This past weekend, I stepped into American Sniper prepared to enter a battleground of political ideologies. Here is a film that has been depicted as both pro- and anti-war, that has rallied conservatives and liberals to its cause and also attracted shots from each side. As a result, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was going to like American Sniper; any film that could polarize the two sides of an argument must be more politically ambiguous than its opponents ‐ and supporters ‐ would have you believe.
So imagine my surprise when the film not only made part of its perspective on Chris Kyle explicitly clear but also tagged the majority of its scenes with a helpful visual reference.
The Punisher, a vigilante from the Marvel universe who assassinates criminals, is everywhere in American Sniper.
Beginning with an initial scene where Kyle is introduced to the comic book series by one of the members of his squad, every action sequence shows the group rolling into battle adorned with assault rifles and the familiar white skull. To my knowledge, the only other piece written explicitly linking the Punisher to Chris Kyle was written by Abraham Riesman at Vulture; while Riesman breaks down the ideas of spectatorship linking the two characters ‐ in particular as it relates to the blockbuster movie ‐ the links go deeper, providing a framework for understanding Kyle’s place as America’s deadliest sniper.
If we look back at the Punisher’s origins, we see an immediate connection to American Sniper director Clint Eastwood. Writer Gerry Conway ‐ who introduced the character in a 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man ‐ had originally conceived of the Punisher as a way to capitalize on public interest in vigilantism. In a 2013 interview, Conway specifically mentions Eastwood’s Dirty Harry as one of his original inspirations for the character. This first appearance introduces the Punisher as a hired gun who had been brought in to kill Spider-Man under the false impression that the webslinger was a murderer. When the Punisher realizes that he has been lied to, he ends the fight and walks away.
The Punisher was an immediate hit with readers ‐ owing to his gratuitous violence and signature white skull ‐ and over the years, the character would appear regularly alongside Marvel heroes such as Spider- Man and Daredevil. Like most second-tier Marvel characters, the Punisher would also take on new attributes, ranging from psychopathic gun nut to tragic antihero. Throughout his various incarnations, two points would remain static, though: he is a highly trained ex-military operative, and he is a man who lost his family during a mob gunfight. As a result, the Punisher vowed to kill every last criminal on the planet.
While interest in the Punisher would wane in the 1990s, the most definitive portrayal of the character would emerge under writer Garth Ennis in the decade to come. Ennis, who had previously created the Preacher series, rebooted the Punisher as a one-man war on organized crime, the Anton Chigurh for mobster families. Gangsters fear him; police drag their heels when asked to bring him in.
Many of Ennis’s characters try hard to understand his motivation, but Ennis himself has no interest in exploring the character’s internal space. The only thing that matters to Frank Castle is the mission; from his perspective, you are either a combatant or a noncombatant and require his action accordingly. Greg Rucka, who would later write Punisher for Marvel, sums up Ennis’s approach perfectly when explaining his own perspective on the character:
Maybe this is one of the other things I find really compelling about the character: He knows he’s broken. He’s carrying that burden willingly. He knows exactly who he is and exactly what he’s doing at every step of the way. And the moral man that was Frank Castle knows the seat in Hell that’s waiting for him, and still he continues.
In one of the most pivotal scenes in Ennis’s initial run, the Punisher is confronted on a rooftop by Daredevil, the blind vigilante who spends his days as high-profile defense attorney Matt Murdock. To Murdock, the system needs to work in order for his actions to make sense; he attempts to stop the Punisher from killing a member of the mob family so he can be legally convicted in a court of law. In response, the Punisher captures Daredevil and gives him a choice, the same choice that the Punisher makes time and time again. If Daredevil pulls the trigger, he is a killer; if he doesn’t, a life is lost.
This scene resonates deeply with the way Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall choose to portray Chris Kyle on the screen in American Sniper. The cinematic Kyle is certainly more nuanced than the fictional mass-murdering revenge-seeker ‐ he has a family, friends, and responsibilities ‐ but both characters are depicted as making a conscious choice each time they fire their gun. Kyle even has his own version of a superhero origin story; the speech his father delivers about the wolves and the sheepdogs may not be as memorable as the power and responsibility dynamic of Uncle Ben, but it is a speech that Frank Castle would have no problem understanding.
Like Rucka suggests in his description of Frank Castle, both the Punisher and Chris Kyle are men who have chosen the path that they feel is right and will not deviate from it. We see Kyle carrying his Bible without reading it, a reminder of the moral consequences of his actions but one that does not deter Kyle from his mission. When he dies, he says, he will meet his maker ready to answer for every shot he took.
Kyle does not suggest that he will be rewarded for his actions, nor does he use the language of someone who thinks himself heaven-bound. Steven Grant, who wrote the Punisher in the 1980s, may as well have been describing Chris Kyle when he described his character in Heideggerian terms: “[A] man who knows he’s going to die and who knows in the big picture his actions will count for nothing, but who pursues his course because this is what he has chosen to do.”
We never see Chris Kyle explicitly kill a civilian in American Sniper. We never see him choose not to fire at someone with a rifle, regardless of age. Even when Kyle hesitates in a humanizing moment toward the end of the film, the audience has no question as to whether he would have pulled the trigger if the threat had materialized. The film sidesteps the issue of moral judgment entirely, choosing instead to present Kyle as a highly-functioning weapon. And like all weapons, there is no real point in getting angry at the gun itself, but rather the people responsible for pulling the trigger.
This is the last connection between Kyle and the Punisher, but one worth remembering. Many of the people who write the Punisher as a comic book character have remarked upon the challenge in using him as a central character; he will never change, is not subject to traditional character arcs, and therefore works best as a counterpart to other superheroes with a more troubled moral code.
The cinematic version of Chris Kyle also remains relatively static throughout, locking away any internal growth and choosing instead to tell the story through the scope of a rifle. If the Punisher rejects easy psychoanalysis and turns the perspective on his allies and enemies, then American Sniper uses Chris Kyle as a means to define the audience and their own ideologies and perspectives on war. Put this way, it makes complete sense that many of the articles and reviews have spent so much time discussing our own beliefs about the character.