For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays.
When Iron Man 3 was released last May, it heralded the start of the 2013 summer blockbuster season in the way you’d expect: big-name stars, lots of high-definition explosions, climactic battles, and one-liners in equal measure. Yet there were plenty of details throughout the film that made it feel like it should have been released at the end of December. Every single action scene seemed to have a Christmas tree or a string of multicolored lights somewhere in frame. “Jingle Bells,” not AC/DC or Black Sabbath, was the music Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark played as he tried out his new automated suit of armor. And when deprived of that armor later in the film, he purchased a package of Christmas ornaments and repurposed them into flashbangs. It raised a question: Why did Marvel’s latest big-budget film seem to have a secret ambition to be the studio’s first holiday classic?
The answer to that question is evident in the film’s writer and director, Shane Black. While Black’s scripts are famous for their price tags, commanding up to $4 million in his early ’90s heyday, they’re also distinctive for containing as much holiday cheer as they do banter. Beginning with 1987’s Lethal Weapon and continuing throughout his career—1991’s The Last Boy Scout, 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—Black has a penchant for setting his films during the latter half of December. In his world, “Jingle Bell Rock” is the prelude to a drug-induced suicide, gunfights take place in Christmas tree lots, villains turn the benediction of “Merry Christmas” into a veiled threat, and Santa Claus watches someone threaten to jump off the roof.
While his tendency to reuse tropes could be seen as hokey, Black surpasses that impression because of the smart way he deploys them. He views the holiday not as a blueprint but as “a touch of magic… a backdrop against which different things can play out, but with one unifying, global heading.” In a 30-year career, Black has captured that magic and mastered the genre of the Christmas action film, able to couple them for a distinctive viewing experience. On the surface, all of his films seem to be in the comfortable Die Hard mold, adjacent to the holiday rather than central to it. Yet, when you consider removing those elements, the film starts to feel as empty as if you’d stripped out the explosions or buddy-movie rapport.
A large part of that connection stems from Black’s keen awareness of the emotions associated with the holiday. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) tries to talk a jumper down by empathizing that “a lot of people have got problems, especially during the silly season”—and he would know, given that only a few scenes ago he was watching Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol with a gun in his mouth. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s Harry Lockhart (Downey) is even more depressing, because he’s utterly devoid of connection in the holiday season: We’re introduced to him robbing a toy store, trying to get the identity of the season’s hot toy from his niece. And in Iron Man 3, Stark is forced to flee to a remote Tennessee town after an attack on his life, his only company in the holiday season a similarly alone young boy. Black’s heroes are frequently lost souls, and the sense of melancholy those sort of people feel at this time of year makes them vastly more sympathetic.
Black is also smart enough to work in the opposite direction, pushing characters into darkness that’s a long way from the holiday ideal. The Long Kiss Goodnight opens with Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) living the perfect family Christmas: hosting the party of the year, serving cookies, kissing her fiancé under the mistletoe. When she recovers from amnesia and realizes she’s government assassin Charley Baltimore, she discards her affection for small-town Pennsylvania’s winter wonderland and tries to return to her old career. The ruthless efficiency of this life stands in stark contrast to the film’s first act, and when the two are pushed together the facade starts cracking. Similarly, while The Last Boy Scout has the most threadbare ties to Christmas of any of Black’s scripts, an early scene where Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) sees his daughter’s drawing of “Satan Claus” is a stark illustration of how his burned-out attitude has rippled throughout his family life.
That level of character development applies in equal measure to the bad guys. While any action film can have a mercenary or hired killer cause audiences to hiss when they appear, the villains of Black’s movies are made far worse by tarnishing the holiday with their actions. One-Eyed Jack (Joseph McKenna) would be a terrifying killer in his own right trying to kill Samantha, but the fact that he’s willing to hold carolers at gunpoint to create a distraction proves a new level of callousness. And Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), already the nastiest part of Lethal Weapon, becomes truly irredeemable by shooting up the Murtaugh home and its Christmas Carol-playing TV set, threatening to give the family a real Christmas welcome. Black’s baddies aren’t just psychos, they’re Grinches, prepared to ruin the holiday to get what they want.
But the villains are never allowed to win in these circumstances, which gets to the core reason of why Black can get away with this much Christmas: He knows how to have fun with it. His films never go to the level of campy excess they could—no terrorists get impaled on reindeer horns or strangled with tinsel—and instead use the trimmings of the holiday to make stock action scenes distinctive. Besides the aforementioned ornament flashbangs, there’s Lethal Weapon deploying a police car to ram through a Christmas tree, the glorious climax of The Long Kiss Goodnight where Charley uses a string of Christmas lights to rappel up and gun down the main villain in his helicopter, and the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang scene where Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) dodges and punches hired goons wearing a skimpy “Santa Baby” getup. Pairing seasonal colors and carols alongside brutal violence creates a marvelous incongruity, one that adds distinctive vitality to scenes that would be by-the-numbers otherwise.
Most importantly, all of these films know how to end in moments of Yuletide harmony—even if Lethal Weapon is the only one to directly tie it to the holiday by inviting Riggs to join the Murtaugh Christmas dinner. Black’s films don’t end on particularly dark notes but on moments of togetherness, new partnerships forged, and old partnerships reinforced by the crucible of the experience. It’s as if he can’t bring himself to deny his characters—those people who have been good enough to wait until the metaphorical morning and who racked up bullet wounds and wrecked cars and electric shocks for their trouble—the joy of unwrapping their presents. That’s what keeps all his films watchable around the holiday despite their violence, the open fires created by exploding cars and buildings almost inviting audiences to step in and roast some chestnuts.
While the Christmas elements of his films may not be the reason they’re a success, they certainly don’t create any problems: Iron Man 3 made over $1 billion internationally, just the gift needed to reinvigorate Black’s career. In the last year alone his name has been attached to a Doc Savage adaptation, a Predator reboot, a revival of Remo Williams, and a Russell Crowe/Ryan Gosling noir film. It’s a safe bet that as these new projects make their way toward theaters, at least one of them will feature stockings and mistletoe alongside the gritty and explosive elements. And if Black deploys them with the same care he’s done in the past, regardless of when the films come out, he’ll be giving audiences a Christmas present that will last for years to come.