Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special debuts on Disney+ on November 25, 2022. Below is a spoiler-free review.
Leave it to James Gunn to wrap up Phase 4 of the MCU with what could very well be another Christmas classic. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special not only shines a very welcome spotlight on Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, but also brings us unabashed Christmas cheer, a few earwigs and, of course, some Guardians-esque laughs. After this and the wonderfully spooky Werewolf by Night earlier this year, it looks like Marvel is onto something with seasonal specials.
The Christmas special opens like so many Christmas classics do: with animation. A quick, charmingly drawn sketch gives us a sad tale of how Yondu (Michael Rooker) ruined Christmas for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and as Kraglin tells the story to the gang, it pulls straight on Mantis’ heartache. Here’s the humorously bizarre premise: what if Mantis and Drax (Dave Bautista) saved Christmas for Peter by giving him the best gift of all… his favorite Earth hero, Kevin Bacon?
Peter and the rest of the Guardians don’t get much screen time in this refreshingly lively 43-minute special, though the time Pratt does get packs an emotional punch. But the focus is squarely on Mantis, Drax and, hilariously, Kevin Bacon, as the former two embark on a thoroughly entertaining and ridiculous journey across Hollywood at Christmas time to find Peter’s present. The comedy of Mantis and Drax together never gets boring – seriously, I laughed every time Mantis shouted “DRAX!” in annoyance. And Bacon, playing himself, throws pretense out the window. He completely goes along with this wacky concept while acting as a stand-in for the audience when necessary. Bacon’s involvement also allows a sweet message to creep in about the power of stories.
But the Holiday Special is truly Mantis’ moment to shine, and Klementieff jumps at the opportunity. Just as Gunn took a previously despicable character in Peacemaker and made him into a believably likable protagonist in his HBO Max series, he takes Mantis – previously mostly just a background character – and gives her more complexity and layers using Klementieff’s engaging performance. As mentioned earlier, she and Bautista make a comedic dream duo, but Klementieff does a great job too, as Mantis acts as the special’s anchor for its emotional moments, of which there are plenty.
It certainly doesn’t skimp on sentiment, but thanks to Gunn’s ability to punctuate momentous moments with humor without undermining them, it never gets too sappy. It’s full of scenes that yield both laughs and potential tears, and it’s delightfully uncynical. That lack of cynicism extends to the full embrace of the Christmas spirit. From the short animated scenes to the display of beautiful Christmas lights to the musical moments, it doesn’t hide its inspiration from old Christmas classics, which is all the better for it. And by the way, those musical moments also deliver; it opens with a song that is both endlessly catchy and funny.
As for the MCU of it all, don’t expect major multiversal shenanigans. But the Guardians Holiday Special is doing manage to weave in a big reveal without it feeling boxed in, something the MCU struggled with in other parts of Phase 4. Surprisingly, it adds to this individual story rather than distracting; it’s hard to talk around the spoilers too much, but you’ll know when you see it.
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