This is something/someone I find really interesting to think about this time of year and I wanted to share him with you in case you weren’t aware of how much this one person has affected the way we see Christmas. I wasn’t myself until I read an article about Iron Man 3 in context of Shane Black’s history of Christmas films. Identifying Shane Black as a Christmas author is NOT my original idea at all, don’t give me credit for it!!!! But my interpretation of why he writes Christmas movies is my own.
Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and other films. These aren’t movies where you think “wow! The script was so good!”, but that is why the script is good. He makes it look easy, he makes it feel like the actors are just out there having fun with their characters. But when you put all his movies together you realize he had more of an affect on their overall feel than anyone else involved, director or actor or anyone. And a big part of that is how he handles Christmas.
Let’s look at his first big hit first, Lethal Weapon. People think of Die Hard as the ultimate Christmas action movie, but Lethal Weapon was first. In fact, Lethal Weapon was the movie that created this perfect exact formula which all other Christmas action movies have imitated since then.
When you think “Christmas Action Movie”, you think it is black humor. That it is going to be about the contrast between the holiday and the raw action, that it will be giggle-inducing. But that’s not what it is, at least not in the really good ones. Christmas is innately tied to peace and love, which means contrasting that with violence and hate brings the message out to the full. That’s what Lethal Weapon is about. We have this happy family man with a big loving family and everything that is bright and good and Christmas in the world. And in contrast we have his new partner who is tormented with visions of violence and misery and loneliness. The film is a push-pull between those two world views. In the finale, it looks like violence has won, the happy family world has been invaded and literally destroyed (a car driven through the living room). The only response is violence from the heroes. But no. The reason this film became a hit, the reason it still feels special, is that the ending is our violent tormented hero being brought into the family home, the family home that is still damaged and patched together but just as happy as before.
It’s the ending of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, only in an action film. The Bad Guys, and our traumatized violence ridden hero, think that Christmas is about safety and peace and happiness. It’s not that. The essential heart of Christmas, the love of this family for each other, the caring for each other, that can’t be touched by anything outside. Their home may have been invaded, they may have experienced violence, but they can still hold on to what they have. Christmas isn’t about things, it is about people together.
None of Shane Black’s Christmas movies really “need” to be set at Christmas. Iron Man 3 didn’t even release at Christmas! It was a spring/summer film. But what he wanted was the tension between family peace and happiness, and the over the top nihilistic world of most action movies. Not for humor, but for depth. The nihilistic violence feels safer, happier, when we know it is balanced by the true love and connections people feel for each other. And Christmas is that much more valuable for being earned by violence.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is one of the best for this message. Our heroine, Geena Davis, is a happy suburban wife and mother who years ago suffered a traumatic brain injury that erased her memory. And then a mysterious stranger shows up and suddenly she is on the run and her life is crazy, and she learns that she was a Super Spy Assassin in her past life. The more traditional structure for this film would be to start with her as a Super Spy, then go through amnesia, then back to Spy. But the point of the movie isn’t the Spy world, that’s the “Fake” world. Her real life is her life with her family. This is just a little break from that. It’s Christmas and home and love that is real, and that is where we start and end.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a fascinating film, for how it handles the idea of a make-shift family. All three of our leads start out seemingly like deeply unpleasant people with no connections to anyone. They meet at a glitzy soulless holiday party, an empty copy of true holiday feeling. But then they discover connections with each other, they learn to care for each other, and by the end this very odd combination of people have formed a loving faithful family just like you could wish for a Real Christmas. That background noise of the holiday season through out the film is a kind of foreshadowing of the family they will become.
Iron Man 3 is the most interesting one to me and, as I said, it was a review of that film that first informed be of Shane Black’s Christmas theme. It’s the first Iron Man film that Black wrote, and he directed it too. But he had worked with Robert Downey Jr. before in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the movie version of Iron Man is so tied to Downey Jr. himself that it feels like working with Downey Jr. before is just as good as having worked with Iron Man before. Robert Downey Jr. is an amazing survival story. He is a genius actor, if you watch his early early roles in the 90s he leaps off the screen. But then his drug addiction got so bad he wasn’t insurable, it just wasn’t viable to hire him for anything. His career went down and down, it looked like he would be a lost person. Until, miraculously, he actually managed to kick his addiction. And restarted his life and career, from a bad boy partier he became a deeply private man married a smart creative partner, and known for bringing his all and working hard on any part he is given. That’s what Iron Man 3 is about. The Iron Man character is struggling to figure out the next steps of his life, with Christmas as a background. The happy ending is choosing love and family over his public life. That’s not the main thrust of the film, that’s not where you think it is going to end up, but having Christmas as a running theme in the background brings you there without realizing. If we are seeing families, happiness, peace, behind all the explosions and craziness, then the choice at the end to be with the woman he loves and trust her and build a family makes sense. Who cares that the movie was released in April, it HAS to have a Christmas theme or else it just doesn’t work.
As I said, Shane Black isn’t the only action author to do this. Die Hard of course took his ideas and brought them to a peak. It doesn’t always work though. I think you have to be sincere. You can’t say “I will make it set at Christmas time for laughs, or for money because it will become a Christmas classic, or because everyone else does it.” You have to grasp that push-pull of love and peace in the midst of violence, and then it works.
Okay, that’s it! Now, if you are like me, you are DESPERATE to watch a Christmas action movie! I’m gonna see if I can find Lethal Weapon somewhere.