Writer: James Gunn
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Sean Gunn, Kevin Bacon, Maria Bakalova
Over the past two years, seven films and eight shows, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) output can only be described as wildly uneven at best. In a pleasant twist, it’s hit a more consistent stride with the introduction of its special presentations. These are installments that, at less than an hour long, are tight enough that they don’t overstay their welcome, and yet allow their creators to flex a looser, more creative muscle, unrestrained by the need to tie into the larger shared universe or adhere to the templates of either blockbuster storytelling or a standard six-episode arc. Halloween special Werewolf By Night was a spooky, black-and-white homage to Hammer Horror, dousing the camera lens in a liberal amount of blood while still compelling audiences everywhere to fall in love with a (dare I say, adorable) seven-foot-tall swamp monster. Now, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, arriving a month before Christmas, is a shot of festive cheer that’s equal parts incredibly moving and just mischievous enough to keep it light.
Setting a Christmas special around a group of alien characters who have no concept of the festival allows writer-director James Gunn to stack his emotional gauntlet with arcs that span the range from resigned heartbreak to cheeky obliviousness. The animated opening prologue, in which Yondu (Michael Rooker) crushes young Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) hopes of celebrating the holidays gives way to the opening credits, set in present day, to a folk rock song with the lyrics, “Santa is a furry freak with epic superpowers”. The tune builds into an increasingly unhinged diatribe against the fictional character, written by an alien whose sources of information about Christmas are dubious at best. Saddened by the details of Peter’s rough childhood, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) comes up with a plan to cheer him up — she and Drax (Dave Bautista) will kidnap actor Kevin Bacon, who they believe to be the ruler of all Earth, “or at least some people.” He’d be the perfect present for Peter, who’s narrated tales of his exploits for years, they reason. What could possibly go wrong?
Mantis and Drax are natural choices to focus the 44-minute-long special on – her openness and warmth reflect the Christmas spirit, just as his gruffness refuses to let him succumb to it. Even so, Gunn gets playful while depicting the new dynamic they’ve settled into. She gets to be a little more demanding and petulant, and he finds himself thrown off kilter by her newfound assertiveness. With a charming, wide-eyed delight at strange Earth customs, Mantis is not only the heart of this special, but also the source of much of its humour. Once she and Drax find Bacon, however, the special offsets its cheeriness with a stretch of dark comedy, including a home invasion sequence that plays as downright sinister.
What happens when Peter receives his “gift” is predictably funny, but Gunn otherwise peppers the special with thoughtful contrasts. This is an adventure about a giant misunderstanding that only drives home all the ways in which our found families really understand us. It’s an ode to the warmth of friendship, even the kind that begins with kidnapping and mind control. The Guardians’ realisation that Bacon is a performer becomes a setup for meta jokes about how repulsive actors are, but his innate decency provides a sentimental look at the nature of heroism. Some characters might have their illusions shattered, but by the end, all have their beliefs reinforced. Gunn draws on one of his longtime themes, the spectre of absent parents, to reliably elicit tears, though this time of the grateful kind.
There are pointed bits of exposition, which will no doubt lead into the third Guardians movie, but land awkwardly here. And comic talent Maria Bakalova, as Cosmo the telekinetic dog, is underutilised. These are, however, minor flaws in a special this large-hearted. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special wants you to see Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year. And with just one, magical, wordless sequence, it succeeds.