Ask Chris #133: The Best Christmas Movie Ever
Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why, each and every week, we turn to you to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: What’s your favorite Christmas movie, and why? — @adampknave
A: You know, after last week’s column, I just haven’t been feeling very Christmasy. Having to detail exactly why a Batman Christmas episode was disappointing got me all in a foul mood, and for a while there, it didn’t seem like anything was going to fix my Yuletide season. I mean, even Brave and the Bold‘s Christmas epsiode is so awful that it actually features Red Tornado, so there wasn’t really anything to watch to get my spirit back. And then this question arrived, and reminded me of something I’d forgotten. You might even call it… the True Meaning of Christmas.
And that is the Christmas season… is the time for Die Hard.Like a lot of people, I have a Christmas tradition built around watching Die Hard, but it’s also the culmination of a cycle of action movies I watch on three major holidays: RoboCop on Easter, Road House on Thanksgiving, and Die Hard on Christmas. And it’s a tradition that I started not just because I like those movies a lot — although believe me, I definitely do — but because those films capture what those holidays mean to me in the secular, violent ’80s action movie way that I prefer experiencing.
RoboCop is, after all, a movie about death and resurrection. It’s about a world that’s fallen into wickedness and can only be redeemed when a man of unimpeachable morality is destroyed by a corrupt government, and returns to take the burden of defeating that corruption onto himself. And despite the legions of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans who keep on telling me that Road House is for Christmas, it fits better with the mythology of Thanksgiving. When Dalton comes to Jasper, it’s a new, untamed land that exists outside of his ivory tower world of neon nightclubs and NYU philosophy degrees, and it’s only through unity and understanding with the people who already live there that he’s ultimately able to triumph.
Also, there are a lot of explosions. A lot of explosions.
And along those same lines, Die Hard is very much a Christmas story. Not THE capital-S Christmas Story with the manger and the star and everything — although if you really wanted to stretch things, you could make a case that John McClane travels to the West in the company of the guy who gives him that advice about making fists with your toes and Argyle, who certainly count as wise men — but a Christmas story nonetheless. The character motivations at the start of that story are as Christmasy as you’re going to find.
You’ve got John McClane, a tough New York Cop who’s come to California to have a few laughs be reunited with his wife and kids, who moved out so that she could pursue her lucrative career in… whatever it is that the Nakatomi Corporation actually does (finance? Let’s go with finance). Their relationship is under considerable strain and John’s certainly uncomfortable out in Los Angeles — in the words of Joey Ramone, it just ain’t Christmas if there ain’t no snow — but gosh darn it, he’s going to make it work and be together with his family on Christmas, and he’s going to do it with this gigantic teddy bear!
That is basically the opening to any Hallmark Original, folks. Real talk.
Of course, it doesn’t really stay on that track long, what with the fact that he wanders into a crazy terrorist attack that’s actually a complicated heist involving the sidekick from Walker: Texas Ranger, but those themes of wanting to spend the holidays with your family are pretty crucial to what makes Die Hard so great. It’s not just that it’s a beautifully executed depiction of a common man trapped in a small place against overwhelming odds, it’s that there’s a very simple, very human motivation at the heart of it. He’s not the revenge-crazed killing machine that you have in John Matrix from Commando (a movie I have yet to find an appropriate holiday for, which is why I just watch it all the time), to the point where the very first thing he does after things go sour is to try to call for help. At the end of the day, he’s just a guy who wants to go home to his wife and kids and give them that big goofy teddy bear.
Hans Gruber is even a very Christmasy sort of villain.
For all his talk of exceptional thievery and reading Time Magazine, Hans is just committing the very Grinchly act of stealing as much as he possibly can on Christmas. He’s even got his ersatz reindeer in the form of his eleven henchmen, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if his master plan was to get away with the stolen bearer bonds and dump them off the top of Mount Crumpet.
Also, I think we can all agree that every Christmas movie has an Ellis.
The only thing this movie’s missing to really complete the metaphor is a stand-in for Santa Claus himself, but I guess there just wasn’t room in the plot for a jolly, portly, pastry-loving gentleman who rewards the good and punishes the bad with small lumps of minerals.
Oh, wait a second.
Boom: You just got Claused.
It’s worth noting that even beyond all the tinsel and mistletoe strewn about everything, Die Hard is just darn near perfect. The way that the tension builds, the idea of Hans slowly discovering John’s true identity and his relationship with Holly, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the unfinished floors that have a beautifully defined sense of place and a connection to each other that’s easy to follow, the increasing desperation on display from both John and Hans as the story goes on and they each start running out of options, even the fact that the tension and stakes they’re working with actually increase after the reveal that Hans & Co. aren’t actually terrorists. It’s unparalleled in terms of craft, which is why it’s still the standard for this kind of story a quarter of a century later.
And through it all, it still follows the traditional arc of a Christmas story. John McClane doesn’t win through overwhelming force, but through self-sacrifice (most notably of his feet) in the name of helping others. He essentially learns the True Meaning of Christmas, which in his case involves throwing Alan Rickman out of a building.
So when you settle in with your It’s A Wonderful Lifes and Years Without a Santa Claus over the next few days, look for what it shares with the greatest Christmas story of our time. And remember, as Hans Gruber says…
Q: Who is the best Christmas themed villain? — @koltreg
Q: Do you think that Santa Claus has super powers in the traditional way we think of them? — @dangillotte
A: I don’t think he was bitten by a radioactive reindeer or anything, but at the very least, he’s definitely immortal, so that’s something. I’m not sure if he has, like, super-strength or anything, but one assumes that toys for every good boy and girl in the entire world are a pretty hefty load (one small village’s worth, after all, requires the strength of ten Grinches plus two to lift). Plus, there’s all the stuff where he can see you when you’re sleeping, know when you’re awake and determine your morality accordingly, and then all the more obscure bits about resurrecting dead people and busting out of jail with the help of Jesus and Mary. So yeah, he has superpowers. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be in the Official Marvel Handbook!
Q: Which Superhero who’s never had a Christmas Special most deserves one? — @awa64
A: Most of the big names you could care to mention have been involved in some kind of Christmas story or another, but the closest Jimmy Olsen got was that time he got hit with a ray-gun that made him super fat, and he had to wear a Santa suit because it’s the only thing that would fit.
He really deserved better.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the reason why Batman would smell bad on Christmas? — @Gavin4L
A: Judging by the comics I read, Batman tends to spend his holidays (and, you know, most days) running around, escaping from deathtraps and punching out ne’er-do-wells before dragging them back to a mental hospital that probably should’ve been shut down the second the state inspectors got a look at all those gargoyles hanging up in the hallways. That’s sweaty work even if you’re not wearing body armor and a cape, so I imagine it gets straight up funky under there sometimes.
As for what the story is with a teenage boy producing an egg, man, your guess is as good as mine on that one.