Another year is almost at an end folks. I can’t even believe it. It feels just like yesterday I was a year away from a new Star Wars, James Bond, and Rocky movie. Now, Star Wars is two weeks away, Bond and Rocky have come and gone and a new Superman/Batman movie is 3 months away. And with the end of another year here, that means we are in the holiday season. And as is usual with the holidays, Christmas movies are in style at the moment. And even with the constant barrage of the need to say the politically correct Happy Holidays during this time period, Christmas is the only holiday that gets any real traction in cinema. We all know the classic movies. Even the biggest grinch can like at least one classic Christmas movie. If you don’t like It’s A Wonderful Life, you’re a sad sack of shit and deserve no happiness. But I find it to be little fun to talk about the old mainstays. They are classics for a reason and don’t need someone else to break down why they’re great. What I’d like to do, and what the rest of my crew is gonna do, is talk about a specific movie set during the Christmas season that aren’t exactly Christmas movies. It’s gonna be an interesting bunch of movies. I had my choice at a good deal of great movies, but one jumped out at me as a singular piece in the bunch. And the movie I chose is a superhero movie, one of two in the pack. The one that is much superior. The one helmed by a man who sets most of his movies during the holidays. I chose Iron Man 3, as it may be my favorite Marvel movie and a solid entry to watch during the holiday season.
Shane Black may not have been the most obvious choice to helm the third entry into the most successful franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a giant budget FX film has not been his purview during his illustrious career. But you just need to look at his and Robert Downey Jr’s career to see that they are connected. Black helped to resurrect his career as he resurrected his own in the neo noir comedy masterpiece, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black had essentially been out of the business for almost a decade due to unhappiness with studio interference, while Downey had essentially been black listed from the industry due to his awful drug use. So they teamed up to make that movie and it helped kick start their careers again. Not instantly. Downey had to wait three years, doing movies like Zodiac and A Scanner Darkly, rebuilding his rep before making the massive Iron Man. And Black had some work as a script doctor in the 8 years between Kiss Kiss and Iron Man 3. Downey is known as a good friend, trying out when he can to get work for his people. He stood up for the rest of the Avengers cast when they wanted raises. So when Jon Favreau left the Iron Man franchise, he brought along Black for the ride and they crafted a fantastic movie.
Black had been in the industry for a long time as a writer before he made the leap to directing. And even now, you may not know what movies he’s done, since he’s not a known presence. But when you look at the movies he’s done, a pattern emerges. Shane Black likes to set his movies during the holiday season and put Christmas imagery into them. Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are all set during the season. And as he is want to do, he did so again with Iron Man 3. So you have to wonder why he likes to set his movies during this time. When asked, he offered up an answer. He feels like it helps to ground the story, giving everyone something outside the story to connect to in some way on a subconscious level. It’s the end of the year and people look back on their life and on their year. The lonely are lonelier. Which is very fitting since every movie he’s done set during the time features loners and the broken. Now that may not seem like something that would fit an Iron Man movie. Tony at this point has many people around him and is in a loving relationship with Pepper Potts. But Black saw something in the The Avengers that could be built upon in the 3rd Iron Man flick.
At the end of The Avengers, Tony Stark almost died in a sacrificial way by flying a nuke into a portal into outer space. Coming toe to toe with genocidal Norse God that had a fleet of aliens at his command and almost dying in another galaxy, Tony Stark had seen things he couldn’t unsee. Things he never thought was possible. Tony is a genius, a man who prides himself on being a man with his eyes towards the future. But this was something he wasn’t prepared for and something snapped in him. By the time Iron Man 3 rolls around, he is neck deep in some hardcore PTSD. He’s still with Pepper but the relationship is straining. He’s always working on suits in his workshop, never sleeping and barely leaving his house. And he’s haunted by night terrors of that invasion, getting the barest minimum of sleep. No one he knows can connect with him on what he’s feeling. All of the Avengers had dealt with crazy sci fi shit before. Pepper and his friends can’t connect either, not having been involved personally. Even with people around him, Tony is alone and losing his mind. It’s only by being targeted by the terrorist going by the name the Mandarin, Tony can overcome the weight on his shoulders.
If Christmas is all about looking at the past and taking stock of ones life, Iron Man 3 and Tony Stark himself fits within that Christmas framework that Black likes to trade in. Tony has to come to terms with the hell he faced in New York by overcoming an immediate threat to the ones he loves. The Mandarin forces him to stop isolating himself, by having to become even more isolated by hiding out in middle America. Realizing he can’t do it all by himself, he has to enlist Rhodey to fight back. And then in the climax, he has to throw away all of his OCD born collection of new Iron Man suits by tossing them at the bad guy in a balls out action sequence where most are destroyed. It’s a literal throwing away of the PTSD he has been haunted by. With the threat of losing his friend (Happy Hogan) and the love of his life (Pepper), Tony has to take stock of what is important to him and overcome the isolation he had felt before.
Christmas isn’t a major point of focus in this movie. It rarely is in a Shane Black movie. It’s window dressing to give the production design a little kick, something to separate it from other action movies. There’s the taboo nature of it, throwing some adult shit into the family oriented holiday. And even with the action and violence thrown into his movies, they have the Christmas spirit of the good guys coming out on top. The bad guys never win. In his own way, they are feel good movies. There’s the descent into darkness (Tony overcoming his PTSD, Martin Riggs dealing with suicidal tendencies). But in the end, our heroes reclaim themselves. And it doesn’t hurt that the movies themselves are funny as hell and thrilling. Iron Man 3 may be the funniest movie in the MCU, giving Downey enough perfect one liners and quips that he doesn’t need to improv. And while Christmas may not be the focal point of the movie, the visual signifiers and Christmas music used throughout make it feel very much in line with Christmas movies.
The feeling of it being a great Christmas movie extends out of the movie and into the real world. If Christmas is all about looking back at the past and redeeming ones self/rising up from the ashes, then you can’t help but look at this movie as the phoenix like rise for Black. After this, he’s back in the movie making game in a big way. He’s just completed work on a 70s set noir esque buddy comedy called The Nice Guys with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. He’s also set to make an adaptation of the classic pulp hero Doc Savage, and make a sequel to Predator. It doesn’t hurt when you make one of the top 10 grossing movies ever made. And just look at Downey as a victory lap for him in his redemption story. Finishing out his own trilogy with a story about a guy overcoming his own demons to help the ones he loves is a bit personal for him. And by doing it by paying back the man who helped him resurrect his career is a nice capper on it.
I love Iron Man 3. It’s totally a Shane Black movie with the thrilling action, the great humor, and the masterfully crafted tale. Hell, he manages to get around the MCU problem of having shit villains by making that part of the text of the movie. The Mandarin is a well known villain of Iron Man in the comics. But with the MCU constantly making shit adaptations of their villains, Black makes his Mandarin not actually the Mandarin. We think the whole time it’s supposed to be their version of the character, until a late reveal shows us that it’s all a ruse and that it’s all the ploy of the true villain. It’s brilliant and hilarious and just makes it stand out from the pack. Even with just that it would be a top tier movie for me. But by digging deep into Tony’s psyche with heart and humor and top notch action sequences (another rarity in the standalone MCU movies), it became a movie that touched my heart in a big way. It’s connection to Christmas only makes it even better for me, possible making itself the best movie in the Black cannon. It’s the perfect package and one that should be viewed during the season. A christmas superhero movie? Now that’s a miracle.