Debate is heating up about the recent announcement from Disney that is banning smoking from their films. Conversation has been pretty interesting, with lots of people commenting on how smoking can add to a character. Wolverine, J. Jonah Jameson, and the Punisher were examples given from comic books, but hundreds of other examples from other media exist as well. Thus one side has clamored that these characters would be inherently different without their ever-present cigars (we’ll call this Camp A), and the other side knocking it down as nonsense that a minute change in the depiction of a character means the character couldn’t fundamentally be the same (and this is Camp B). Yet it seems to me that both sides are arguing from incredulity. A lack of imagination on both sides turns the discussion into a black vs white argument with neither side being wholly correct.
Pick Your Canon
I find myself halfway in Camp B’s side of the argument. Just as “the clothes make the man” is false, so is it for a cigarette. However I’m here to provide more than idioms, so let’s look at one of the earlier examples: Wolverine. It may come as a surprise to some that Wolverine has been cigarette and cigar free since Marvel banned smoking in their comics back in 2001. Since then, Hugh Jackman has portrayed the mutant in film at least 6 times (the first X-Men movie was released in 2000). In each of Fox’s films he’s got his cigar, but not once in that time has the character smoked in the comic books. I feel this puts a huge dent in Camp A’s argument. Are they saying that the film portrayal of Wolverine is more accurate than the last 14 years of comics? I can’t agree with anybody who is making that claim. It’s astonishing that Camp A can’t imagine Wolverine being himself without a cigar when that’s exactly what he’s been since the start of the millennium.
It’s About Storytelling.
Yet Camp B’s argument suffers from a severe lack of imagination as well, specifically in that there really are some cases where having a cigarette in a character’s mouth can be important. It tells us things about them. Did they grow up in a time when smoking was common? Maybe they didn’t have a good, health-oriented upbringing? Or perhaps they’re just a bad person. Smoking is a great way to show a character has flaws, or to communicate quickly to a young audience who is a bad-guy. “But those things can be shown in other ways,” points out Camp B, which is entirely correct. The bad-guy doesn’t have to literally kick a puppy, and if smoking is the only clue that your bad-guy isn’t good, well, you might have a problem.
And yet there are characters who absolutely wouldn’t be the same if they didn’t smoke. For starters, there’s Constantine who contracted lung cancer in 1991 from smoking constantly. This lead into a major story arc that lasted 3 years and left major aftershocks for years later. It’s true that the writers could have used some random cancer instead, but then the story loses that added layer of the cancer being self-inflicted.
Now let’s consider another example, one a little less story-driven. I want to talk about X-Files’ “The Smoking Man.” Here is a character whose identity in the story was made entirely from his single nasty habit. While Constantine has a plot that necessitates smoking, The Smoking Man was more about the art of storytelling… and such beautiful art it was. Those dark, nior-esque scenes with Moulder nervously talking to a shadow with nothing to show the presence of the Smoking Man but that little, glowing orange tip. Those moments when his presence is announced by the striking of a match, or his exit made with the quiet stamping out of the cigarette. Sure the story of the X-Files could have been told even if the Smoking Man hadn’t been smoking, but it absolutely couldn’t have been told the same way.
Ultimately, Your Audience is Top Priority
So let’s get down to this. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Well, I’d have to say that both Camps A & B are definitely wrong. “But what about Disney? Is it right that they’re banning smoking from their films?” Yes, yes they are. Regardless of how smoking effects a character or story, Disney is making the right decision for their audience. When studies have shown that depictions of smoking increase the likelihood of young people trying it, Disney has no other ethical recourse than to ban smoking. If people are to be outraged, it should be over other companies that market to children who haven’t already committed to the same ban.
“But smoking is part of reality, it’s part of life,” somebody shouts from the back.
Yes, it is, and I think I’ve adequately shown that I feel passionate about its uses in storytelling. So when an audience is old enough to deal with seeing smoking on screen, bring it on. Meanwhile I’ll continue to applaud those companies that behave ethically towards their customers and audience.