Some films are obviously Christmas movies, like Frosty the Snowman and It’s A Wonderful Life. But that designation is not so clear cut for other films. They may be set during the holiday season, and they may even touch upon Christmas themes, but does that mean they truly qualify in the traditional sense? To find out, we’re putting these movies on trial and laying out all the evidence for and against them, by answering some pertinent questions, like we did with Die Hard and also Gremlins.
And there’s no better movie to enter into the great Christmas movie debate than the MCU’s most festive film, Iron Man 3.
Members of the jury, ask yourself….
How much of Iron Man 3 takes place at Christmastime?
All of it. Near the beginning we see Tony working in his basement with a Christmas tree. He’s listening to a rocking version of “Jingle Bells.” He also gives Pepper her Christmas gift—a giant stuffed bunny that looks like a dog. There are a handful of other Noel touches throughout too. There’s a bar that plays Christmas music and a Home Shopping Network decoration for sale. Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian also plans to take out the president above festive lights in the shape of a tree. Tony even references A Christmas Story and says he has a “holiday message” for the Mandarin.
The big ending sequence takes place on Christmas Eve. Tony says, “And so, as Christmas morning began, my journey had reached its end.” However, while the movie reminds you throughout everything is happening at “Christmastime,” it doesn’t do it enough to make you really feel the spirit of the season.
Would Iron Man 3 be fundamentally different if it were set at any other time of the year?
Not even a little bit. If you lose the decorations, the two holiday songs, and the references to the time of year you wouldn’t sacrifice any plot or character development. There is a holiday that is relevant though: the flashback to New Year’s Eve in Switzerland in 1999. The movie constantly revisits ideas of regret, rebirth, and new beginnings. If you changed that scene to another time of year it would really hurt the movie. But its Christmas setting doesn’t really contribute to either the story or its themes.
Do any of the film’s major themes apply to Christmas?
Iron Man 3 touches on a lot of ideas. The most direct one is how “we create our own demons” through our mistakes and fears. That connects to themes of regret, cruelty, hubris, selfishness, facing our past, compromising our ideals, and coping with trauma. Considering the villains literally regrow limbs and both the main protagonist and antagonist are metaphorically reborn, rebirth is a major one too. On a much smaller scale the movie also touches on family and friendship, but it doesn’t develop them or have much to say.
Some of those themes, like being selfish and forgetting to keep our best intentions at the forefront of our actions, do feel appropriate for the holiday. Others share a direct connection with holiday classics like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Regret and being haunted by your past are a big part of all three films. Those themes just aren’t very Christmas-y in Iron Man 3, especially since they tie into New Year’s Eve so much more.
The relevant themes here are Christmas-adjacent at best.
Does watching Iron Man 3 at Christmastime enhance the experience?
You’re not going to have less fun if you watch it the other 11 months of the year though. Hearing Christmas music out of season is always bizarre, but there are only two songs here so it’s not much of an issue. The movie also has three main settings, and two of them are warm and sunny Malibu and Miami. Not exactly winter wonderlands.
Has this film been accepted as a Christmas movie tradition?
Iron Man 3 used to pop up on basic cable every once in awhile during December, but Disney+ has made that a lot less common. The MCU film did not do enough to become a holiday staple before the Mouse House entered the streaming wars, and since streaming is slowly destroying all of our shared viewing experiences, it seems unlikely it’ll get another chance anytime soon.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Director Shane Black loves setting his movies around holidays, especially Christmas. Iron Man 3 certainly does that too. But it definitely does not qualify as a Christmas movie. The holiday is merely decoration to anchor it to a specific time of year. It doesn’t embrace Christmas in its story, and it does so only tangentially in its themes.
That’s not to say it isn’t a holiday movie though. This is secretly one of the great New Year’s movies of all time. Moving on, rebirth, starting over, those are all great themes and ideas for that holiday. It’s actually too bad the whole film isn’t set just one week later. It should end on December 31 when Killian decides to finish the Mandarin’s “lessons” with a bang.
Killian is literally reborn in flames that night. But it’s actually Tony who turns the page by finally moving on and embracing who he really is. His suit does not define him. He is Iron Man. Tony could have then blown up all of his Iron Man suits at midnight, making that “fireworks display” and appropriate celebration.
Really, who sets off fireworks on Christmas Eve?
Originally published on November 30, 2018.