If The Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special is the final shot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4 across our bows, it couldn’t be a more apt summary of this wild, uneven, oddball, madcap, much-maligned and at times creatively exhilarating, unfocused and weirdly self-indulgent series of films and TV shows. To finish off with a 42-minute goof, an insubstantial soufflé (a gooflé, maybe) that somehow manages to be all of those things just feels right.
When it was announced that James Gunn wasn’t just working on the third and final Guardians Of The Galaxy movie (due next summer), but also a Christmas special featuring the characters he has transformed from ragtag ragamuffins into the rascally centre of the MCU, it set tongues a-wagging and minds a-racing. What would it be? Guardians 2.5, but with a little Christmas riffing on the soundtrack? A variety show with the Guardians at its centre? Might the title, a ballsy nod to the most infamous TV special of them all — the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special — be a clue to Gunn’s intentions to make something a little deliberately, well, crap?
In the end, it’s a little of all three. There are nods to that Holiday Special, including a couple of animated interludes (Boba Fett was, of course, introduced in that show via cartoon), while some musical numbers threaten briefly to make it seem like we’ve accidentally stumbled upon Jools’ Hootenanny. Or Grootenanny, if you will.
Guardians 2.5, though, is mostly where Gunn — writing and directing again — ends up. Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, he relocates the Guardians back to that giant floating space skull, Knowhere, and swiftly sets his plot in motion. After learning, through Sean Gunn’s Kraglin, what Christmas means to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) set out to help mend their leader’s broken heart (this all takes place after the death of Gamora, lest we forget, and Pratt’s Quill is still in sad-sack mode; something he can hopefully break out of by the time Vol. 3 rolls around) by giving him a Christmas he won’t forget. Which involves going to Earth to kidnap Earth’s mightiest hero, Kevin Bacon.
So frothy, and fun, and so clearly not intended to be taken seriously.
But because they’re idiots, and have only 12 percent of a plan, things swiftly go wrong. Can Drax and Mantis save the day, get Kevin Bacon back to Knowhere, and remind Peter Quill of the magic of Christmas? The outcome, of course, is never in doubt. So really it’s about enjoying the ride. And there is plenty to enjoy here, as Drax and Mantis — whose weird chemistry was one of the most enjoyable aspects of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 — blunder their way around LA, and into trouble with the law. Gunn can write these characters in his sleep, and Bautista knows Drax’s cartoonish comedic contours inside and out by now, of course, but it’s Pom Klementieff, still a fairly recent addition to the Guardians’ gang, who really blossoms here, leaning into Mantis’ well-meaning weirdness while also giving some delightfully dotty line readings, and adding a little depth to a character who can all too easily become the comic relief.
Make no mistake, as charming as it all is, this is not an entry-level MCU effort. And that’s ok — at this point, Gunn, Kevin Feige and co. have earned the right to let loose every now and again with an utter oddity like this. But there will be some, and that may even include hardened MCU fans, for whom this might be an indulgence too far, and for whom this might resemble the most expensive home video ever shot (the production values here are astonishing — entire movies have been shot on sets less impressive than the Knowhere soundstage). The whole thing is incredibly slight, and fairly inconsequential (with the possible exception of one character revelation, it feels like you could skip this and go straight into Vol. 3 and not miss a beat), while the Kevin Bacon scenes feel disappointingly toothless. The EE ads have riffed on his career and persona with more comedic spark than here.
But it’s also so frothy, and fun, and so clearly not intended to be taken seriously. It is what it is: a bunch of A-holes, learning and laughing and singing about Christmas. If that’s not your bag, then I Am Groot. And we mean it.