Earthlings are Weird
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
The concept of "Holiday Specials" is, on its own, inherently strange. You take a bunch of characters and put them in a situation that really doesn't suit who they are or what they would do, and expect them to somehow realize the meaning of caring and sharing. In most cases, the fit is so awkward that holiday episodes (however you find them) are the least forgettable parts of a series. For every Charlie Brown Christmas there are a dozen episodes like that time on Saved By the Bell where Zack invited a homeless family to live in his basement and then they were never seen nor heard from again (true story).
It takes a rare group of characters to actually pull off a holiday special. That's why when the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. debuted a Halloween special on Disney+Disney's answer in the streaming service game, Disney+ features the studio's (nearly) full back catalog, plus new movies and shows from the likes of the MCU and Star Wars. it went with characters we hadn't seen before from one of the lines of horror comics, creating the superb Werewolf By Night. For a Holiday special, though, they pretty much had to go with established characters (as sadly Marvel doesn't have a comic where Santa beats the shit out of bad guys, Punisher-style, although I would absolutely read that), and the only characters that would seem to fit the bill are the Guardians of the Galaxy. And, frankly, they were right.
The team -- lead by Peter Quill and as currently set with Nebula, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Kraglin, and Cosmo the Space Dog -- is about as anachronistic and weird as the MCU can handle, making them the perfect vehicle for a Holiday special. The characters can flit around, get into trouble, do things vaguely holiday adjacent, and then have a caring and sharing moment at the end because that's all perfectly within the bounds of their normal stories. All you have to do is sprinkle on some weird Christmas music and a few lights and, boom, Holiday Special. That was clearly what James Gun had in mind and, damn, does it ever work. This is probably the single most enjoyable part of Phase IV, and its a fitting way to send out that chapter of the MCU before we get into the real meat with Phase V.
In the special, Peter is sad because Gamora isn't around (seeing as how she died and was replaced by a version of herself from years prior that doesn't know Peter at all -- comics are weird), so he mopes around Nowhere (which the Guardians now own), leading the place while his heart aches. Everyone around him tries to cheer him up, and then Mantis has the idea to help him celebrate Christmas, as that holiday is coming up on Earth, by getting him the best present ever: Kevin Bacon. The actual Kevin Bacon.
So Mantis and Drax head off to Earth to find Kevin Bacon. They get mistaken for superhero look-alikes, go have a grand time at a club, get drunk, and then (with a Map to the Stars) stumble over to Kevin Bacon's house. He is, of course, not exactly inclined to let two space-weirdos in, so they chase him down, capture him, and take him back to Nowhere. The question is now will this somehow bring the magic of the holidays to Peter? Also, with Kevin Bacon press charges?
The best thing about The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is that it works both as just a random adventure for this heroes and as a actual holiday special. It doesn't actually have to compromise on one objective to work for the other. It's weird, it's funny, its entirely random, but it still stays on message: this is a special celebrating the good cheer of the season that also has drunk aliens kidnapping Kevin Bacon. It works on both fronts.
Pairing up Mantis and Drax, two characters that had delightful chemistry back in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is an inspired choice. They're the two characters that have the worst understand of Earth culture, and of people in general, and what it means to have holiday cheer, so putting them front and center for their own adventure lets the special get crazy. It mines a lot of humor from these two just being giant space-dorks and it's great. I think its a shtick that could wear itself out if we had to watch them for a feature length adventure, just the two of them, but at 42 minutes, we get the right amount of time before the special comes to an end.
And it is very funny. From the opening musical number (performed by the Old '97s), "I Don't Know What Christmas Is (But Christmastime Is Here)", through to the misadventures on Earth, and then the delightful holiday celebration at the end, the special manages to mine a ton of humor out of each and every scene. This is pure comedy here, just wall to wall jokes that don't let up, and there's absolutely no way to come out of this special without a giant smile on your face. It's dumb and goofy and one of the best times I've had with the MCU in a while.
It, frankly, improves on Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, which was a big of a bloated drag in comparison to the first film. This is a leaner and more focused adventure that really gets its characters and finds a way to make them all shine. Sure, some characters remain more on the periphery due to the single story this is telling, with Nebula, Kraglin, Cosmo, Rocket, and Groot all relegated to cameo comic relief, but that just shows Gunn knew to put the focus where it needed to be for a solid 42 minutes. It's not bloated, it hustles, and it gets the job done.
It's a weird thing to end Phase IV on a holiday special, to be sure, but then all of Phase IV has been a bit of a mess anyway. Disjointed and shuffled around due to COVID, Phase IV never really came together the way I think Marvel wanted. Maybe this was always going to be the special that capped the Phase and maybe not, but this is how we're bringing Phase IV to a close. Not with an AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils. film but a goofy Holiday special that barely relates to anything from the last couple of years.
In that regard, really, it's a good capper because nothing else that came before really relates to each other anyway. And if we can't go out with a bang I think I would rather end the Phase on a goofy little special that just has fun. We need more of that in the MCU.