REVIEW: ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’

If you’re looking for a 40-minute Marvel Studios Special Presentation that changes the entire landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special isn’t going to satisfy your craving. While the special does somewhat surprisingly advance a few plot points, those ultimately feel like bits that happen here to save precious minutes of screentime in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which will almost certainly change the entire landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Director James Gunn has made it quite clear that Vol. 3 is the end for this group of Guardians and that it’s a love letter to Rocket, who he’s openly described as a character he loves more than any other he’s ever written and one who he believes deserves a “spectacular” final chapter. If Vol. 3 is a love letter to Rocket, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is a shorter and less spectacular love letter to a pair of characters who have yet to truly have been in the spotlight in any of the Guardians’ appearances to date. If you’re looking for a 40-minute Marvel Studios Special Presentation that puts Drax and Mantis and their odd couple relationship front and center, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is going to land just fine.

Star-Lord and Gamora have certainly had their time in the spotlight over the course of Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Avengers: Infinity War. Somewhat surprisingly, Nebula, who is a much less important character in the comics, has been given ample time to shine in Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. And though Rocket is going to be the star of the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 show, he and Groot have had quite a bit of attention. Despite having a very compelling arc in the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning comics on which Gunn has based his film version of the Guardians, Drax hasn’t been much other than muscle and comic relief and Mantis has been around mostly to make funny faces and occasionally use her powers when convenient.

To be fair, Gunn is certainly well-aware that the two characters haven’t ever really been given the time that the others have. Recognizing that and the great chemistry that exists between Dave Bautista and Pom Klementieff, Gunn once approached Marvel Studios about a Drax and Mantis spin-off film. While the director was told there would be no room on the theatrical slate for such a piece, he also said that while it might not be a movie, the pitch hadn’t been forgotten. And ultimately, as theorized here, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special turned out the be the Drax and Mantis show, complete with exactly the type of humor audiences have come to expect from the pair.

The backdrop for the adventures of the two is truly steeped in the fact that these Guardians have been and continue to be a family. The special opens with Kraglin tells Nebula, Drax and Mantis a short story about how Yondu once ruined Christmas for Peter. Still reeling from the loss of Gamora, a rough-looking Peter Quill seems to exist as a shell of the once brash and bravado-filled Star-Lord he once was. Mantis, whose big “secret” gives her a reason to feel a bit more responsible for trying to break Peter out of his slump, hatches a plan with Drax to give Peter a great Christmas by giving him a present that he will never forget. To Drax, there’s only a Kevin Bacon will do. Drax and Mantis head to Earth where holiday shenanigans ensue.

Of the pair, Klementieff’s Mantis truly takes the lead and is given the most to do. In the comics, the character was a highly-skilled martial artist and while she’s had a few tussles in the MCU, she’s mostly been relegated to putting characters to sleep or manipulating their emotions. Make no mistake, she does her fair share of that here too, but she also gets to show off some slick hand-to-hand moves. Bautista’s Drax has his fair share of funny moments as well, though he seems at times to be doing more belly-laughing than talking. The duo’s adventures on Earth only take up about 25% of the special’s runtime, but ultimately provide 90% of the laughs. Returning to space, they manage to give Peter-and Kevin Bacon-a Christmas they’ll never forget.

The special is full of everything fans of Gunn’s work with the Guardians have come to expect. While it’s not essential viewing for casual fans, the story absolutely adds to the overall story and emotional core of the Guardians. Gunn’s at his best when exploring the dynamic of this misfit group and by watching the special, hardcore MCU fans will find themselves feeling even more emotionally invested in the group; in that way, it’s almost unfair to have an inkling of what Vol. 3 is set to do to them. It’s also worth noting that this project could never have been done as well as it was without Gunn behind it. His emotional investment in these characters and their family make it work. And of course, there’s the music. From the hilariously off-beat Christmas jam written by Gunn and belted out by the Old 97’s in the opening to the interesting, to Hanoi Rocks’ “Dead By Christmas” and, of course, Kevin Bacon rocking out in space, the soundtrack hits the requisite holiday beats while triggering emotions throughout.

Marvel Studios is on to something with these short-form special presentations and are definitely 2-for-2 following Werewolf By Night with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. While not essential viewing, this one is going to play well for hardcore and casual fans alike as it gives just enough of a narrative push to the story of the Guardians while helping us all remember how important family is this time of year.

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