Marvel has dominated the cinematic landscape with their big-budget action extravaganzas. They had us enthralled for around a decade and brought what’s known as “The Infinity Saga” to an exhilarating and emotionally exhausting end with “Avengers: Endgame.” But, instead of letting everyone cool down before jumping back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe again, Kevin Feige and the Mouse House unloaded a deluge of “content,” with each entry turning out to be worse than the other. Of course, they raked in the big bucks because of its popularity and brand value. However, filmmaking and storytelling took a backseat while unimaginative milking of nostalgia and the desecration of the very definitions of “blockbuster” and “action” took center stage. Was it always like this? No, certainly not. And who better to remind us of the good times than James Gunn? So, on that note, let’s talk about “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.”
Written and directed by James Gunn, “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” centers around the notion that Yondu (Michael Rooker) ruined Christmas for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) when he was just a child. So, every year, when Christmas rolls around, Quill gets sad and mopey because he is reminded of his altercation with Yondu. Since Kraglin (Sean Gunn) has narrated this story to everyone and anyone who is willing to listen to him, the residents of Knowhere (which is where the Guardians are currently residing) do their best to cheer Quill up. This leads to one of the best and most hilarious Christmas song sequences of all time, where the band, the Old 97’s, display their take on Santa Claus’s powers. When that doesn’t do the trick, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) take it upon themselves to present Quill with something that’ll make him happy. After a few moments of contemplation, they decide on literally abducting Kevin Bacon as a gift.
James Gunn and Nicole Perlman built the foundation for the Guardians of the Galaxy on two things: the characters’ familial dynamics and their inability to communicate properly because, well, they belong to alien cultures. This bled into “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2” and their extended cameos or supporting acts in “Avengers: Infinity War,” thereby making them the heart of the MCU. And due to their absence, the franchise had become too robotic and self-aware for its own good. With “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special,” Gunn retains the flavor of fun and comedy that he and his group of misfits are synonymous with. But he also brings the sincerity, adoration, and unconditional love these larger-than-life superheroes can show toward each other. Instead of trying to blow you away with “exciting visuals,” he focuses on the chaotic warmth that comes with buying a gift for your loved one at the very last moment. I’ll say that this is the best adaptation of “Jingle All the Way,” where, instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger getting a Turbo-Man, you’ve got Mantis and Drax trying to get Kevin Bacon.
Despite its 44-minute-long runtime, Gunn and his team manage to pack so much style into “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.” For starters, the backstory about how Yondu ruined Christmas for Peter (and Kraglin) is entirely animated. I guess there’s some hand-drawn and some rotoscope animation going on in there, and it’s so well done that I wouldn’t have minded it if the entire special was animated. But then we would’ve missed out on all the spectacular production design by Beth Mickle, art direction by David Scott (and his team), costume design by Judianna Makovsky, the hair and make-up work on the aliens, the special effects, and the visual effects. Knowhere feels so lively and bustling. Groot (Vin Diesel) and Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova) look incredibly realistic. The aforementioned Christmas song sequence is great not just because of the hilarious lyrics but also due to the kinetic cinematography by Henry Braham and editing by Greg D’Auria. Mantis and Drax’s party sequence seems like it has walked straight out of a mid-2000s stoner comedy (and as someone who has grown up through the 2000s, I enjoyed it). It’s only during the action scenes that the camerawork and the cuts get jarring. However, if you’re having fun, it’s not all that noticeable.
Coming to the cast, to no one’s surprise, every single actor is excellent. Dave Bautista clearly believes in the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” theory when it comes to playing Drax. His laugh, his body language, and his comic timing have pretty much been the same since “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But it’s so perfect that it doesn’t need any changes. It’s Pom Klementieff, though, who gets to display the various shades of Mantis. She shows how fiercely affectionate, strangely profound, and determined Mantis can be. With the help of her stunt double and CGI body double, I guess, Pom also gets to show how mind-control powers can work in an action scene. And she gets to truly open her heart in a tear-jerking performance with Chris Pratt, who proves yet again that he’s perfect as Peter Quill. The cameos from Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Flula Borg, and Maria Bakalova are extremely fun. However, the actor who gets to bring the house down is, of course, the one and only Kevin Bacon. He’s clearly having a blast in every scene he’s in. And when he switches on his rockstar persona, trust me, you’ll start to believe in the Christmas spirit.
So, I am very glad to say “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” is one of the best Christmas movies or specials of all time. James Gunn beautifully exemplifies what the MCU could’ve been in its fourth phase. Instead of tying its movies and shows together with some performative theme of grief, setting up sequels and spin-offs, and taking the most uncreative and bland approaches to tell its stories, Phase Four could’ve been centered around heartfelt, enjoyable, character-driven stories. Instead of trying to set up the next version of the Avengers, establish the next big bad villain, or top the last big CGI battle, the MCU could’ve taken its characters on low-stakes missions where things would’ve been resolved with words, little acts of kindness, or heck, a giant party. But what’s done is done, and I can do nothing about it, especially since my needs don’t meet Kevin Feige’s or the general populace’s. All I can do is be thankful for the fact that James Gunn and those willing to collaborate with him are out there doing their best to break the monotony that most of the makers and consumers of the superhero subgenre seem to be comfortable with.
See More: ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’ Ending, Explained: Did Mantis & Drax Save Christmas For Peter?