The Guardians of the Galaxy are back in the The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, but you'd be excused if you thought they hadn't left. They'd appeared in Thor: Love and Thunder, so it's not like things were with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, where you hadn't seen Shuri and the rest in ages.
At times a pleasant return to the Guardians of the Galaxy's actual story — a reminder they're not just Thor's friends — and just as often a neat holiday special about giving joy, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is an early present from the MCU (speaking of which, this marks the full end of phase 4, with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania as the next upcoming Marvel movie, which begins phase 5).
Sentimentalists beware, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is going to give you all the feels. I only hope that you, unlike Drax, know how to parse the emotions. A short special — my screener ran 42 minutes in total, but it's more like 39 minutes before the end credits — The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special doesn't overstay its welcome at all. It may even get you teary-eyed and thinking about how to make someone else's Christmas special.
And if you feel like this Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special review is too short, a bit of a spoiler: that's part of the joy of this event. When I'm avoiding spoilers, this special is too short to really have a lot to say about it. But much like your favorite side dish at a holiday dinner, you'll be glad you had it. Oh, and it even plants little seeds for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the end of writer/director James Gunn's run in the MCU.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special review: Exactly what it should be
The story here is simple: it's Christmastime in space, and that means explaining Christmas and its lore to aliens. As you might have guessed, teaching Drax (Dave Bautista) about Christmas is a jolly-old vat of confusion, and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is doing her best Grinch impression.
But thanks to the earnest and honest moments from Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) about a glum Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) a mission is derived. Mantis and Drax are headed to Earth, as the trailer for the special explained, to fetch Star-Lord's favorite human: Kevin Bacon. As for Rocket (Bradley Cooper)? He's got a new friend and that serves for more wholesome energy.
That quest isn't all that this special is, but it's close. Fortunately Bautista and Klementieff thrive under the mission, as the pair — clueless in terms of Earth traditions — offer perfectly comical fish-out-of-water moments. Some of these incidents don't feel especially holiday-centric, but that doesn't matter.
James Gunn, who wrote and directed the special, deserves a lot of praise for how charming and effortless it all comes across. You get a little adventure, a vintage-looking animated segment or two and also a couple of songs.
Drax and Mantis are constantly funny, and the aforementioned 39-minute running time means nothing has enough time to overstay its welcome. This is the upside of the "A Marvel Special Presentation" length, which my colleague Rory Mellon found a tad too short for introducing new characters in Werewolf By Night. When you already know the characters, it's a perfect amount of time for a new visit.
I can imagine that some might wish there was more Nebula, Rocket or Groot, as those characters don't exactly get a whole lot of time. But this special doesn't really need them — as everything feels worthwhile or fun, and that's always a tricky balance to achieve.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special outlook
It feels like The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is the rare Marvel TV project people will be rewatching, and it could become an annual treat. I'm already curious which Marvel characters will fill this spot next year (Hey, Kevin Feige, can we get a The Marvels Holiday Special, so we can have something a bit more multicultural?).
As I noted in this Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special review, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff and James Gunn all deserve applause for this one. It's touching without being cloying, and fun and on-brand for the Guardians films.
When nearly every Marvel movie is over 2 hours, and the Marvel shows are at least 6 episodes, it's great that they're aware that some of us have holiday meals to cook and presents to wrap. Things move along fast enough to not get bored at all, and I'd wager you'll have a smile when it's all over. This 'special' is also something special, as it delivers a surprise I won't spoil here, though it's something MCU fans have been speculating about for quite some time.
So, cheers, James Gunn, we hope you have a happy holiday season, too.
Next: Here's why Marvel needs to rethink its Disney Plus shows — and the Guardians holiday special is proof.