The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is about 45 minutes long, and feels like it was written in about that much time. It is a sweet, silly tribute to the spirit of Christmas starring a few oddball Marvel characters. That’s it. But curiously, this Holiday Special is not inconsequential. In its own tossed-off way, it is fairly important to the future of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. While it might not be very memorable, it is essential viewing for Marvel fans who want to be prepared for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
That’s because it makes some drastic changes to the status quo of a few of the characters, and even to the Guardians team as a whole. (I will do my best not to spoil how.) Some of these developments have already happened before the special even begins, with the Guardians back at Knowhere, the outpost in space constructed from the head of a dead Celestial that appeared in the first Guardians movie. With Christmas approaching, Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) continues to mourn the loss of Gamora, who died in Avengers: Infinity War. His teammates Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to cheer him up by finding him the perfect Christmas present.
Because Mantis and Drax are eccentric aliens, they decide that what Peter would really like for the holiday is Kevin Bacon (as himself), a “hero” of Earth that Star-Lord talks about a lot. And because Mantis and Drax are eccentric aliens with no concept of personhood, they seem to have no qualms about kidnapping this sentient being and giving him as a present to their good friend. And so they head to Earth in search of Kevin Bacon, with stops along the way at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and a Hollywood nightclub. (The other Guardians — Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, Vin Diesel’s Groot, and Sean Gunn’s Kraglin — appear briefly in what are essentially cameo roles.)
Writer/director James Gunn does at least provide some big laughs, mostly by viewing Christmas customs through the Guardians’ warped and confused perspectives. And in the style of many TV Christmas specials through the years, there are a couple pleasant musical numbers, provided by the band the Old 97s. And … that’s about all this show has going for it. Bautista and Klementieff, who are the special’s true stars, seem to be having a lot of fun, but their performances are wildly over the top, to the point where they barely feel consistent with the previous Guardians movies. (Both scream at least 30 percent of their dialogue at full volume.)
Clearly, no one took this thing very special, and the viewer shouldn’t either. And yet creeping around the edges of this very scant story, there are revelations about the Guardians that will surely pay off in major ways in Guardians Vol. 3. And if you don’t watch this Holiday Special, you’ll likely be a little confused when they get mentioned there. Frankly, their inclusion is kind of confusing here. Some changes to the team and the characters are dropped so matter-of-factly in dialogue, I wondered whether they were previously established in other Marvel movies and shows and I had forgotten about them until now.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is certainly not a disaster or an embarrassment like the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special that surely provided some of the quirky inspiration for this Marvel production. But it’s so slight that one senses very little time or effort went into it. And in fact, I just found an interview where James Gunn openly admits that he wrote the entire screenplay in “a few hours.” That does not surprise me at all.