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Stray Thoughts: An Ironic Die Hard Christmas

🎄And I'll Walk as Damn Hard as I Please...

It's time once again for the annual debate about whether or not Die Hard constitutes a Christmas movie, and since y'all know how these things works I'm just going to skip to the part where I say: It is for some people and that's fine; it's not for me, but I don't care very strongly about it. I'm just not compelled by the arguments for it.

Does it take place at Christmas? Yes. Is Christmas integral to the plot? Absolutely. Is it thematically about Christmas-y things? No. No, it's not. And before you bring up "it's about bringing family together," that is a stretch and you know it. Reconciling with your ex is not "bringing family together," not in the holiday sense, and oh yeah, bringing family together isn't even a Christmas movie theme. Christmas movies are about discovering or re-discovering the true meaning of Christmas, full-stop. Now, this can take a number of forms, and bringing family together can be one of them, but it can be a lot of other things as well. It can be setting aside commercialism and embracing the religious tradition. Or it can be deciding that Santa Claus is real. You know what it hardly ever is? An everyman rising to the occasion of heroism because there's no one else to do it--which is what Die Hard is actually about. Now, that's not a dealbreaker. Ernest Saves Christmas was a thing, after all. But at no point in Die Hard does John McClane ever change his mind about anything remotely related to the holiday, and that is a deal-breaker, at least for me.

Not that it matters at all. Because the one over-arching rule is that there is no textbook definition. If it's a Christmas movie to you, then for you, it's a Christmas movie. That is a personal choice between you and your god, John McTiernon be thy name. As a point of comparison, Tim Burton's 1989 Batman is a Thanksgiving movie for me, because for several consecutive formative years we watched it on Thanksgiving after getting bored of the parade. I associate it with that holiday indelibly. But I don't pretend that it is, at its core, a literal Thanksgiving movie because thematically it's about Bruce Wayne learning the importance of giving back to his community. Because that would be silly. And I would invite those in the Die-Hard-is-a-Christmas-movie camp to interrogate their reasoning a little, and at least admit that a big part of the appeal of that answer is that it is one motherf**ker of a troll.

Because while I think it's disingenuous to say that Die Hard is an according-to-Hoyle holiday film, as an ironic Christmas movie... I mean, it's basically perfect, right?

For one, it's just a great movie. Very watchable. And while it has Christmas baked into its setting, it's also viscerally the opposite of what you expect when you hear the phrase "Christmas movie." But it's also not so on-the-nose that you can dismiss it out of hand. It's not like Violent Night or anything. It's just plausible enough that it triggers people's recoil reaction, but then they actually have to engage with the topic in order to talk themselves out of it. That is the perfect troll right there. And this is why it's so upsetting to some people--or at least it was before it started to feel like a cliché.

And the movie, for what it's worth, fully embraces the irony, although it does it for comedy more than trolling. Every depiction of Christmas in the movie is just dense with the stuff. John McClane, a New Yorker, is visiting Los Angeles for the holiday, where it never snows. There's the comically oversized stuffed bear he brings as a present. There's the whole bit in the limo where the driver is listening to Run-D.M.C.'s Christmas in Hollis. When John arrives at the holiday party, he is a complete fish out of water, unable to get comfortable. During the climax, the giant Christmas tree from the party comes crashing down. There's the surprise during his showdown with Hans that he has a gun attached to his back with wrapping paper. Merry Christmas, I got you death! And then at very end, where it starts to feel like it might be a little heart-felt, we get the fake snow of paper falling from the destroyed tower. Which was played for comedy in 1988, even if it feels very different in a post-9/11 world.

Here's the thing, though. It's not ironic anymore. It sure used to be, but by now we just expect it to come up every year. And as a lover of irony, I think we owe it to ourselves to find some better answers. So here's a brief list of alternatives to Die Hard when the topic of Christmas movies comes up.

Gremlins - takes place at Christmas, is more family friendly despite being really, really gross.

Eyes Wide Shut - takes place a Christmas, is actually about bringing family together... sort of... but can you imagine a more uncomfortable thing to watch with your parents?

Go - also in L.A., and very much about the excesses of youth culture, but you kind of forget that it takes place at Christmas until the final line: "So, what are we doing for New Years?"

But I think the one I'm going to have to go with is one that is ironic at multiple levels. It takes place at Christmas, it involves family, but it also invites such comparison to Die Hard that this, itself, becomes a part of the troll. So for this year, my favorite Christmas movie is...

Die Hard 2

Happy Holidays,