There is a very real possibility of too much Marvel — but not today.
“The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” debuts today on Disney+, where it makes a strong (and genuinely hysterical) case for expanding the MCU’s roster and limits. “Guardians” writer and director James Gunn wrote the special in a matter of hours while filming 2023’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” an enjoyable experience juxtaposed with the “torture” of his third MCU feature film.
The special swiftly and smartly sets up some plot threads and larger MCU nuggets — like the Guardians taking over Knowhere, their new talking dog (Maria Bakalova), and Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) concerning Christmas present — but it’s also the rare piece of the Marvel story that requires almost no prior knowledge. All that matters is that these are aliens in space, and that Peter (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth at a young age. The rest of it — who’s who and their various powers and personalities — fits easily in context.
With the search for Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) wearing on Peter, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) decide to get him an unforgettable Christmas present: Kevin Bacon. That entails this hilarious duo taking a little field trip to Earth, where they get up to what can only be described as shenanigans. From Hollywood Boulevard to a gay nightclub to a classic holiday-themed home invasion, the special takes them through riotous hijinks and the kind of situations Marvel’s finest rarely get to indulge. Every superhero movie should include our heroes pounding shots and meeting “homies” on a night out, but they can’t, because Infinity Stones.
Bautista and Klementieff’s chemistry is as magnificent as ever, an extension of their exceptional scenes in 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Where Drax is aggressive, Mantis is soft-spoken; where he uses his fists, she attacks the mind. At one point, she chides him that “You can’t just go around killing people!” and he huffs “How am I supposed to know the rules if no one tells me?” All of this plays out with increasingly garish holiday apparel, a ceaselessly satisfying visual gag. The other guardians’ smaller screen time feels appropriate, like sitcom characters in a B-story, and Bacon is wonderfully game in his bizarre MCU debut.
With Phase 4 drawing to a close, Marvel fans are increasingly intimidated and exhausted by the sprawling library of MCU content in theaters and on Disney+. But experiments like “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” reiterate that there’s payoff to be had in one-offs and weird bets. Not everything has to be a three-hour movie — nor does it have to be an eight-hour series. The holiday special doesn’t suffer the density of a Marvel feature, the bloating of its TV shows, or the predictable climaxes plaguing nearly every live-action MCU project to date. It’s an uproarious holiday caper with an effortless but effective emotional arc, leaning into what the “Guardians” movies do so well but don’t have time to explore.
It would be tough to argue that the Marvel machine as led by studio president Kevin Feige lacks purpose — but fair to say that purpose feels a little thinner and harder to find this side of “Avengers: Endgame.” But there was satisfying Marvel before Thanos, and after — it just needs a little of that Kevin Bacon confidence behind the scenes. “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” is an expert use of cast, story, and format that should stick with Marvel creators moving forward. What if this project went bigger, or smaller? What if it didn’t require arbitrary battles and beats? The possibilities are endless and the results, when everything adds up, are a gift.
Also, Groot is thicc now.
“The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” is now streaming on Disney+.