As of very early this morning, Disney+ is finally here for the world to enjoy, and as of maybe two hours ago it actually started to work on my Roku. (#DisneyPlusDown/#DisneyPlusfail trended on Twitter for a reason.) Through frequent Disney+ stops, starts, and crashes, I managed to make my way through The Mandalorian’s first, surprisingly short – less than 40-minutes long – episode. The following is my reaction, but first, a little context:
In 2008, Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau passed each other in the Skywalker Ranch hallways. Filoni was there working on The Clone Wars, his acclaimed animated series; Favreau was there finishing the mix on Iron Man. A friendship based on shared geekdom soon blossomed. Filoni even created a character for Favreau to voice in the animated Star Wars universe. Today, they’ve been entrusted with ushering The Mandalorian – the first-ever live-action Star Wars TV series – into existence. Neither of them has ever created a live-action TV show before. No pressure. It’s only the centerpiece of Disney’s new streaming service.
The first episode wasn’t sent to critics. The trailers looked promising and very, very expensive. Disney dropped some serious cash on this one. High-profile figures like Taika Waititi, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rick Famuyiwa, and Deborah Chow were hired to direct individual episodes. Filoni, who had never directed anything live-action before, actually helmed two of the episodes himself, including the pilot. They all likely had to learn how to do it from Jon Favreau since the show utilizes much of the technology he helped pioneer on Jungle Book/Lion King.
As a result, The Mandalorian represents a technological breakthrough for the medium. “We’re using game engine technology, virtual camera work and virtual production that we developed on Lion King,” the Favreau told THR earlier this year, “applying those learnings to designing a project where you could use virtual sets and virtual set extensions using real-time rendering, which is something that people talk about but we’re the first people to actually apply it to a production.”
You don’t have to understand all of that tech talk to get the larger point: this is a TV show which is meant to look just as good as the movies. They are using advanced digital technology to try and recreate the look of Return of the Jedi-era Star Wars without having to build expansive sets all around the world. But what is this show? Who exactly is The Mandalorian? Why does he look like Boba Fett? Wait, is he Boba Fett? Wasn’t that dude swallowed by the sand monster in Jedi?
The answer to that last question is never count out a determined bounty hunter. In the years since Jedi, George Lucas has said Boba Fett actually survived his fateful encounter with the Sarlacc. In fact, when tinkering with the home video editions of the original trilogy he considered “having Boba Fett survive and crawl out of the” [Sarlacc]’s mouth. The Mandalorian, however, isn’t strictly a show about Boba Fett; it’s a show which trades on the Boba Fett imagery while actually following a different bounty hunter from the same region of space and a remarkably similar fashion sense.
Maybe that’s for the best. I don’t remember when I stopped caring about Boba Fett, a character I adored as a child mostly because he looked so freakin’ cool. Oh, wait, yes, I do – it was when Lucas dropped the bomb in Attack of the Clones that Boba was a clone and son of Jango Fett, the man used by Palpatine as the genetic template for a clone army. Not only that, but this possibly meant every stormtrooper we’d seen in the original trilogy was also a clone of the man known as Jango Fett. Way to turn a beloved, mysterious anti-hero into the literal face under the mask of every foot soldier on the bad guy’s army.
What – and might I add – the fuck?
Much has been done to both expand on this and walk it back. Filoni’s animated shows The Clone Wars (set in-between the Clone Wars film and Revenge of the Sith) and Rebels (set in a five-year period before A New Hope) included clone characters who gradually gained their own agency, individual names, and distinct personalities. Several of them eventually defected to join the Rebellion and turned into rather lovable characters. J.J. Abrams opened his Force Awakens by having a stormtrooper remove his mask and reveal a black face underneath, instantly eliminating any thoughts of clones.
Now, it’s not so much that the whole “all stormtroopers are Jango Fett clones” thing didn’t happen; it’s more like we don’t talk about it. It’s just easier that way, and the longer we’ve gone without really talking about it the more we’ve circled back around to the same idea that has been with us since the character was first introduced in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special: who is the mysterious man behind that sweet, sweet mask?
The Mandalorian team is running with that very same question, but they’re asking it of someone else this time. By the end of the pilot, all we know about the titular Mandalorian (played, we’ve been told, by Pedro Pascal, not that you can really tell) is he’s cool under pressure, never removes his mask, won’t be pushed around by tight-fisted money men (Carl Weathers, stirring the stew), and has at least one moral line he won’t cross: spoiler, you don’t kill babies, even if they are actually 50-years-old. Plus, as glimpsed in brief flashes there’s a tragic backstory of some kind at play here. There will likely be an origin story flashback episode down the road.
The Mandalorian is set sometime after Return of the Jedi, and while Luke, Leia, Lando, Han, and the Ewoks may have toppled the Empire, with a last-second assist from Darth Vader, the street-level characters of the Star Wars Universe still have to live their lives. Bounty hunters still gotta bounty hunt, I guess, and as best we can tell in the pilot, the fall of the Empire has most directly the bounty hunter lifestyle by heightening the chances of being screwed over by bad currency. (Imperial credits=bad; Calamari Flan=beter.)
It’s one of those unforeseen consequences thought experiment things: What does the Star Wars world look like when the Empire goes away? “If you look throughout history, it’s fun at first, but it gets very complicated very quickly,” Favreau told the audience at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago earlier this year. “The idea of that world after The Return of the Jedi and what would happen and what sort of characters would survive, and what it was like until the new Republic took over. You have vestiges of the Empire. You have only the strong surviving. You have chaos taking over the galaxy.”
Cool. Cool, cool, cool. But is there actually a show in there, something with characters worth caring about, an atmosphere which feels authentically Star Wars, and a storyline that will keep us coming back? Or is it just a guy in a cool costume play-acting some western/samurai metaphor material – taming an alien instead of a horse, braving an alien-filled cantina instead of a saloon, solo traveling from planet to planet instead of towns, enjoying a back-to-back laser fight with a droid partner up against advancing goons instead of a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid situation? If so, is that all fans really want out of this thing? It’s not like western/samurai nods are new to Star Wars, and The Mandalorian‘s big laser gun fight scene is awfully fun.
We’ve seen one episode of an 8-episode season, and its big trick is to pull us in with atmosphere and mystery. The actual Mandalorian is a badass who looks cool and has a mysterious past. That’s all Boba Fett ever really was. So, they’re right on brand. The atmosphere: look at all these shadow-filled back rooms, rundown ships, New Hope cantina ruffians and Rogue One grittiness, and, of course, Werner Herzog. The mystery: what is up with that [spoiler] at the end? And who – for the love of the C-3P0 god the Ewoks worship – the heck is The Mandalorian?
More than anything else, it’s the mystery that’ll bring me back for the next episode. Well, that and the surprise cameos.
What about you? Did you respond more to the atmosphere than the mystery? Do you feel like I’m short changing what the pilot does with the Mandalorian as a character? Let me know in the comments.