The most idiosyncratic band of misfits in the Marvel Cinematic Universe return for an earthbound interlude prior to next summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. What came before the latest Marvel Studios Special Presentation, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, is complicated, convoluted, and essential to understanding James Gunn burning down his own jingle bash with gleeful aplomb. Since the last galaxy guarding adventure, the filmmaker has been fired and rehired from Marvel Studios, made The Suicide Squad, followed it up with the spin-off Peacemaker, has become the co-chair of DC Studios, and is now seemingly releasing his last Marvel projects for what we can only assume will be a long time.
We are reminded immediately in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special that as much as it all matters and plays a part in the franchise, the Guardians are driven less by the world-building of the MCU than they are their own little pocket of the cosmos informed by their bonds to each other. The next world-ending threat means significantly less to the Guardians than getting one another the perfect Christmas gift and the anxiety that can come with that.
Coming in hot on the heels of Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf by Night, this short and infectiously sweet tale finds the Guardians team at Christmastime, wondering if they could use the power of the holiday season Peter Quill has oft told them about to lift his spirits following the disappearance of Gamora. The best way to do this? Well, travel to Earth on a mission to kidnap actor Kevin Bacon of course. If you’re wondering if there’s more to this special presentation than that, well, yes and no.
Writer/director James Gunn relishes in the simplicity of seeing alien goofballs Drax and Mantis, played to comedic perfection by Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff, run around Hollywood beating the shit out of random people, stealing Christmas decorations, and getting drunk at a bar. There’s something very run-and-gun about it all, which could not be more of a compliment in a franchise that can feel suffocatingly massive and glossy. There will definitely be some fans who mistake this for cheapness, but what it really is, is tactile and god can you believe it, not all filmed in the soulless volume!
The Guardians of the Galaxy films were already the best and most artistically singular in the MCU, but James Gunn’s busy past few years have only strengthened his love for these characters and ability to push the actual craft of his own superhero projects far beyond its bland, increasingly tedious Marvel peers. One such peer that draws immediate comparison while watching The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is this year’s Thor: Love and Thunder, a film that similarly aspires to mash together the strange and the sentimental, only to come off as completely phony and hackneyed.
There is a universe of difference between nudging the audience every few minutes to remind them how weird you are and the kind of bone-deep, beautifully gonzo ethos of James Gunn’s movies. This is because to operate on this level, you have got to back it up with sincerity. Taika Waititi wants to show you how funny he is, whereas James Gunn wants to show you how funny this world and these characters are and how deeply he loves that about them.
It would be remiss not to mention the soaring, rapturous musical moments that have made the Guardians of the Galaxy films cultural touchstones, this time with a yuletide twist that is in keeping with the holidays without losing the punk rock energy that makes it all so damned cool and fun. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special also goes as far as to cast the band Old 97’s in a musical number that blows the roof of the place before the story has even really begun.
So while lacking in some of the larger intergalactic shenanigans you may reasonably expect, this latest Marvel Studios Special Presentation more than makes up for it in further building out the complex emotional stakes of its characters and their ever-evolving relationships that are ideal for the natural reflectiveness of Christmas. Though we are used to Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) as our protagonist and audience cipher, he is kept a distance for a good portion of the runtime here as his yuletide melancholy has to be unpacked from the outside by the other Guardians, which now includes Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a young adult Groot (Vin Diesel), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and even Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova).
Every year as we give gifts to the ones we love and try to make material expressions of our love and appreciation for one another, we sometimes overcomplicate what could and should just be a moment of simple appreciation and celebration. This is the thematic statement of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special and why it’s been designed to be such a breezy, no-frills MCU entry.