Chris Kyle Loves the Punisher: Why American Sniper Is a Terrifying Superhero Movie


A lot has been written about American Sniper, and it seems to have become a kind of proxy for arguing about patriotism and the conflict in Iraq. People criticized it, Sarah Palin criticized the critics, and so on.

I just saw the movie. It’s a masterful production, and it was scary. It’s basically a superhero movie, and I love superhero movies.

I don’t write film reviews, and I don’t know anything about war, but I do know a thing or two about comic books, so if you permit, let me talk to you about all the Punisher logos in the movie.

All you need to know: The Punisher is a Marvel character. His logo is a white skull on a black background. His real name is Frank Castle, a Vietman veteran whose wife and children were gunned down by the mafia. And now he kills criminals. Unlike Daredevil or Batman, he doesn’t have a lot of recurring enemies.

American Sniper, and Chris Kyle, loved the Punisher. In the movie, there are a lot of logos to prove it: on Kyle’s body armor; on the machine gun nest on top of his company’s Humvee; on a cap; in one scene, one of his fellow soldiers is reading an issue of the Punisher.

I wonder what Marvel thinks about this product placement. Still image from story on Vulture

All this is quite accurate.

From the New Yorker story:

Kyle seemed to consider himself a cross between a lawman and an executioner. His platoon had spray-painted the image of the Punisher — a Marvel Comics character who wages “a one-man war upon crime” — on their flak jackets and helmets.

An excellent post on Vulture quotes this passage from Kyle’s autobiography:

We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him.
That’s what we were all about. So we adapted his symbol — a skull — and made it our own, with some modifications. We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to fuck with you.

American Sniper starts with Chris Kyle’s origin story: we see him as a child hunting with his father, defending his younger brother by beating up a bully and his father basically telling Kyle that he was right to “take out” said bully.

It even comes with a super villain in the form of an Al-Qaida sniper, a Syrian who won gold at the Olympics.

Because every superhero needs a great super villain. Image from here.

Of course Chris Kyle isn’t just a mindless killing machine. One great scene shows him hesitating when he sees a young boy with a grenade. The crosshairs hover over the boy, and Kyle obviously doesn’t want to shoot.

He is clearly a war hero, even though it’s not clear just how many people he killed. As far as the film is concerned, Kyle is more than that — he’s a superhero, an avenging angel who kills terrorists and protects his fellow soldiers.

Did I tell you this guy loves the Punisher? Image from here.

Superhero stories are modern-day myths; fantasies where good and evil are distinct. All those Punisher logos on Chris Kyle’s gear ? That’s war paint, or a coat-of-arms — the logo was something for American troops to rally behind, a signal to their enemies that Kyle and other soldiers are coming for them. It’s a powerful logo, and a disturbing one for this comic book fan. It’s where fantasy meets reality.

I never even imagined what it would be like to meet the Punisher in real life, and now I’m not sure I like it. I routinely watch The Flash fight villains who can control the weather, sound waves and turn themselves into metal. I love seeing Batman take down a murderous clown, a serial killer who carves notches on his skin, and a man-crocodile hybrid. I’ll gladly watch the Punisher shoot drug dealers and mob enforcers.

But that’s fantasy, and American Sniper is not.

The movie shows you what it’s like to actually kill your enemies. As someone who grew up reading comic books and watching cartoons about superheroes, I never thought I would be so disturbed.