*Warning: the following article contains spoilers for The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special*
Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ended, not with a bang, but with a total whimper in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Of course, audiences who will press play on this short film expecting major reveals feeding into Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.3, and massive easter eggs will be immediately disappointed. This is a Christmas special, after all! But even as a brisk Christmas “aperitif” (heh), it doesn’t have the same heartfelt emotional swings that director James Gunn brought to the table with Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.
Now I know some will say it wasn’t meant to emotionally connect as much as the first two Guardians films did because it is a holiday special meant to capture part of the Christmas spirit. Sure, but at the same time, when most Christmas films are rooting with heart, one could expect The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special to have that same amount as the Guardians films, especially with Gunn at the helm. And while there’s certainly some fun to be had, especially with Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Kevin Bacon playing a metafictional version of himself, the finished product falls relatively flat.
Aside from Bautista, Klementieff, and Bacon, who is a total joy to watch on screen, none of the actors seem to care about the presented material. Chris Pratt, in particular, delivers his lines as Peter Quill in the most emotionless way possible. From an animated flashback, we understand that Yondu (Michael Rooker) sucked the Christmas joy out of Quill and ruined the holiday for him. So, in a gesture of goodwill, Drax and Mantis feel they owe it to Peter to do something special for him during the holidays, which leads them to Kevin Bacon’s house so they can deliver him as a Christmas present to Quill on Knowhere.
The Kevin Bacon hijinks are the best part of the special. Bautista is as hilarious as ever as Drax, especially when he struggles to choose between a “little man” (an inflated elf) and giving Quill the best Christmas ever. The chemistry he shares with Klementieff is even more hilarious than in Guardians Vol. 2. Mantis and Drax are complete opposites in terms of personality and have little to no things in common, and yet their friendship still works. An action scene involving police officers harkens back to Gunn’s visceral style he used in The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker and is quite effective.
And then there’s Bacon, who is playing himself, setting the “perfect family Christmas” by watching Santa Claus Conquers the Martians while eating a sandwich and waiting for his wife and children to come home. It s a hilarious framing device, and when he is pitted against Drax and a highly aggressive Mantis (we never saw her in an action scene this way before), this is where the special is at its best.
But the fun quickly fizzles out when they return to Knowhere, with a somewhat underwhelming finale capping off the holiday special. Kevin Bacon has been an integral part of Peter’s personality as a hero, and their crossover is one of the most underwhelming aspects of the whole thing. What’s more, the special barely gives Peter, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) a shred of development.
Pratt doesn’t seem as game to be in the special as Bautista and Klementieff, and the same can be said for every other actor who makes up the Guardians. Their appearance feels more like the contractual obligation in Thor: Love and Thunder than we previously saw in the Infinity Saga, where the actors consistently had fun and brought a great deal of emotional weight to their performances. Even the newer addition to the Guardians team, Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova), feels tacked on as a selling point for Vol. 3 instead of a “proper” introduction.
What especially bothered me about the special is how they could’ve truly fleshed out Yondu and Peter’s relationship over the meaning of Christmas. But this new piece of information on Quill’s childhood is only saved for brief animated sequences that look like they were hand-drawn yesterday. It’s excellent that Gunn brought back Michael Rooker to voice Yondu, but his vocal performance here isn’t as investing as it was in the T’Challa Star-Lord episode of What If…?
And if most of the cast doesn’t care about their brief appearances, why would we, the audience members, care about what’s happening on screen? Sure, it’s not an MCU needle-mover. Those who say it’s “unlike anything the MCU has ever done before” need to stop, but even as a Christmas special, it doesn’t reach the same heights that the most incredible specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Year Without Santa Claus, and, to an extent, The Star Wars Holiday Special did. Whether you like it or not, The Star Wars Holiday Special was a foundational cultural moment that could only have been witnessed once.
Gunn recognized its impact on pop culture by including Mark Hamill in the special in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Still, one would’ve liked a campier and more memorable Holiday Special with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they prepare to fight their biggest antagonist yet (Will Poulter’s Adam Warlock) in Volume 3.
There are some who believe that Marvel Special Presentations are the “future” and the answer to MCU fatigue. I think they will exacerbate fatigue if they don’t do something as radically different and creatively freeing as Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf by Night, which was the proper format for something radical, hopefully leading to more MCU-driven horror MOVIES (or shows) down the line. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special was the most unnecessary title in Phase Four to date, but there could’ve been something interesting out of it. Unfortunately, aside from the committed performances of Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, and Kevin Bacon, this is not a Christmas special that I would want to revisit during the Holiday season year after year.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is now available to stream on Disney+.