The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022)

As a fan of the Guardians movies and (as you may have noticed) of Christmas media, I've been waiting for this. And, at risk of spoiling the end of the review, I was not disappointed. There are a few details I have issues with, but on the whole, I absolutely love this thing.

The special opens with an animated bit establishing that Peter Quill's childhood Christmases with the Ravagers were traumatic (or at least that's Kraglin's impression). Mantis, who we learn is secretly Peter's half-sister, wants to give him a proper Christmas, so she and Drax head to Earth to get him the perfect present: legendary Earth hero, Kevin Bacon. They arrive in Hollywood and, after some of the standard shenanigans you'd expect, the two Guardians are given a map to the stars, which they use to track down Bacon.

They break into his house, chase him down the street, fight off police, then Mantis uses her powers to manipulate Bacon's mood so he's eager to follow them anywhere. They then abduct him and bring him to Knowhere, which they decorate for the holidays, along with the local inhabitants.

Peter's overjoyed to see the decorations, though he's of course horrified to discover his friends kidnapped an actor on his behalf. He demands Bacon be given his mental faculties back and returned to Earth. Before leaving, however, the actor speaks with Kraglin and learns a little about Quill. He decides to stay for a bit and sings with a local band.

Meanwhile, we learn that Peter's childhood Christmases weren't all bad. While Yondu started tough and rejected the idea of a holiday built around generosity, he softened quickly, even gifting the boy the iconic blasters he still uses. At the end, Mantis reveals they're siblings, and Peter tells her it's the best Christmas gift he could ever have received.

The first and most obvious observation is this isn't an action movie or anything of the sort. There's no real antagonist, no threat to the galaxy, and no one dies (though it was a close call for a couple cops). The story doesn't hinge on any external threat, at all: it's just a classic TV story about misfits learning about and celebrating Christmas.

And damn, that's refreshing. I like Marvel movies and shows quite a bit, but the constant parade of manufactured threats to existence have gotten a bit tedious. Seeing one of these with low stakes makes for a nice break, and it gives them more time for the comedic, heartwarming character work that - let's be honest - is really what makes these movies and shows work. The fact this overlaps with holiday special tradition almost feels like an excuse to push the action to one side and actually do just the good parts of Marvel.

That said, the bit where Mantis and Drax fight police is pretty rad. It's all silly - bullets literally tickle Drax and Mantis is delightful - but the sequence holds up as a mini-fight.

Speaking of Mantis, this special is largely a chance for her to stand out. She was largely considered the weakest aspect of the second Guardians movie, where she spent almost the entire movie submissive and scared. It's great seeing her express a wider variety of emotions, giving into anger on several occasions. Also, it's nice to see her in a fight (we got hints of this in Infinity War, but this is the first time we've seen her really featured in combat). Gunn's had an odd pattern of introducing women in a Guardian movie, underpowering them compared to their comic counterparts, then correcting that in the following installment (Gamora and Nebula in the first film and Mantis here). I wouldn't read too much into it - this pattern hasn't extended to his other films - but at least we're finally getting a Mantis who's capable and more importantly fun.

Because she's great here. Just a wonderful, hilarious character who now keeps up with Drax rather than feeling like a sounding board for his jokes to bounce off of. She's the main character here, and both she and the special are better for it.

We only get brief moments with the other Guardians, likely because some of them are extremely expensive to put on screen. But what we get of Rocket is fantastic, and same goes for the bits with Nebula. Groot seems to have matured, which feels more like a tease for the upcoming movie than anything else. And we also finally got to spend some time with Cosmos, the psychic dog introduced in the first movie who hasn't been seen since (I'm certainly excited to see this character back).

I do have a handful of minor quibbles, though nothing serious. For all the praise Gunn receives for his use of needle drops and popular music, two of the special's songs feel cliché. Fairytale of New York and Christmas Wrapping are overused across The genre, and I cringed when they started. Both are good songs, but I've lost count of the number of Christmas movies and specials I've heard them in. The other songs are much less obtrusive, and the original number (written by Gunn himself, I understand) is fantastic.

Even more trivial is a bit of a continuity hiccup around Mantis's jumping. There's a scene in which she speculates whether Drax can throw her over a gate, despite having exhibited extraordinary leaping abilities in prior movies. Then a few scenes later, she's easily able to jump as high or higher on her own. I get this was a gag, but it pulled me out of the special for a second. Again, this one's trivial.

I was all set to complain about the decision to animate the flashbacks in 2D rather than stop-motion, then I looked at a scene again and hit myself in the forehead. They're mimicking the style of the Boba Fett story from the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. That's brilliant! I love it! No notes!

There's not a great deal more to say about this. By design, it's a simple, silly story about absurd characters experiencing Christmas in space in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If that sounds boring to you, obviously you'll skip this. But I expect anyone who likes the Guardians movies is going to be watching this with a huge grin. It's a ton of fun and well worth your time.