While Wakanda Forever was the big, emotional finish of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4, its seems that we’re not quite done yet as there’s still an intergalactic dollop of festive cheer left to be served in the form of the second edition of Marvel’s Special Presentations.
The first was the equally seasonal Werewolf By Night, an enjoyably inconsequential (for now) Halloween romp that threw reluctant lycanthopes, chilled vegetable monsters and a surprising amount of blood at the screen to create yet another, nice change of pace from the usual bouts of superpeople and spandex.
However, James Gunn’s return to Marvel after moonlighting with the Suicide Squad is something of a different kettle of fish as not only does it feature previously established characters, but it is essentially a primer for the third Guardians movie. Can Guardians 2.5 bring the cheer while adding something new before these beloved a-holes bow out next year?
We catch up with Quill, Mantis, Drax, Groot, Rocket and Kraglin after their all too brief appearance in Thor: Love And Thunder to find out that they’ve somehow bought Knowhere from the Collector and are essentially fixing it up to be livable again after Thanos’ assault. However, Peter Quill is down in the dumps as he still mourns the death of Gamora (or at least this universe’s version – bloody multiverse), but after learning that it’s approaching Christmas time back on Earth from Kraglin, Mantis and Drax figure they can bolster Pete’s mood by getting him the greatest present ever.
Hitting upon the idea of travelling to Earth, the volatile/infantile duo, decide to find the actor Kevin Bacon (whom they believe, thanks to Quill’s stories, is an actual hero) and take him back to Knowhere to present him as the ultimate gift. However, the fact that both Mantis and Drax are about as sharp as chainsaw molded from jelly, their expedition starts about as well as you’d suspect with them having not the slightest clue where to begin. Aimlessly wandering around Hollywood while tourists snap photos of them (but cluelessly accepting tips anyway) or blowing their newly acquired cash on sampling human booze, the two finally locate Kevin Bacon’s abode and handle things about as well as you’d expect.
Legitimately terrified of these beings who want to whisk him off into space, Bacon flees for his life, persued by a woman with antena and a mountain of a man who can’t stop bickering about which inflatable christmas decorations they should steal from his front lawn. Police get involved, Mantis uses her powers and to their horror, they discover that Kevin Bacon is nothing more than a common actor (“Actors are repugnant!”) and figure they’ve ruined christmas. But Mantis has a secret that’s galvanised her to go through all this trouble in the first place, one she’s been afraid to tell Peter since the moment she met him.
Straight from the off, it’s obvious that what James Gunn is cheekily trying to emulate is the much maligned Star Wars Holiday Special, a legendarily tacky television event that’s essentially resides in the seventh circle of Hell when it comes to shoddy spin-offs. Starting with an animated flashback to Peter’s childhood that sees Yondu (Michael Rooker’s latest obligatory appearance for James Gunn) trashing the very concept of gift giving as un-Ravager like, the style seems suspiciously similar to the notorious segment that first introduced Boba Fett to the world. Taken in this respect, The Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday (like a large chunk of Phase 4) walks the line between wilfully goofy and genuinely touching, allowing a couple of background characters to take the main stage and just have fun with it.
Drax and Mantis may be stalwart members of the team and even featured predominantly in Infinity War, but aside from a lot of memorably placed one-liners, have never really been at the forefront of the action. However if anything, Mantis is the lead here and while it’s initially quite the ballsy move to sideline the more iconic team members in favour of an empathic bug lady, it actually ends up being quite the sweet gesture.
Subtly expanding in the universe around the edges (Groot is grown, Cosmo the telepathic cosmonaut dog has an expanded role, the Guardians have a new ship named The Bowie), the double act of Pom Klementieff and Dave Bautista ends up being far more likable than the endless forced laughing they kept doing throughout Vol 2. as they childishly bumble through their badly thought out plan (an outraged Peter later compares it to human trafficking) and Gunn provides plenty of side jokes for them to wrestle with – Drax taking violent umbrage with a man dressed as a Go-Bot is a particular winner.
However, while the Kevin Bacon stuff isn’t quite as sharp as you may have hoped (surely a missed opportunity to lampoon Hollywood actors before the Wonder Man show is made), thus Holiday Special justifies its existence with a surprisingly moving third act that fully embraces yule tide cheese to genuinely heart warming effect. In fact, to go full spoiler alert, the reveal that both Quill and Mantis actually share a father in the genocidal man-planet, Ego, ends up being profoundly touching – as is the revelation that Yondu didn’t actually ruin Christmas all those years ago and in fact Peter’s gift is what sparked off the finned Ravager’s quirk of putting little figurines along his console.
However, those who have had enough of the fourth phase’s habit of spending an entire movie or series mixing broad comedy with hauling their lead characters through whatever lingering trauma Endgame left them with, won’t be particularly be enthused at yet another entry that doesn’t move the entire universe forward.
However, that’s obviously not what James Gunn or Marvel is shooting for here and as a single serving slice of space superheroes, it’s yet another compelling argument that these Marvel Special Presentations may be the way forward when it comes to how newer or background characters are now fleshed out.
Still, the soundtrack rocks, the production values are immense (some full length features would kill for those sets) and it’s a nice starter to the entree of the Guardian’s final appearance that’ll no doubt wreck our emotions just as much as the sight of Star- Lord welling up as he gets his crimbo mojo back.