From the very first chapter, The Mandalorian is a new hope in Star Wars storytelling. This Thanksgiving, fans should remember Dave Filoni & Jon Favreau.
The first episode of The Mandalorian was like a new hope in a galaxy oppressed by the dark forces of corporate-committee “storytelling.”
After years of Disney generally a.) rehashing and recycling b.) substituting events followed by… EVENTS! for actual storytelling or character development, and/or c.) giving random unqualified people (ok, one person in particular) without a deep appreciation and respect for Star Wars control over a franchise some four decades in the making worth billions of dollars and with millions of fans worldwide, it finally seems the Disney corporate higher-ups are trying something better.
There was just something so beautiful about that first chapter, something I have not experienced with any of the Disney Star Wars films but something that was front and center in the Lucas films and the Dave Filoni-helmed Clone Wars.
Starting with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it was clear from the very beginning that Disney was going to be focusing on filling demographic and marketing checkboxes to draw in as wide an audience as possible and to try to shove as much ACTION and EXCITEMENT as possible to contrast the “boring” politics and philosophy of the prequels that turned off many vocal fans before but have aged something like a fine wine with their more mature, even relevant takes in our brave new world with Trump in the White House.
In these new Disney films, basic character arcs often either did not happen or were even repeated, and other characters were almost comically underdeveloped as to their backstory or motivations. Say whatever you want about the character development in the prequels, but we at least got a lot of time with them and heard their views often, whereas the main new characters in the Disney sequel trilogy and Rogue One are mainly just reacting to events.
Throughout the prequels there was far more time given to the thought processes of key characters in an emotional sense than in the newer films. Solo being the sole exception in the Disney film slate and Kylo Ren the only main exception of the new characters, and even he only looks as interesting as he does because the other characters are basically shallow archetypes like Rey and Poe or a wasted opportunity like Finn, who literally repeated his arc two movies in a row as if he did not grow at all in the previous movie.
In the Disney era , appreciation for the much maligned prequel trilogy does seem to have increased in recent years, and, besides the politics of today helping, I’m sure Disney’s Star Wars movies are part of the reason why, mirrored by increased appreciation and nostalgia for George Lucas himself.
While Lucas is not running The Mandalorian, his protégé Filoni is co-showrunning with Jon Favreau, and as Filoni ran the masterful The Clone Wars series, I knew we were going to return to an emphasis on storytelling and character development.
And in that, starting with the very first episode, we have not been disappointed.
The opening scene is wonderful. It sets the tone, lets us know this is still Star Wars but with a harsher, grittier take that feels right (as opposed to Rogue One giving us an—pardon the term—alien feel to the intense, if beautiful, action).
It starts off slow and actually takes time to set up a mood and an atmosphere that isn’t off the races but actually begins world-building where it belongs: the beginning, with long, lingering camera shots, music, a chance to process and take things in (ahem, J.J. Abrams).
With the opening sequence, we know that some of the great aspects of a classic and vanished genre—the spaghetti Westerns, especially of Sergio Leone—are being adapted and reinvented in a skillful homage. As with all art, sometimes the best films incorporate strong notes from past works. In a treat for those who bought the Blu-ray edition of Season 2 of Clone Wars, fan were given a booklet with cover art by Filoni that featured a Clone Wars take on Leone’s masterpiece The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The classic Westerns—many admittedly rife with problems of racism—still did some excellent things as far as filmmaking are concerned. In our modern era, some of these techniques and approaches to storytelling and presentation seem lost, so it is thrilling that new show here is reintroducing some of these gold nuggets to a whole new generation, many of whom may, sadly, never see these classic films.
This approach is not by happenstance, but on purpose. In Star Wars The Last Jedi, we saw director Rian Johnson try to attack the pillars of what made Star Wars, well, Star Wars and turn things upside down seemingly for the sake just of doing so to provoke and make a point and create a very interesting film that might work if it was not Star Wars if it did not take beloved characters developed over four decades and reinvent them in ways not faithful to the series.
Well, Star Wars fans, if you’ve seen The Mandalorian, you know what I’m about to say, but if you haven’t, let me assure you, this property is in good hands. Don’t get me wrong, both Favreau with Iron Man and Filoni with The Clone Wars managed to reinvent their assigned mythos, but without trying to reinvent the wheel and while staying faithful to the source material. While Iron Man 2 and Rebels did not hit that same sweet spot, both of The Mandalorian’s showrunners have proven they are capable of acing that sweet spot.
Here, mystery is built organically, through pacing and a natural unfolding of events (no gimmicky “mystery boxes”). It’s also refreshing that the titular Mandalorian isn’t some excitable kid who is constantly running around and spewing verbiage, reacting with extreme facial expressions to everything, swept up suddenly into adventure and peril.
Subtlety—which the new Disney films have lacked—is often superior to hyperactivity and can be more intense than screaming with eyes wide open and gesticulating hands. In this case, we cannot even see our main character’s eyes under his helmet, a reminder that there is more to acting than spewing out lines excitably (I don’t fault the new actors of the Disney films, they’re doing the best with the material they were given).
There is so much yet to be revealed, and that is good. The twist at the end, too, is just perfect: our harsh bounty hunter reveals he very much has a heart in silently extending his finger to a little green hand.
It was poetic and cinematic and beautiful and adorable all at once, letting us know that, going forward, this show will have heart and will focus on character. Plot will be enlisted in the service of showing us both heart and character, not allowing those elements to be cheapened and commodified to merely move the plot forward, as it too often feels with the new Disney movies.
Yes, this thanksgiving, we have much to be thankful for, as master storytelling has certainly returned to Star Wars with The Mandalorian, as is obvious from the first episode.