Can the flagship Disney+ show The Mandalorian serve the Star Wars diehards at the same time as the casual viewer, asks Sam Brooks.
A quick multiple-choice test to find out if The Mandalorian is for you or not.
Q. Does the title The Mandalorian mean anything to you?
B) Kind of? It’s definitely part of Star Wars, and it’s coming to Disney+, I think?
C) Totally, it’s the ancient warrior race! Jango Fett was a Mandalorian, and they cloned him to make the Stormtroopers, but also he was the father of Boba Fett, my favourite Star Wars character who was –
OK, you can stop right there. If you answered C, you’re going to watch this no matter what. If you answered A or B, then you’re either so off the fence you’re not even in the same postcode, or you’re hedging your bets. And honestly, I wouldn’t blame you.
There’s no question that Star Wars is one of the biggest cultural products of the last generation. No matter how much its diehard fans try to claim it, or reclaim it, depending on what section of that fanbase you believe, it’s a huge part of pop culture that is undeniably part of the mainstream. Or, at least, the movies are.
Since the very first film, Star Wars has generated as much spin-off (or expanded universe) content as you can imagine. Or, depending on how much you know, a lot more than you can imagine. There are scores of novels, dozens of video games, and a few animated television shows that contribute to the extensive lore that fills up the Star Wars canon. There are entire religions that have less thorough backstories and creation myths than the Star Wars universe. Whether this betters society or weighs it down is another debate entirely.
The most notable of these is indisputably The Mandalorian, which drops today on Disney+. Not only is it the flagship series for the year’s biggest streaming service (sorry, Apple TV), it’s the first live action television show to be based on the series (again, sorry to the ruthlessly decanonised Christmas Special). Perhaps most importantly, it’s had a shitton of money and talent poured into it, Marvel-endorsed Jon Favreau created the show and names like Taika Waititi and Dave Filioni direct. This translates to hype. Not only does it have to live up to being the first venture for a new streaming service, it has to live up to the Star Wars brand, and the famously rabid fanbase that has gathered around it in the past forty years.
For the most part, the show lives up to the brand. Set strategically between the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi and the rise of the First Order in The Force Awakens, it follows a Mandalorian bounty hunter, imaginatively called The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal, bedecked in a helmet for the entire first episode), after the warrior race who fought themselves into extinction. The first episode opens with him expertly dispatching of a few token aliens, and then embarking on a particularly lucrative, black market, bounty. Things go awry, because this is a show that needs to fill out one season, and then a confirmed second season.
It looks and sounds like a Star Wars film. It has the production values, for the most part, of a Star Wars film. It shifts up the tone a bit – it’s a little bit more of a black comedy in some parts, a little bit more of a Western in others – but it exists squarely within the same world as any other Star Wars film.
One of the aspects that it absolutely gets right is the casting. Pedro Pascal, who you might recognise as one of the beheaded people from Game of Thrones, is bursting with so much charisma that he’s able to be a believable protagonist from behind a full suit of armour and head-covering helmet. Any piece of narrative-driven art needs a protagonist to hang its hat on, but Star Wars has always had to strike a balance between a blank slate reacting to a fantastical world around them (Luke and Rey successfully, Anakin less so), and The Mandalorian is another example of the franchise filling the protagonist role beautifully.
Here’s where I have to say something that might be uncomfortable for some people to hear: Star Wars is camp. It’s silly as hell, and it commits to that silliness. It’s a franchise where men in white robes swing blades made of concentrated light against each other. I say this as someone who loves the series, and much of the expanded universe. Part of its appeal is the commitment to the silliness, and it’s enveloped millions upon millions in it. When you’re in it, it’s intoxicating. But the moment you step away from even the darker entries like Rogue One, you realise its ridiculousness.
That doesn’t make it bad, god knows that many of the best pieces of art ever made lean into their camp, but it does make it a bit harder to take seriously. The problem with The Mandalorian is that it tries to have it both ways: It tries to have the silly Whedonesque humour that nerd culture and products thereof have yet to immunise themselves against, while also having the deeply serious parts of the lore that it clings so tightly to. This is a show that, in its first episode, has a scene where two people in helmets talk as sombrely about armour and a shared past as you might a genocide. If you weren’t invested in it, whether by four decades of cultural osmosis or outright consumption, you’d laugh. And frankly, I did.
Star Wars is a 40-year-old franchise with perhaps more entries, whether canonical or non-canonical, than any other mainstream pop culture franchise. People are more familiar with the basic tenets of The Force than they are with many major world religions. At the near half-century, the franchise is at its best not when it’s perpetuating itself, but when it’s actually critiquing the very principles its based upon.
This is obvious from the two best entries in the franchise since the dawn of the millennium, or since the prequel trilogy. The first of these Knights of the Old Republic II (if you’ve heard of that game, chances are you’ve seen this show before this review even drops) absolutely destroys the entire concept of the Jedi and the Force, discussing the flaws of absolutism as an evil regardless of your ideological alignments. The second of these is The Last Jedi, which deconstructs the idea of “The Chosen One”, and how the myth of that is as destructive as any “Dark Side” is.
In its best moments, The Mandalorian feels like it’s seeking to quietly deconstruct or critique the series a bit. The Mandalorian himself has enough wry silly moments, some banter with a droid (played by a very well-cast Taika Waititi) that run counter to any other Mandalorian a casual fan would’ve seen in the series yet, be it Boba Fett or Temuera Morrison. This isn’t the serious warrior of lore, this is a person trying to live in the ruins of an Empire. The main eight, soon to be nine, Star Wars films are often so full of world-building that isn’t hard for them to shade that in with humanity or nuance, and The Mandalorian feels like a step in that direction. For a fan, that’s undeniably a good thing.
But for everybody else, it’s just a bit of fun. While on the surface The Mandalorian is absolutely a Star Wars product, stamped with the brand and logo of its new Disney overlords, at its core it is quite a silly show. It’s less Empire Strikes Back or Phantom Menace and more Xena: Warrior Princess, a show that was much more silly and camp than we give it credit for now, but also inspired a lot of audience investment and genuine, engaged adoration.
It remains to be seen whether The Mandalorian will achieve anything like the cult following of that show, whether it’ll keep trading on the hard-earned investment from its forebears, or whether just it’ll be that one show about a man in a funny helmet. Or maybe, ideally, it’ll be all three.
You can watch The Mandalorian on Disney+ right now. Episodes drop weekly.