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The Mandalorian and the Future of Star Wars

In the disappointing aftermath of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, can TV and the success of The Mandalorian chart a new future for the franchise?

If the last few months are anything to go by for Star Wars fans, then The Rise of Skywalker proved to be a challenging experience.

Now before I elaborate (and put my love affair of Star Wars into context), if you enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker for what it was with its break-neck speed of mystery box reveals and reunion party cameos, then all power to you.  I’ve already covered my disappointment in my extensive review, and this post is not about regurgitating old wounds that would spoil your enjoyment – I’ll leave that up to Honest Trailers!  But unsurprisingly, since the film’s release (which has yet again highlighted how divided the fandom really is), we’ve seen countless articles based on legitimising its on-screen changes (with explanations that made it look worse), the hyper emergence of Reylo fans, the circling ‘blame game’ behind the alleged Disney interference and #ReleasetheJJCut and the leaked Colin Trevorrow concept for Episode 9 (which would have honoured Rian Johnson’s continuation).  I mean, you don’t have to be a psychic to see how messy this has become.

And the situation is not helped by the recent snippet by the TROS film editors. Of course, they are entitled to voice their strongly-minded opinions but add Disney’s own interpretation of ‘social distancing’ towards The Last Jedi only amplifies a narrative of throwing a director’s credibility under the bus and endorse the toxic bullying by some quarters of the fandom who believe he got Star Wars wrong. Regardless of your personal feelings towards Johnson’s meta-commentary outing, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

The powers that be at the House of Mouse will never admit it publicly, but the troubling aspect about this is the utmost refusal to accept accountability for their own actions.  Yes, hindsight is a wonderful thing – yes, planning should have been utilised so there was a clear vision between the films, and yes, a single director should have undertaken the entire project.  However, Johnson was not responsible for the abusive levels of fan service that The Rise of Skywalker deployed or its incredibly contrived demeanour to link everything back to family dynasties and previous episodes.  Whatever creative decisions were invoked after Trevorrow’s dismissal and J.J.’s re-hiring (despite no solid evidence in his CV that he can conclude anything), the executed mess only highlights the studios’ lack of confidence to deviate away from the status quo, happily content to re-hash, trivialise and appease the impossible.

So, in what was supposed to be a euphoric end to the Skywalker saga, ends up feeling more of a disappointing break-up, at least in my case.  You know the scenario – in a dim-lit bar on Tatooine, you’re sat across the table from the franchise that had you imagining yourself as a Jedi as a kid.  As you pick up that glass of blue milk, you savour every taste until its last drop, and as the music from the Cantina Band slowly loses its ambience, you finally pluck up the courage and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.”  “We clearly want different things from this relationship; you want more of the same, and I want fresh ideas in this vast universe you call a franchise.”

Melodramatic? Yes – through thick and thin, my love of Star Wars will never change, but it’s not the first time where taking a break felt necessary.

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Which brings us nicely unto The Mandalorian, the monosyllabic, gunslinging bounty hunter with its homages to Kurosawa and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, featuring a Ludwig Göransson score that is part Ennio Morricone, part Rocky.  And as the series reaches its mid-point in the UK, who would have thought this show would have slowly restored my faith in the franchise.

For months, international viewers decried at Disney’s delayed launch of their streaming service, and we had every right to address the concern.  Contract issues aside, the franchise’s built-in culture for secrecy came under threat by spoilery memes and talk of piracy just to stay in the loop.  But if you survived that damaging onslaught, the March 24th launch had a prophetic sense of great timing amidst the UK lockdown due to COVID-19. In the aftermath of The Rise of SkywalkerThe Mandalorian’s release feels like the perfect source of fresh air to draw a line underneath that convoluted bridge.

Even at its early stage, the Jon Favreau/Dave Filoni collaboration is still finding its feet.  The show may be fulfilling the dream George Lucas once had in creating a live-action Star Wars show, but unquestionably, The Mandalorian plays safe in its premise.  As it indulges the repetitiveness of its action-heavy plot, a lot of the supporting characters tend to be brief interludes or sacrificed too quickly for the big payoff.  Even Baby Yoda is not a new concept – you would have to go back on The Clone Wars animated film to see a similar story unfold with the Jedi protecting Baby Jabba the Hutt.  But let’s be honest folks, Baby Yoda wins that weaponised cuteness battle, and your bank balance is probably disgusted at you for your recent purchase.

While the mechanisms are familiar, proving yet again Disney’s relentlessness to mine the archives for every Easter Egg/nostalgic material (and if the stories are to be believed, we may see a famous character from The Clone Wars making an appearance for Season 2), but immediately there’s comfort in its grassroots, ‘back to basics’ approach. The scope is simple, and the nostalgia is ever-present in its post-Return of the Jedi landscape but is less intrusive to be entirely disruptive. It’s snappy, thirty-minute runtime is a bitesize dosage of investment. Even Göransson’s score elevates its space western genre; every episode echoes an underdog fighter heading into a lawless environment to face another Ivan Drago obstacle or Clubber Lang challenger.  And whether you view Mando as a hero, an anti-hero or an eloquent shade of grey, the show is more focussed on the myth that surrounds him. It’s not taking an already familiar, ‘larger than life’ character such as Han Solo and meddle into an already completed arc. The freshness comes from what we don’t know about Mando, revealed through brief flashbacks at how he came to be – and it’s all done without a lightsabre in sight.

