This article contains minor spoilers for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.
It takes a whopping 44 minutes, including credits and post-credits, for James Gunn to tell his Christmas tale with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. That’s 11 minutes shorter than Marvel’s Halloween special from earlier this year, the masterful Werewolf by Night. But while Werewolf by Night, despite its TV special format, was an homage to some very specific eras of horror filmmaking, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special‘s runtime is in keeping with its desire to very much be a piece of television, rather than abbreviated movie. And a very specific flavor of television, at that.
You see, once upon a time, holiday and Christmas specials were a regular fixture on broadcast network television. Often they were just standard episodes of your favorite show that took on seasonal themes, sometimes they were animated specials featuring Saturday morning or comic strip favorites brought to prime time, and other times, they were bizarre variety shows, the type that were network staples in the ’70s and early ’80s, featuring everything from all-star casts, to celebrities proving they could sing and dance, and other general weirdness.
The most (in)famous of these is of course the Star Wars Holiday Special. Airing in November of 1978, after the first film had become a box office and merchandising juggernaut and genuine cultural phenomenon but long before it became a franchise with a sprawling, intricate, and well-protected mythology, it is both curiosity and disaster, featuring bizarre celebrity cameos like Art Carney and Bea Arthur, animated segments, and a handful of questionable “songs” (with an exception/honorable mention to Jefferson Starship’s suitably trippy “Light the Sky on Fire”).
Why am I bringing all this up?
Because The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special manages to encompass all of these elements: a significant celebrity guest star (Kevin Bacon), a sentimental holiday theme, and even in-universe musical numbers. The difference here is that this is no variety show, and indeed feels like a “bottle episode” of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy universe, as Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) set out to help give Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a memorable Christmas, despite the fact that they don’t fully grasp anything about the holiday in the first place. Less of a “story” and more “a vibe” (what do you want, it’s only 44 minutes long!) it’s all done with director James Gunn’s eye for madcap antics and ear for soundtrack assembly. But what a genuinely sweet vibe it is, as this crew of spacefaring misfits do all they can to help their leader experience Christmas again, with a genuine sentimentality that could only be achieved with the brilliant character groundwork laid in their first two movie adventures. And even with a scaled back plot that allows some of its key characters to amble around Hollywood for a bit, it still contains all the visual touches you expect from the Guardians’ corner of the MCU.
I’ll confess, there was a part of me that was hoping Gunn and company were going to go full late ’70s TV special with the format and visuals here, much like how Giacchino went in with both arms on his Universal aesthetic for Werewolf by Night. But while that was appropriate for the Halloween special, it would have run the risk of undermining the sincerity of this special with pastiche. The earthbound antics aside, this looks as a Guardians chapter should, and the visual standouts of the films like Rocket Raccoon (who remains one of the great CG character creations of all time) and Groot (who at times appears to be a practical costume in this but is in fact still CG!) are as perfectly realized here as they are on the big screen.
As for the much-touted appearance of Kevin Bacon, the actor seems to be having the time of his life, just completely down for whatever weirdness is thrown his way, leaning into it with a game enthusiasm that you’d expect from a guest on classic episodes of the original Muppet Show, doing everything and more asked of him. We could use more of this kind of energy in Hollywood these days, although I’m not sure where else it would make as much sense as it does here.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Guardians of the Galaxy adventure without tunes, and Gunn assembles a suitably cool selection of ’em, from the relatively expected “Fairytale of New York” and “Christmas Wrapping” to deeper cuts by Fountains of Wayne and Julian Casablancas. But the real standout of the bunch is an original song created for this special, which kicks such complete and absolute ass, and is delivered with such a fun in-universe performance, that it’s an instant highlight of all of the MCU’s output over the last year or so and feels destined to become a staple of alternative Christmas playlists for all time and always.
The special is a lightweight affair (which is certainly by design), but it’s also crafted with such earnest care that it’s impossible to not find yourself at least a little charmed. It also speaks once again to how Gunn’s sensibilities managed to take these characters from total obscurity to a level where they can participate in something this offbeat, in a format that has barely even been a thing in years, and make it work. Marvel continues to be at its best when it does the unexpected, and they’ve now done that twice with their holiday specials, which share the distinction of allowing directors to run wild in weird formats. More of this from the MCU going forward would be a gift, indeed.
Oh yeah, and that 44 minute runtime? Seems like exactly what would fit in an hour-long broadcast slot on a network if you were to account for commercial breaks. Just one more fun detail in a special that has no shortage of them.