he learned over there to clean up the evil over here (before transition in the Reagen 80s into Mack Bolan vs. terrorists novels, which is also relevant to the movie).

    I just saw the film last night, and found Bradley Cooper did an amazing job of conveying the cost of what he was doing. I suspect the film character is not much like the real-life person, at least based on comparing what was on the screen with what is in the book or the interviews I’ve seen. But in the context of the movie, you’re spot on, I think. Over the course of his tours, he goes from Sheepdog to Wolf, and then slowly has to transition back to a form of Sheepdog that is socially acceptable.

    But a lot of that is conveyed through subtle touches. Body language, verbal tics, the use of the Punisher logo, and facial hair seems part of it. But there’s also the way other people act, too. The other SEAL team members who have doubts, the brother who seems to be breaking, and the wife, who seems like the typical ‘doesn’t understand’ woman but who I found to be speaking a lot of wisdom and truth. The way Bradley Cooper plays off these really seemed to be conveying an internal struggle that, from the stuff I’ve read and seen, didn’t exist in the real-life person (but one hopes did).

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for the Punisher/Executioner intel! I was reading about how the character was originally called The Assassin, but Stan Lee (or someone) thought “The Assassin” was a little over the top for a comic book.

  2. hohmeisw says:

    I think you have an interesting point. I missed the Punisher images while watching the movie, but it backs up what I saw as his slide into increasingly amoral and vicious actions, from what seemed to be well-intentioned beginnings.

    I’ll have to watch the movie again. I disliked it the first time because I think it was a typical war movie of the John Wayne style: glorifying the violence and “super” men at the expense of telling an actual story. The only part that seemed out of place was the shots of the enemy sniper and his homelife – it seemed oddly humanizing in a movie where the protagonist sees the enemy as “savages.” But if, as you say, the movie is echoing Frank Castle’s story, there’s probably a lot more story than I gave it credit for.

    Thanks for making me rethink this.