The sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe has set its sights on the holidays. It started quietly, with a black-and-white monster movie released ahead of Halloween. But now, with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special on Disney Plus, the MCU has gone ahead and turned the most wonderful time of the year into another piece of its complex and ever-expanding narrative.
Now, to be fair, it’s at least a fun addition to the MCU. The special clocks in at less than an hour and is basically a feel-good Christmas story with some sci-fi shenanigans thrown in. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, doing his best Super Mario impression) is understandably sad following the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña), so his friends Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to cheer him up with a little bit of Christmas joy. Problem is, they have little idea of what Christmas on Earth actually entails, so they think a good gift would be kidnapping Quill’s hero, Kevin Bacon, so the two can hang out.
What follows is best described as a Christmas caper in which Drax and Mantis stumble their way through the kidnapping, at various points getting drunk, breaking and entering, taking selfies with tourists, and pining over inflatable holiday decorations. At one point, someone mistakes Drax for Kratos. Bautista and Klementieff have a charmingly alien chemistry, both clueless in the ways of humans but largely trying their best. Bacon also seems like he’s having a blast playing an extremely confused version of himself. It all ends with the kind of heartwarming-yet-silly finale you’d expect, and there is, of course, lots of good music.
But there’s more to it than that. Whereas Werewolf By Night was refreshing in large part because it stood on its own, the Guardians holiday special goes in a different direction. It’s stuffed with references to not only the previous two GotG movies but also other parts of the MCU. Some are throwaway gags, while others — like the history with Gamora — are integral to understanding what exactly is going on. There’s even a reveal toward the end that seems like it’ll be a big deal for future Guardians stories.
So instead of a nice little Christmas adventure, the special feels like a holiday-themed prologue to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (which hits theaters next May). Perhaps that’s to be expected; it’s the Marvel way, after all. But the studio has proven very recently that these shorter, more experimental projects can be a blast when they don’t have to worry about all of the many narrative threads of the MCU. (The same is true of Star Wars.) But the GotG special can’t resist the lure of the canon and ends up a little less special because of it.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special starts streaming on Disney Plus on November 25th.