Study Guide

Die Hard Themes

  • Men and Masculinity

    John McClane is a man's man. He knows his way around a weapon, smokes cigarettes, and swears like a sailor. He's also terrible at talking about his feelings and has a marriage on the rocks. In other words, he's a guy and a half, and much of Die Hard's wit stems from McClane flexing his metaphorical man muscles. His masculinity manifests itself in his constant wisecracking, his ability to make the most serious of situations a little lighter with a little snark. While other characters find ways to assert their manhood—mainly by trying to dominate their surroundings—McClane's manliness shines on the fly. He just can't help himself.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. What's the relationship between masculinity and violence in Die Hard? The more violent the character, the more manly? Or is it maybe the opposite?
    2. What's so masculine about all of McClane's wisecracks, anyway?
    3. In what ways do the different law enforcement officers—Chief Robinson, Sergeant Powell, F.B.I. agents Johnson and Johnson, the SWAT guys—challenge each other's masculinity?
    4. Let's hear it for the girls. In a movie so full of men being manly, how do the ladies fare?

    Chew on This

    John McClane's wisecracks are really just a manifestation of his insecurity about being a good family man.

    John McClane represents the manly ideal—brave, heroic, a little rough around the edges—while Hans represents the effeminate threat to that ideal. He's suave, polished, and cares way too much about clothes.

  • Violence

    The weird thing about violent action movies is that the characters hardly ever talk about the violence they're experiencing and perpetrating. And yet, in movies like Die Hard, there's violence in practically every scene. It's just a part of the bargain. From the brutal fistfights to the point-blank shootings to the berserk gunfights, Die Hard is chock full of people doing each other physical harm. And it's not just the villains who perpetrate it—it's our hero, too. John McClane single-handedly does away with all of the terrorists except Karl, whether it's through explosions, shooting, or a good old-fashioned fall down the stairs. Dude does not play.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Is the violence in Die Hard excessive? Did you ever cringe and avert your eyes? Or do you think it's all good if it's in the service of the story?
    2. What, would you argue, is the most violent scene in the movie? Is it the Karl-McClane fight? The brutal shooting of Takagi? Something else?
    3. What purpose do you think violence serves in Die Hard? Does it have any meaning beyond entertainment and shock value?

    Chew on This

    The violence in Die Hard is straight-up gratuitous. It serves no purpose other than to shock viewers and satisfy our ever-growing urge for ever-increasing horror.

    Die Hard is violent because without the threat of real physical harm—even death—the stakes wouldn't be high enough for us to root for a McClane victory.

  • Greed

    In Die Hard, unlike another classic 80s movie, greed is not so good. It's what drives Gruber to take an entire skyscraper hostage, and it's what makes Ellis the smarmy dude he is. Greed gets a lot of people killed, and it's only the un-greedy types—the everymen who aren't looking for glory or greenbacks—who manage to do right by all the folks caught in the cross-hairs. Does that make the movie anti-capitalist? Probably not. But it does make the movie anti-selfish-jerk.

    Questions About Greed

    1. Greed can be about more than just money. What other characters in Die Hard are greedy, and what are they greedy for?
    2. In what way does Holly's watch symbolize greed?
    3. In what way does Gruber's greed for money make him different from McClane?

    Chew on This

    It's not greed that makes Gruber bad—it's ego.

    The greediest person in Die Hard is actually Chief Robinson. He's greedy for glory, and that makes him a terrible cop.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    If you just looked at the establishment law enforcement officers in Die Hard, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this movie is a moral parable about the consequences of being an idiot. Thank goodness for John McClane and Hans Gruber. They're both whip smart, just in totally different ways. It's those differing forms of intelligence that drive the plot of the movie forward, holding both their goals in tension. Where Gruber is cold and calculating, McClane is street smart, able to improvise. You can guess which brand of brains wins in the end.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. What's McClane's smartest move in the movie? Gruber's? Which character do you think is smarter in the end?
    2. Why do you think the movie goes out of its way to portray the local law enforcement officers (except Powell of course) and even the FBI seem like oafish idiots?
    3. Who's the cleverest henchmen? What makes you say so?

    Chew on This

    This isn't a case of book smarts versus street smarts. It's a case of planning versus instinct. McClane triumphs because he trusts his gut. Gruber? Not so much.

    The movie makes the LAPD look like idiots to show that the working class men—McClane and Powell—are the only ones who know what they're doing.

  • Duty

    Villain's gotta vill. Hero's gotta save the day. Bureaucrat's gotta get in the way. In Die Hard, everyone does their duty—it's just that their duties often clash. And, to be fair, some people are better at it than others. John McClane? He never shirks his duty—not once. That fact has cost him a few things here and there—like, say, his marriage. But in the end, it's that sense of duty that also redeems McClane and his marriage—and keeps him alive, too.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Where does McClane's bigger sense of duty lie: with the NYPD or with his family? Does the answer change over the course of the movie?
    2. Does Gruber operate with any sense of duty? If so, duty to what?
    3. Where does Sergeant Powell's sense of duty come from?

    Chew on This

    McClane's values ultimately show us that a healthy balance between work and family isn't possible.

    McClane's strong sense of duty to his job ultimately proves him hero-like, as he's able to solve all of his problems.