There will be no coal in James Gunn’s stocking this year. His “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” is stuffed with funny, feel-good Christmas joy, and it’s one of the best pieces of content Marvel Studios has released in years.
Just like Marvel and Disney+’s Halloween-themed “Werewolf by Night” Special Presentation, the “Guardians” short film oozes holiday cheer, but this time with elves, candy canes and…Kevin Bacon. Despite the short runtime, it plays exactly like a “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie, complete with Gunn’s signature, laugh-out-loud, zany style. Not only that, it pays homage to the nostalgic tropes of Christmas specials that make you want to cozy up next to the fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate — and a stack of Marvel comic books, because this is the MCU, after all.
It’s a tale as old as time, flipped on its head by the Guardians of the Galaxy. Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is missing Christmas while in outer space, so his teammates Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) try to cheer him up with the ultimate present: Peter’s beloved ’80s movie star Kevin Bacon. Being otherworldly aliens, Drax and Mantis have zero Christmas knowledge, and they can’t tell a candy cane lawn decoration from a “red-and-white curly man.” Even so, they’re determined to cheer up their friend, so they fly down to Earth and embark on a hilarious, fish-out-of-water journey showered in Christmas magic.
After appearing alongside each other in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” Bautista and Klementieff have already developed a sweet, side-splitting rapport. Drax, ever oblivious to sarcasm and figures of speech, is all-too willing to throw the sweetly naive Mantis into danger — sometimes literally — but they share a bond as close as any family. After being relegated essentially to a side character in her previous films, Mantis shines in the holiday special. She lets loose on Earth, holds her own in a fight or two and uses her mind-control powers in creative, funny and occasionally dubious ways. The other Guardians of the Galaxy each get their own gratifying moments, but Drax and Mantis dazzle here, carrying much of the emotional weight and lesson-learning.
It wouldn’t be a Gunn film without some excellent songs and a few surprise cameos, and the “Guardians” special delivers within the first few minutes. Without spoiling anything, the memorable opening scene ranks as one of Marvel’s strongest, and some of the wacky original songs should go down in the Christmas pantheon. The rest of the deep-cut holiday soundtrack further underlines how off-the-wall this “Guardians” special is, and how Gunn is a master at his craft.
This is still the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which means there are a few overt tie-ins to Gunn’s upcoming trilogy capper “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” — set to be released in May — as well as references to preceding films that newcomers may not understand. Since we last saw them in “Endgame” and briefly in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the Guardians have purchased the planet Knowhere, pilot a new ship named the Bowie and are accompanied by Cosmo, a talking Russian astronaut dog (voiced by “Borat 2” breakout Maria Bakalova). Peter is still broken up about losing his girlfriend Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), and Mantis has a big secret of her own. But those are stories for another time, i.e. “Vol. 3.”
It’s a Christmas miracle that Gunn was able to pull off this superb special and simultaneously make the third “Guardians” film, not to mention switch allegiance from Marvel to DC and land a gig as co-CEO of DC Studios in the process. This is not just a great MCU film; it’s an excellent Christmas special that hardcore Marvel fans and newcomers can delight in. If “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” really is the end of Gunn’s run with Marvel, then this holiday special is a near-perfect, penultimate film from one of the superhero genre’s best.