Hero Worship: An Investigation Into the World's Die Hard Obsession

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There are few films in the world that are as endlessly rewatchable as Die Hard. Each December, millions of people sit down (again) and press play on the annual heist at Nakatomi Plaza. But why do we find so much comfort in a 1988 action flick?

It must be about more than simply being a great film; Citizen Kane is a great film, but far fewer people sit down and watch it every year—or opt to get images from it tattooed on their bodies. And there’s a whole segment of Hollywood dedicated to aping the Die Hard formula, but tweaking an element or two—usually the location. Under Siege (1992) is basically Die Hard on a ship; Air Force One (1997) is Die Hard on a plane; and Cliffhanger (1993) is Die Hard on a mountain.

None of those films has become annual appointment viewing, however, perhaps because none of those films has John McClane as its protagonist. Bruce Willis's grubby, vest-clad hero does a fine job doling out exhausted one-liners and seems at any given point like he might not make it through the next fight.

In Brian Abrams’s Die Hard: An Oral History, screenwriter Steven E. de Souza shared his thoughts on what makes McClane so compelling: “He was an underdog. That’s why the movie worked," de Souza said. "It’s hard to feel sorry for Stallone or Schwarzenegger, which is why they have to work so hard to have 95 guys attack them at once or try to find seven-foot wrestlers to fight them. [...] Die Hard really captured the possibility that you could win but die."

"Wish fulfilment" is a phrase sometimes used in the context of action heroes, but nobody would wish for what McClane goes through: He is beaten up repeatedly, walks through broken glass in bare feet, and generally has about as stressful a Christmas Eve as anyone has ever had. But while we might not want to trade places with him, there is something about the idea of being a competent, noble hero in the face of adversity that is fairly universally appealing. The circumstances of the movie leave McClane with no choice but to rise to the challenge, something everyone likes to think they’d be capable of doing—making the movie's appeal less about wishing to be in that exact circumstance, and more about wishing to be that capable.

“Most of us are never going to hold a gun to somebody’s head,” clinical psychologist Dr. Abigael San tells Mental Floss. "But we might have been in situations of conflict and being pulled in different directions, where we had maybe overplayed the power of something, and there might be a kind of resonance and reflection in what we see on screen even though it doesn’t directly relate. Resilience in the face of adversity is something that we all could do with being reminded of when we go through adverse experiences.”

A 2017 paper in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that human infants are able to recognize heroic acts from early stages of development, suggesting that our sense of justice and adoration of heroes is to some extent innate. A 2019 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology found that, despite the rise in popularity of flawed protagonists and antiheroes, the perceived morality of a character is what affects how much viewers ultimately like them. McClane is both heroic and moral—yes, he’s grubby and sweary and chain-smokes, but he’s a good dude.

Again though, a huge amount of films feature some kind of heroism—what does Die Hard have that keeps millions of viewers returning to it year after year?

“My guess is that it's the combination of two things,” Outlaw Vern, Die Hard enthusiast and author of Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!, tells Mental Floss. “It is that good—so thrilling, so well directed, so quotable, so fun to watch over and over. And, taking place at a specific time of year gives you a reminder and excuse to make viewing it an annual event.”

And if you already watch it every year, you’ll probably continue to do so, suggests Dr. San. “Familiarity is comforting,” she says. “You’re not only spending time with characters you have grown attached to over multiple viewings, but knowing what will happen can give you a greater sense of being in control of things. Positive associations of having seen the film in happier, less troubled times can all add to a feeling of comfort.”

So it’s possible we rewatch Die Hard a lot, in part, because we rewatch Die Hard a lot—an enjoyably self-perpetuating cycle that never ends well for Hans Gruber.

“There aren't many movies with that combination of broad appeal and Christmas-adjacent content,” Vern says. “It's become the go-to for someone that wants to honor the season but still see explosions.”

A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.