I’m not sure that there has been a media franchise with as much baggage as Star Wars has. Star Wars did a lot of the heavy lifting of taking the genre of science fiction from the realm of “nerd stuff” and into the mainstream, transforming the entire media landscape that followed it. Without Star Wars there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe, networks wouldn’t have taken a chance on bringing Star Trek back multiple times or taken risks like Babylon 5, Stargate, Farscape or other beloved sci-fi series.
Somehow, this all starts with the Vietnam War and a young George loving Flash Gordon serials. George Lucas originally set out to make a Flash Gordon movie except for the fact he couldn’t secure the license, leaving him out in the cold. Another of his projects, Apocalypse Now, wouldn’t get picked up as a scathing anti-war piece following the rebellious Viet Cong and a monolithic imperial US army, hot on the heels of the Vietnam War was less-than-palatable to major studios. Somehow this led to him melding these ideas together into what we now know as Star Wars. When you look at just how black-and-white Star Wars is it becomes glaringly obvious why no major film studio would want to fund a movie right after the Vietnam War that depicted our enemies in such a positive light (if you buy the through line here, which is always tenuous at best). Still, Lucas was going to make his movies, and he did.
What happened was magical, a coming of age tale involving evil governments with the cold, monolithic aesthetic, the ragtag rebels giving black eyes to them wherever and whenever they could and the story resonated with audiences. Eschewing a lot of the more grievous sins that science fiction was known for at the time with either complicated social parables, overly in-depth science or just [gross] fantasy fulfilment, Star Wars appealed to a broader audience by showing what science fiction could be: big adventure, thrilling space battles, relatable heroes and broad scopes that felt inhabitable.
What Star Wars became from there can be debated, dissected and really, it has. I’d say as soon as Lucas secured his toy deals and started making money what Star Wars became was different, just like who Lucas became was different. Still, Lucas and his marketing deals helped to shape the future just as well as his vision and storytelling did, to the point where it’s impossible to talk about Star Wars without talking about terms like “toyetic” and fandom. One of my boys has taken a shine to Star Wars of late and while they’re still a bit young, they’ve watched the first 40 minutes of A New Hope a few times now and they mostly get a kick out of playing the game “ask Dad what everything is called.”
Because Dad knows what every character is called, every droid, every location, every dumb nicknack and weapon.
You know why? Because I grew up loving Star Wars. I grew up reading everything I could that was Star Wars. As much as I was heavily influenced by writers like Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami, young me was influenced into loving science fiction through Star Wars novels, meaning that Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, Kathy Tyers and many, many others.
So, I’m sure you’re wondering: what the hell does this have to do with the Mandalorian, right? I’m giving you some backstory to my love for Star Wars. Truly, the movies themselves didn’t age well for me. There was so much more sci-fi in the world and most of it appealed to me in a different way than the Star Wars movies did. When the original trilogy was re-released in theaters I literally fell asleep watching Return of the Jedi. In fact, I’ve had a difficult time watching any of the Star Wars movies again. I watched them so much as a kid and, in contrast to a lot of the “Expanded Universe” novels, the movies felt bland and lifeless.
I’m of the mind that Rogue One and Solo have been the better offerings from the recent, Disney-era fare, mostly because they tried to explore the universe of Star Wars a bit more than the new trilogy that feels like retreads, beating the same themes into the audience’s heads without mercy. The first viewing of each movie in the theater felt special but afterwards they sorta felt hollow and like they were missing any real substance. Perhaps that is what Star Wars really is in film form? I don’t know. I always chalked it up to I just grew away from what they offered and it wasn’t them, it was just me.
Enter the Mandalorian.
I’m not sure that the word “mandalorian” was ever mentioned in a mainline Star Wars movie. I’d have to rewatch the prequels to see if they mention them regarding Jango Fett, but I’m pretty sure they don’t (please, feel free to correct me). The whole idea of Boba Fett, a Mandalorian bounty hunter, very much existed as fan service, an extension of a character that no one expected to become super popular. The heavy lifting of his life, background and even his armor came from these peripheral stories, most of which have been canonically negated when Disney purchased the Star Wars license and Lucasfilm. I find it wild that there’s a show—not just a show, but the flagship show for Disney’s new streaming service—based on mostly stuff from spin-off novels, videogames and other media, NOT from a major Star Wars film.
