The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special review: James Gunn’s joyful film is just what the out-of-control MCU needed

Marvel’s Phase Three ended with one of the biggest films of all time, and in a move that sort of represents the scattershot quality of Phase Four, the illustrious studio has chosen to conclude it with a 42-minute streaming spinoff that serves as a glorified DVD bonus feature at best, and at worst, the most arrogant flex against Martin Scorsese that the MCU could have ever thought of.

First conceptualised by director James Gunn several years ago, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special was filmed under visible COVID restrictions only in 2021, while the filmmaker was wrapping production on his third and final film in the GoTG trilogy. Somewhat boldly, Gunn has drawn comparisons between the Guardians special and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, which remains, even after all these years, one of the most infamous pop-culture artefacts ever created.

The Star Wars Holiday Special was met with such derision upon its TV premiere that it was never aired again, nor was it ever released on home video. The only copies that exist are bootlegs taped by some enterprising viewers during its one and only telecast, and later uploaded on the internet.

But Gunn hasn’t restricted his homage to merely a hat-tip in Chewbacca’s direction; he has gone ahead and bookended the Guardians special with animated sequences designed to mimic similar scenes in its Star Wars counterpart. Of course, the filmmaker’s affection for the Star Wars special probably isn’t restricted to just the superficial elements; there’s probably a lot of nostalgia at play here. As a child, it must’ve simply been a new Star Wars story to enjoy over Christmas, and not something to fume over for disrespecting the original. Despite the inauspicious overlaps, however, Gunn’s film neither undermines the main feed, nor does it reek of a cash-grab. On the contrary, it’s quite a delightful distraction from the larger machinations of the MCU.

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Centred mostly around Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the film also features Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). After Kraglin (Sean Gunn) tells the Guardians a story about how Yondu (Michael Rooker) ‘destroyed Christmas’ back when Peter was a boy, Mantis and Drax decide to put things right and give Peter a Christmas present that will hopefully repair his memories of the festival.

Their selfless adventure takes them to Earth, where the mission is to try and locate Peter’s favourite movie star Kevin Bacon, abduct him, and bring him back to the planet Nowhere for Peter’s amusement. This is exactly the sort of good-natured but harebrained plot that Gunn has become so adept at slapping together, as he combines the Guardians’ well-meaning nature with their inherent outlaw tendencies.

There is a simplicity to the Earthbound scenes that might feel a little too basic — like something filmed over an afternoon on an iPhone — but Drax and Mantis thankfully have enough odd-couple chemistry to sustain a 20-minute stretch by themselves, as they traipse across Beverly Hills looking for Bacon. The space sequences, by contrast, are more in line with what fans of the series might expect (even though all of it is clearly set in a single courtyard-type location).

The Guardians special is littered with popular Christmas-themed needle-drops, and it begins and ends with musical performances by the band the Old 97s. The spirit is cheery, and a couple of spoilery moments towards the end are genuinely affecting, especially if you’ve been with these characters for nearly a decade now.

A distinct whiff of corporate interference hangs over virtually every project that Marvel puts together. Even director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever wasn’t allowed the luxury to simply tell its story without being forced to lay the groundwork for a future character. But despite everything, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special exists mostly in a vacuum. It’s kind of remarkable how drastically storytelling sensibilities have changed in mainstream Hollywood since the MCU took over. The universe-building background work that would’ve been restricted to the appendices is happening in the main films, while character-driven stories are being banished to the fringes. Ah, well.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
Director – James Gunn
Cast – Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Maria Bakalova
Rating – 4/5

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