Guardians of the Gingerbread: how streaming stole Christmas

Around 160 Christmas movies are on streaming services this year, and hardly any in cinemas – does the holiday spirit just stay home now?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – or at least, it is on most of the streaming services. This week Disney+ is bringing The Guardians of the Galaxy to the small screen with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, a heart-warming tale in which our space-faring Marvel heroes decide to cheer up Star Lord (Chris Pratt) for Christmas by kidnapping Kevin Bacon (Kevin Bacon). As you do.

Marvel might be increasingly intertwining their television and movie output, but this is still a bigger deal than most of their crossovers and cameos. It’s the first time an entire Marvel movie cast has made the move from big screen to small – you wouldn’t quite call it a Christmas miracle, but it’s easily the biggest release this week (and it’s been getting solid reviews as well). As NME put it:

The music is great. Everyone has a laugh. A few people get really hurt. And the person paying for it all gets roasted for something embarrassing they did in the ’70s. What could feel more like Christmas?

That’s not the only big gun (though it is the only project from writer-director James Gunn) aimed at the most wonderful time of the year. Over on Apple TV+ there’s Spirited, in which Will Ferrell (whose Elf has become a Christmas classic) and Ryan Reynolds team up for a fresh spin on the traditional holiday tale of a grumpy businessman who’s taught the error of his ways by a ghost. Now with added songs!

It’s the kind of release that would have been a solid box office performer not so long ago: Ryan Reynolds is one of the few actors left who can open a non-franchise film (even Free Guy somehow became a smash hit). And yet in 2022, aside from a brief run overseas, it’s gone straight to streaming … just like almost every other Christmas film this year.

Even Australian streaming services are getting into the act, with Stan – who in previous years gave us A Sunburnt Christmas and Christmas on the Farm – this year serving up A Christmas Ransom. It’s a take on that other classic holiday tale: a pair of bungling criminals break into a store at Christmas, only to be confronted by a couple of shoplifting kids. Hijinx – presumably involving slapstick violence (as seen in the creative team’s previous A Sunburnt Christmas) – ensues.

For almost as long as there’s been cinemas, there’s been Christmas movies. Some of them are classics, like the original Miracle on 34th Street (the remake, maybe not so much), It’s a Wonderful Life, The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Nightmare Before Christmas, and Bad Santa. Some of them are not, like Jingle All The Way. And some of them are brutally violent, like every single movie ever written by Shane Black (The Long Kiss Goodnight, Iron Man 3), who loves setting his action capers at Christmas for a bit of ironic contrast.

What unites them all (well, maybe not the Shane Black films, though Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is pretty Christmassy at times) is a sense of holiday good cheer. That seemingly endless jokey debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie? It wouldn’t work if we didn’t all know what a Christmas film is supposed to be like. Is it time for people to start going on about whether Love, Actually is the best Christmas film of all time yet?

But for a few years now, when it comes to Christmas movies the cinematic cupboard has been pretty bare; this year the only holiday fare making it to Australian cinemas is the holiday romance Christmas with the Campbells on 2 December. There’s also Violent Night, out 1 December, a blood-soaked action comedy following in the recent anti-Christmas tradition of films like 2020’s Mel Gibson-as-Santa effort, Fatman.

And yet Christmas films are still going strong at home; this year Netflix has yet another take on A Christmas Carol with the animated musical Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, alongside the live-action Christmas With You (a musician visits a small town and finds holiday inspiration), while Disney+ has an entire miniseries based on the long-running Tim Allen vehicle The Santa Clause.

According to Entertainment Weekly, there are around 160 Christmas movies going to US streaming services this year. Expect to see many of them turning up here sooner or later.

What gives?

So why are they all bypassing cinemas? It’s not like other holidays aren’t getting a run on the big screen. Valentines Day still sees the arrival of a romance or two, while Halloween gets almost a month of horror releases. Why has Christmas gone off the boil at the cinema?

At a guess, Christmas is a time for families. And families just don’t go to the movies together all that often any more. Couples in love – or just on a date – will go out on Valentines’ Day. Teens and those who like to be scared will travel on mass to see a horror movie (half the fun is being scared with friends). But a Christmas movie?

Many of the recent holiday cinema releases have given up on adults entirely and just thrown some snow on a kids movie; remember when Santa was a member of an Avengers-style super-team in 2012’s Rise of the Guardians?

To be fair, Christmas films almost always did their best business on TV, playing while everyone was slumped on the couch during the endless afternoon and evening after the presents and food. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated version) is a Christmas classic: it’s also a television special.

Streaming just means now we get to watch a few new films mixed in with the classics. If you can call endless remixes and retakes of A Christmas Carol ‘new’. Just don’t ruin your dinner by watching Bad Santa 2.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.