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Marvel Studios is here to ring in another holiday with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. It marks the second of Marvel Studios’ newly minted “Marvel Special Presentation” line, following the release of Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf by Night in October. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, written and directed by James Gunn, once again highlights the successful nature of these 45-minute specials, packing everything audiences love about the franchise into a single punch. While the limited and ongoing series, and movies, definitely aren’t going anywhere, the Marvel Special Presentations may be the MCU’s most exciting prospect.
Both Werewolf by Night and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special have been regarded as among the best entries in Phase 4, not only for their ability to showcase the unique talents of their filmmakers, but also for their overall lack of connective tissue to the larger MCU, allowing viewers to simply enjoy them on their own terms without concern for what’s next or where they fit in the grand scheme of things. So, while fan bets of Blade and Silver Surfer showing up in these respective projects didn’t pay off, the specials themselves work as well as they do because they feel like a justified way to spend an audience’s time, rather than serving as a trailer showcase.
As the MCU continues its rapid growth, both on the big screen and on Disney+, keeping track of back-to-back movies and weekly series has become cumbersome for some portion of the audience. While the notion of franchise fatigue when it comes to superhero movies is as much of a nonissue as it was a decade ago, with the films consistently accounting for the most ticket sales and highest box office each year, even amidst the pandemic, the number of releases leaves little breathing room to catch up before the next thing.
An August Morning Consult poll found that more U.S. adults are feeling fatigued by the sheer number of releases than they did a year ago, and that’s true even of Marvel fans.
Given that information, more Marvel Special Presentations may not seem conducive. But perhaps it’s a good idea to reduce the number of series, if not movies, and rethink them as Special Presentations, rather than six- to nine-week commitments that often air alongside and struggle for room amidst Disney’s simultaneously streaming Star Wars shows, and whatever the big HBO series of the quarter is. This could both free up audiences and renew their investment in the universe, and allow filmmakers to stretch themselves creatively.
What’s apparent in both specials is that they make creative choices that the films wouldn’t permit and a series likely wouldn’t sustain. Werewolf’s black-and-white approach was an incredible means to set the mood and pay homage to Universal monster movies, but considering the odd stigma around black-and-white from younger viewers, it would likely turn off many general audience members. And while WandaVision could implement black-and-white for two episodes to evoke the feeling of classic sitcoms, that’s also not a look that would be met with the same praise on a weekly basis.
Guardians focuses primarily on Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) who have been comedic supporting characters in the films. It’s great to see them get the spotlight, and for both actors to show off more of their characters’ personalities, but at the same time, Drax and Mantis’ communication issues and literal readings wouldn’t be nearly as charming if sustained for six episodes. But in 45 minutes? In 45 minutes, we get to see bold creative swings that don’t get lost in the amount of “content” being delivered to viewers.
There’s been great directorial work on all of the Marvel television shows, but in the projects that have multiple directors, many viewers would be hard-pressed to name one of the directors or recall what episode a specific shot or well-edited moment was in because it all merges together. But you take Giacchino directing Werewolf by Night and you remember who made it, how that hallway scene was choreographed, and thus a voice becomes easier to discern. While Giacchino and Gunn certainly aren’t newcomers to the MCU, there is a space within the Marvel Special Presentations to have newcomers either showcase a style audiences recognize from their other work, or for them to define it on that project. Phase 4 has broken away from some of Marvel’s house-style issues, but Special Presentations could push that further, to the point where anything from a musical to stop-motion could be on the table for a format.
And then there are the characters. With so many supporting characters at this point, some of them get lost in the shuffle of events, and some actors are asked for less than they’re capable of. So why not combat that with a Wong (Benedict Wong) and Madisynn (Patty Guggenheim) Special Presentation, or Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), or Aneka (Michaela Coel) and the Midnight Angels, or Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), with self-contained stories that both enrich the larger MCU and work on their own. The same goes for characters yet to make their debut in the MCU. Maybe, like Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), and Man-Thing, in Werewolf by Night, not all characters need a film or solo series introduction. Characters as big as Ghost Rider, Silver Surfer and Wolverine, and as obscure as Ka-Zar, Beta Ray Bill and White Tiger could all get their carefully crafted spotlight before going on to play bigger roles.
What makes Marvel Special Presentations so thrilling, and their future so promising, is that they recapture the feeling of buying a single-issue comic book for the first time. Not a graphic novel or a collection that contains the whole story. Just a single issue, some odd number in the middle of a decades-spanning ongoing series that you picked out because you liked the cover. Remember that feeling of being introduced to a whole new world? Of finding characters in the middle of stories and having the choice whether to continue backward from there to catch up, or to just forge ahead, or even let it exist in a vacuum? That’s the feeling these projects capture better than any movie or series, the thrill of experiencing something singular and it making a lasting impression. Marvel Special Presentations feel made to last.
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