Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special debuts on Disney+ on November 25, 2022. A spoiler-free review below.
Leave it to James Gunn to close out Phase 4 of the MCU with what could very well be a new holiday classic. The Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas special not only shines a very welcome spotlight on Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, it gives us some cheeky holiday cheer, a pair of timpani, and of course, some Guardians-style laughs. After this and the wonderfully creepy Werewolf by Night earlier this year, it seems Marvel is on to something with seasonal specials.
The Holiday Special opens like so many Christmas classics: with animation. A quick and charming sketch tells the sad story 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 attracts the attention of Mantis . heart strings. It’s here that the humorously bizarre premise reveals itself: what if Mantis and Drax (Dave Bautista) save Christmas for Peter by giving him the greatest gift of all…his favorite Earth hero, Kevin Bacon?
Peter and the rest of the Guardians don’t get a ton of screen time in this refreshingly lively 43-minute special, though the time Pratt does take an emotional punch. But the focus squarely falls on Mantis, Drax and, hilariously, Kevin Bacon, as the former two embark on a hilarious and ridiculous journey through Hollywood this Christmas to find Peter’s present. The comedy of Mantis and Drax together never tires – seriously, I laughed every time Mantis yelled “DRAX!” in exasperation. And Bacon, playing himself, throws fiction out the window. He fully accepts this silly notion as he acts as a substitute for the audience where needed. Bacon’s involvement also allows for a sweet message about the power of stories to creep in.
But the Holiday Special is truly Mantis’ time to shine, and Klementieff rises to the occasion. Just as Gunn took a previously despicable character in Peacemaker and turned him into a believably sympathetic protagonist in his HBO Max series, he takes Mantis – previously mostly just a background character – and gives her more complexity and layers with the help from Klementieff’s captivating performance. As mentioned above, she and Bautista are a dream comedy duo, but Klementieff also does an amazing job as Mantis serves as the special’s anchor for her emotional moments, of which there are many.
It certainly doesn’t skimp on sentiment but, thanks to Gunn’s ability to punctuate heavy moments with humor without undermining them, it never gets too saccharine. It’s full of scenes that muster both laughter and potential tears, and it’s delightfully uncynical. That lack of cynicism extends to his full embrace of Christmas spirit. From its short animation scenes to showcasing the beautiful holiday lights to its musical moments, it doesn’t hide its inspiration from past holiday classics, and it’s all the better for it. And by the way, those musical moments deliver too; opens with an endlessly catchy and fun number.
As far as the MCU goes from all this, don’t expect big multiversal shenanigans. But the Guardians Christmas special does they manage to weave in a big reveal without it feeling shoe-in, something the MCU has struggled with elsewhere in Phase 4. Surprisingly, it adds to this individual story rather than detract from it; It’s hard to talk too much about spoilers, but you’ll know it when you see it.
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