When Iron Man 3 was released [in May 2013], 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. [Les Chappell]