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 concluded with one of the greatest films of all time, and with a move that represents the scattershot quality of Phase Fourthe illustrious studio chose to wrap it up with a 42-minute streaming spinoff that serves as a glorified bonus DVD at best and, at worst, the cockiest flex against Martin Scorsese the MCU could ever go to to think.

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

The Star Wars Holiday Special was met with such derision during its television premiere that it was never broadcast again, nor was it ever released on home video. The only copies in existence are bootlegs recorded by some enterprising viewers during its only telecast, and subsequently uploaded to the Internet.

But Gunn didn’t limit his homage to just a tip of his hat to Chewbacca; he went ahead and closed out the Guardians special with cutscenes designed to mimic similar scenes in its Star Wars counterpart. Of course, the director’s affection for the Star Wars special likely isn’t limited to just the superficial elements; there’s probably a lot of nostalgia at play here. As a kid, it was simply meant to be a new Star Wars story to enjoy at Christmas, and not something to get upset about for disrespecting the original. Despite the ominous overlaps, however, Gunn’s film undermines neither the mainstream feed, nor does it reek of a money-grabber. On the contrary, it’s quite a delightful distraction from the bigger machinations of the MCU.

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Primarily centered 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” when Peter was a boy, Mantis and Drax decide to patch things up and give Peter a Christmas present which , hopefully, it will restore his memories of the Festival.

Their selfless adventure takes them to Earth, where the mission is to try and locate Peter’s favorite movie star Kevin Bacon, kidnap him, and return him to planet Nowhere for Peter’s amusement. This is exactly the kind of good-natured yet crazy plot that Gunn has become so adept at pulling together, as he combines the well-meaning nature of the Guardians with their inherent outlaw tendencies.

There’s a simplicity to Earthbound’s scenes that might feel a little too basic – like something shot over an afternoon on an iPhone – but Drax and Mantis thankfully have enough odd couple chemistry to sustain a 20-minute stretch on their own. as they trudge through Beverly Hills in search of Bacon. The space sequences, by contrast, are more in line with what fans of the series might expect (even if everything is clearly set in a single courtyard-like location).

The Guardians special is littered with famous Christmas-themed needle drops and begins and ends with musical performances by the band Old 97s. The spirit is lighthearted and a couple of spoilery moments near the end are really touching, especially if you’ve been around these characters for nearly a decade.

A distinct whiff of corporate meddling hangs over pretty much every project Marvel puts together. Even director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever didn’t allow himself the luxury of simply telling his story without being forced to lay the groundwork for a future character. But through it all, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special exists mostly in a vacuum. It’s pretty remarkable how drastically narrative sensibilities have changed in mainstream Hollywood since the MCU took over. Core universe-building work that would have been confined to appendices is happening in the main films, while character-driven stories are banished to the sidelines. Ah well.

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

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