The idea for the show dates back to Boba Fett being a really popular character with hardcore fans, moving a lot of merchandise and leaving fans to speculate as to his fate. So here we are, many, many years later, delving further into the background of Boba Fett, sort of. Weird, right?
The Mandalorian takes place in a galaxy where the Empire has fallen, meaning post-Return of the Jedi and before The Force Awakens, which leaves a lot of room for exposition and exploration. It follows a bounty hunter very much in the vein of Boba Fett, from the gear to a similar ship to a similar means of transporting bounties in blocks of carbonite. Everything is there. The ship doesn’t look exactly like the Slave-1, but it has a similar layout and ramp. Essentially, this is what Star Wars fans have been clamoring for throughout the entirety of my life now in a “Boba Fett series.” Of course it’s not Boba Fett, but that seems fine.
The biggest opening in Star Wars is perhaps that there’s this whole, big galaxy, built up not just from the mainline movies but also the books, games and animated series, that there’s room for more stories to be told. The Mandalorian feels a lot like a spaghetti western, or at least this first episode did, from the pacing, the settings, the terse dialogue and the big action set pieces, it felt torn from a Sergio Leone movie. The thing is, Star Wars has always been wide open for this kind of thing, no one ever bothered to do it. The grand scope space opera thing will always be the heart and soul of Star Wars, yet movies like Rogue One and Solo showed that you could just as easily jump into heist movies and it works just as well.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this show, or at least this episode, in part because I feel like I have so much background when it comes to Star Wars and the source material that they obviously dipped into when creating this show, whether Disney’s “Star Wars Story Group” deemed it canonical or not. So certain things click for me and I’m just not sure how other people feel about them, or how much of it is even necessary. Good storytelling will always be able to draw from these sources without relying on them for being mandatory for viewers to understand and engage with the story.
The episode itself was fine. They established the titular character in his Spartan-like armor, gave some very brief flashbacks to his childhood, showed what we can only assume are other Mandalorians, show members of the Bounty Hunters Guild, remnants of the Empire and many people down on their luck trying to get by. There’s not much to intuit from 39 minutes of an introduction other than there was a meaty budget for this show and they’re set on blending serious action with goofy comedy. The acting, sets and all of that was totally fine, the effects looked good, it really felt like Star Wars, which is all you can really ask for. The music was a bit more modern than your average Williams score, where you could almost pick out the inspiration for a few of the pieces from other popular media, but mostly good. I wasn’t fond of the end credits music and the really cornball “training montage” music for the “learning to ride a horse-thing” sequence. That sorta didn’t fit. Stuff like Taika Waititi as IG-11 and one of his bounties trying to squirm away by saying he needed to use the bathroom helped give the show some character other than a “loner badass does loner badass things,” which we really don’t need more of in the world.
I’m still sort of shocked that they kept it at 39 minutes considering Disney+ doesn’t have ads and the whole idea of shows on a streaming format is freedom to bleed into the edges or over time like you’ll see with Game of Thrones and other big budget shows. I mean, Mandalorian reportedly cost Disney a whopping $120 million, and this is the age of (sigh) prestige television, I’m not sure why the show feels like it was built for “just in case” syndication further down the road. Probably because it’s Disney and they’ve still gotta play it safe, even when they act like they aren’t.
Disney is going for the weekly set up for this, which feels a lot like what CBS did with Star Trek: Discovery. I suppose the idea is to keep subscribers engaged and subscribed with new content until they forget that they’re paying for this service. That’s not a problem for me considering the main allure is for my kids to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Muppet Babies and PJ Masks on top of the few Disney movies we don’t already own, but not going the Netflix route of releasing a season all at once is either a move done to keep people talking about Disney+ beyond the initial launch or just a statement that weekly “destination” television is coming back.
I don’t know, but I suppose I have a show to watch on Fridays for a while and I hope that it’s good.