The story goes that writer-director James Gunn pitched the idea of a holiday special featuring his particular band of cosmic Marvel assholes during production of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Marvel Studios godhead Kevin Feige thought it was a joke.
Gunn, powered by his earnest love for the holidays and popular culture depictions of yuletide cheer, went off and hashed out a script and pitched it right when Disney+ was taking off. The result became the first to film of Marvel Studios’ new subset of “Special Presentation” short films (although it releases second, following last month’s Werewolf by Night).
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special takes a group of well-known characters on an enjoyable, low-stakes adventure that gives them space to grow while having fun with the freedom from theatrical expectations. It reminds you why Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel are still so beloved nearly a decade after the characters made their debut and lays emotional groundwork for next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3. At its core, though, it’s mostly just a delightful piece of Christmas programming.
Set between the events of Vol. 2 and Vol. 3, the Holiday Special focuses on Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as they hatch a plan to find the perfect Christmas gift for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). They don’t really understand what Christmas is or what an appropriate present would be, so the two set out to Earth to kidnap the legendary hero Kevin Bacon (playing himself). This is very much the Drax and Mantis show. Bautista and Klementieff were a highlight of Vol. 2, and their chemistry remains strong. Most of the humor comes out of their misappropriations of Earth culture and constant bickering. The lighthearted humor carries an emotional arc that doubles as the answer to a lingering plot thread going into Vol. 3.
It’s the dance Gunn has perfected across his multiple superhero films and television shows (with the exception, in my view, of The Suicide Squad). His love for outcasts and oddities meshes well with these massive properties primarily built on strange characters built for throwaway children’s pamphlets. He understands they’re weird, wacky constructs built from the raw emotions of adolescence. It’s appropriate, then, that he uses the two most childlike characters in his Guardians cast to explore the meaning of Christmas.
Marvel Studios’ Phase 4 has been somewhat troubled, with a few great stories mixed in among a surprisingly mediocre run for a studio that used to drive popular culture. I’m glad this “era” ends with something as simple and pleasing as the Holiday Special, which serves as a reminder of what makes this franchise so lovely when it works.