‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’ is proof of the MCU’s latest streaming concept

Spoiler warning

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back for another adventure. Except this time, they’re not saving the galaxy from the threat of a Kree defector wielding an Infinity Stone, or a godlike celestial, or a genocidal purple alien with some highlighted plans to combat overpopulation problems. No, this time the Guardians are here to save Christmas. And the only way to do that is to kidnap Kevin Bacon.

This is the delightfully absurd premise behind it The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which premiered on Disney+ on Friday. With the glaring exception of Gamora, the entire Guardians gang returns to the occasion, along with the addition of Cosmo the Spacedog (voiced by Maria Bakalova) and a version of Groot that is now alarmingly bloated. Written and directed by James Gunn, the 42-minute TV special marks the first time the MCU’s most motley crew has appeared together under Gunn’s direction since 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. (Since then, Gunn has been fired and rehired by Marvel Studios; during his exile from Marvel, he began work at DC Films, and last month was named co-chair and co-CEO of DC Studios, making him responsible for guiding the DCEU into a new era.) It’s also the last time the Guardians appear on screen before Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3which will serve as the conclusion to Gunn’s Guardians trilogy when it comes out in May 2023.

The holiday special was filmed alongside Vol. 3and while it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds for the Guardians after that, the special provided an additional opportunity for Gunn and the rest of Guardians team to have fun before they finish the arc of the trilogy. “Vol. 3 is actually quite an emotional film, it’s heavy in many ways,” says Gunn The caller. “We still have all the fun Guardians, but with a serious story. And just making a movie is a little more painstaking – you have to get all the shots just right. Whereas [the holiday special], for us, was a blast. It was almost like our days off. Every few days we shoot Vol. 3, and then we filmed this every few days. It was a lot of fun to shoot and make in general. It’s just so silly and so not serious, it made the stakes much lower when we did it.”

While the TV specials reveal that Mantis and Peter Quill are related comes as something of a shock, it doesn’t offer any earth-shattering developments that will change the entire course of Vol. 3 or the MCU as a whole. Instead, it offers a light-hearted, low-stakes side quest that offers some potentially pivotal character and relationship developments while helping to make the case for Marvel’s new streaming format.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is just the second entry in Marvel Studios’ Special Presentations series, following the release of Werewolf at night in October. In early 2021, Marvel transitioned to producing television at the start of Phase 4 with WandaVision, and these special presentations represent the studio’s latest attempt to diversify its programming as it releases content faster than ever. As stand-alone stories that have run between 40 and 53 minutes, they are like souped-up versions of Marvel One-Shots, a series of short films that were released from 2011 to 2014 as bonus features for MCU films and allowed filmmakers to both fill in narrative gaps and experiment with characters and concepts. The specials now provide an even bigger canvas for new characters and ideas to be introduced to the MCU, as well as the chance to focus on otherwise secondary characters while not necessarily having to worry about the same narrative and financial stakes that come with major -budget theatrical releases or series with six to nine episodes.

IN Guardians Holiday Special, all of this translates into the chance to see Drax and Mantis return to Earth to visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, party, and most importantly, abduct Kevin Bacon in terrifying fashion. “Drax the Destroyer and Mantis have been really background characters in quite a few movies now,” says Gunn. “Being able to give them an opportunity to take center stage, in all their anarchic glory, was one of the things that excited me about telling this story. And we didn’t have the pressure to make a movie in the hundreds of millions of dollars starring Drax and Mantis. We were able to do it in television where it’s contained.”

Before Drax and Mantis stole Kevin Bacon’s Christmas, Werewolf at night teased the potential of the Special Presentations format when it landed on Disney+ ahead of Halloween. Directed by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, Werewolf at night is an entertaining homage to the monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, appropriately styled in black and white with an admirable commitment to the charming cheesiness of that film era. If it weren’t for the direct reference to the Avengers in its narrated introduction, it wouldn’t have been easy to say that the TV special belonged in the MCU. It features and focuses entirely on new characters from lesser-known Marvel properties, such as Gael García Bernal’s Jack Russell, who originated from the special’s 1970s comics of the same name. And while some of the characters and monsters appearing in the special may end up being important to the future of the MCU (especially as the debut of an all-new Blade approaches), Werewolf at night works well as a standalone project, in large part because it feels like such a stylistic departure from Marvel norms.

In contrast to Werewolf at nighthowever that Guardians Holiday Special doesn’t exist in what feels like its own corner of the MCU. Rather, it’s an extension of a story more than a decade in the making, with The Guardians previously appearing in a few stand-alone films, along with Infinity War and Final gameplus a collective cameo in this year’s Thor: Love and Thunder. This context provided a unique opportunity for Gunn and Co. to create an independent story, while at the same time laying some narrative foundations for the next film to build on.

“There are a lot of things that we are Trojans doing Guardians Vol. 3 in the form of the Christmas special,” explains Gunn. “[Peter and Mantis’s] relationship, but also the fact that they bought Knowhere from the Collector – it’s where they live, it’s their headquarters. The fact that they have a telekinetic dog which is a big part of the landscape of Knowhere; the way Nebula has taken on a much more leadership role in the group; how Kraglin is a very important part of the team. We get to see all these things in the Christmas special, which will then be taken for granted when we get there Vol. 3and I don’t have to spend a lot of time at the beginning of the film explaining them.”

Marvel Studios has yet to officially announce any plans to develop more special presentations, and it’s not clear whether additional projects will continue to be limited to movie-adjacent releases and holiday themes. But Guardians Holiday Special and Werewolf at night has both shown the setting’s potential in different ways, and it could prove to be a promising narrative space where filmmakers can enjoy extra creative freedom and secondary characters can get a chance to shine without having an entire Disney+ series dedicated to them. The MCU’s Phase 5 is expected to start on February 17 with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but you never know; maybe we’ll get the surprise gift of another special presentation along Wong: A love story before Valentine’s Day.

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