Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special debuts on Disney+ on Nov. 25, 2022. Below is a spoiler-free review.
Leave it to James Gunn to close out the MCU’s Phase 4 with what could very well be a new Christmas classic. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special not only shines a very welcome spotlight on Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, but gives us unabashed Christmas cheer, a couple of earworms, and, of course, some Guardians-style laughs. After this and the wonderfully spooky Werewolf by Night earlier this year, it seems like Marvel is onto something with seasonal specials.
The Holiday Special opens like so many Christmas classics do: with animation. A quick, charmingly drawn sketch gives us a sad story about how Yondu (Michael Rooker) ruined Christmas for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn), and as Kraglin recounts the story to the gang, it pulls right on Mantis’ heartstrings. It’s here that the humorously bizarre premise reveals itself: 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 a ton of screen time in this refreshingly brisk 43-minute special, though the time that Pratt does get packs an emotional punch. But the focus is squarely on Mantis, Drax, and, hilariously, Kevin Bacon, as the former two take a thoroughly entertaining and ridiculous trip through Hollywood in Christmas time to find Peter’s present. The comedy of Mantis and Drax together never grows tiresome – seriously, I laughed every time Mantis yelled “DRAX!” in exasperation. And Bacon, playing himself, throws pretension out the window. He fully buys into this goofy concept while acting as an audience stand-in where necessary. Bacon’s involvement with him also allows a sweet message about the power of stories to sneak its way in.
But the Holiday Special really is Mantis’ time to shine, and Klementieff rises to the occasion. Just as Gunn took a formerly despicable character in Peacemaker and made 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 of Klementieff’s endearing performance of she. As mentioned earlier, she and Bautista are a dream comedic duo, but Klementieff also does a stunning job 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 weighty moments with humor without undermining them, it never gets too saccharine. It’s filled with scenes that garner both laughs and potential tears, and it’s delightfully uncynical. That lack of cynicism extends to its full embrace of the Christmas spirit. From its brief scenes of animation to the showcase of beautiful Christmas lights to its musical moments, it’s not hiding its inspiration from past holiday classics, and it’s all the better for it. And by the way, those musical moments deliver too; it opens with a number that’s both endlessly catchy and funny.
As for the MCU of it all, don’t expect big multiversal shenanigans. But the Guardians Holiday Special does manage to weave in a big reveal without it feeling shoehorned in, something the MCU has struggled with in other parts of Phase 4. Surprisingly, it adds to this individual story rather than detracting from it; It’s hard to talk too much around the spoilers, but you’ll know it when you see it.
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