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In that form, it’s easily digestible, reminiscent of the escapades behind Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I still stand by my sentiments on the film – it is a mix bag adventure with an arbitrary characterisation that’s saved by a rewarding third act. It should have rallied more around the group of ragtag rebels (and their differences) as mercenaries tasked with an impossible mission (think Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy), centre the story around Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook as the film’s chief imperial defector, and ditch the contrived family link that’s predictably on point for the Disney brand. However, with time on its side to re-evaluate its merit, at least, in hindsight, the intention was there.

The ballsy sacrifices highlight what it means to be in the Star Wars Universe.  As much we all imagine ourselves to be Jedis with all their cool powers and mind tricks, our affinity for ‘the everyday hero’ never ceases.  It’s why the battle on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, the destruction of Jedha in Rogue One and even the opening battle from The Last Jedi has the desired spectacle it does.  Like the beach scene from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, its humanity brought into context.  It puts its audience right in the middle of those struggles and brings its grand adventures right back down to Earth.

That is what The Mandalorian does; it owes a great debt to The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels for its blueprint model of character investment and deepened Star Wars lore, but its stripped-back nature of the series allows the ‘unknown’ to thrive.  It’s far from the finished article, and who knows how much longevity it has in its locker, but it’s also self-aware to acknowledge its artistic aesthetics, and the short episodic format is bringing out the best of that.

And maybe that’s where its heart and the future of Star Wars resides.  Star Wars will forever remain a communal, cinematic experience. There’s no better feeling than seeing ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away’ etched on the big screen and not feel the excitement that goes along with it. The anticipation, the suspense, right before that epic John Williams overture kicks in. But in this much-needed hiatus period where Disney and Lucasfilm need to desperately work out what its cinematic future looks like, TV might just be the avenue to realise its potential, a chance to tell more intimate stories where the actions of the small can ripple across the galaxy.

In the grand scheme of things, The Mandalorian is an experiment, escaping the production issues that plagued Rogue One or Solo: A Star Wars Story and certainly less costly than a tentpole movie production.

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That’s not to say TV can’t be unforgiving as film productions.  Star Trek Picard, a franchise counterpart, for example, started with promise, even explored its darker edges behind Jean-Luc’s (Patrick Stewart) personality in confronting grief and his righteous sense of responsibility. But by its finale (despite some noteworthy sentiment) it couldn’t escape the muddled mess of nostalgia, questionable character motivation and an overused plot thread of conspiracies, secret cabals and ‘chosen one’ prophecies – an Alex Kurtzman favourite like J.J.’s inability to escape from his mystery boxes.

But if characterisation is a problem, then it has the time and luxury to fix it, and in the case of Star Wars, it can be done without being constrained to a film’s runtime.  Because if there was a criticism of the Disney trilogy characters of Rey (Daisy Ridley) Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), then it is the feeling that we hardly knew them at all.

Of course, there are notable dangers; just like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney will most likely use the opportunity to sync their film and TV properties to fill in the missing pieces, and already that sounds excessive and daunting (if you compare it to the list of MCU TV shows planned for Disney+).  There are still question marks over how a Kenobi series (with Ewan McGregor reprising his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) will work without succumbing to the same issues that plagued Solo: A Star Wars Movie or repeat the same synergy as The Mandalorian’s story.  But in this incredible boom of peak TV, Disney+ gives the service a fighting chance to stay ahead of the competition and has earned the curiosity to at least try.

Favreau may have compared the production process to his experience making Iron Man, but I would go a step further and compare it to the unthinkable – Better Call Saul.

Now it’s easy to overthink the connection, because quality-wise, there’s no comparison (and I’m deadly serious about that), but my thinking evolves around how Better Call Saul managed to step out of its Breaking Bad shadow in defining its own legacy.  It’s so much more than just a spin-off and yet manages to flesh out its bit-part characters where the reward is not about already knowing how their story will end but understanding the inevitability of their temptations.  It’s an entirely different flavour from Breaking Bad, and yet both shows work beautifully in tandem and yet brilliantly independent of each other.

And perhaps looking at the bigger picture, Better Call Saul achieves something that Star Wars has been seeking all along – a purposeful depiction of tragedy amidst transformation.  Watching Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) slip closer to the Saul Goodman persona might as well be Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side as Darth Vader.  But at least on the show, redemption (even the faintest whiff of it) is never tackled as an afterthought (or in The Rise of Skywalker’s case, resolved by seeing your father’s ghost or as a shared kiss between fanfic lovers).  As the show depicts, it’s the slow-burn character study that we find compelling, and every episode is a moral juggle of the consequences.

Again, it is early days, but The Mandalorian feels capable of that task. It’s not burdened by trying to justify the past or regularly seeking validation for its gritty, world-building existence.  It’s self-aware to understand that to put anything into context, you have to write a new legacy to complement it.  On TV, it has the vast opportunities to explore that concept without the extenuating pressures of the big screen format and trying to find every Tom, Dick or Harry director (maybe for once Disney, get a Sally) to see through those complicated challenges.  Maybe something so cathartically simple is what we need at this moment, and maybe, just maybe, a new lease of life will come out of this before taking another massive step back unto the big screen.

As Mando would say – this is the way.

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