The Lucasfilm logo glistens across the screen. A dark and hazy distant world appears. Familiar red lasers fire in the distance and two white lightsabers twirl in a fog-filled forest, revealing a new (and familiar) face to set the stage for “The Jedi”, Episode 5 of The Mandalorian. “Show yourself Jedi” the villain demands, echoing the thoughts of millions of Star Wars fans everywhere. For 47 minutes that is exactly what Disney’s hit streaming series did in spell-binding fashion. It introduced things new and old and reminded us of why Star Wars is so deeply entwined in popular culture. More importantly however, it showed a hopeful future for a divided fanbase that hasn’t shown any real unity since 1997 when the original trilogy was re-released in theaters.
Star Wars is one of the most treacherous pop-culture topics to wander through and should always be handled with great caution. If for no other reason to avoid the wrath of its notoriously passionate fanbase. Articles like this one often begin with exhaustive resumés in an effort to prove avid fandom or at the very least an informed opinion. Despite seeing all the films, most of the animated entries, and playing about a dozen of the numerous video games dedicated to the franchise, I don’t pretend to have comprehensive knowledge of the canon. Much less the countless comic-books and novel adaptations that have been abandoned by Disney (or what was previously known as the Expanded Universe).
Normally I avoid the topic all-together in conversations with co-workers or acquaintances because I know even casual fans have very strong opinions on the state of the “galaxy far, far away”. Whether discussing Lucas, the 90’s re-releases, the prequel trilogy, or Disney’s purchase (and sequel trilogy) of the franchise; any conversation on Star Wars is riddled with landmines sure to lead to an awkward or even heated exchange. And like everything else in the last half of the decade, Star Wars also took its turn on the front-lines of the culture wars. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (which I believe to be very well-made, despite some issues I have with it), being at the center of that discussion. I won’t rehash the debate, as it has lost much of its steam. But it is a sad state of affairs when what used to be rather innocent arguments such as “Han shot First” around the water-cooler have now devolved into arguments over “liberal media” or cynical corporate decisions to preserve a fanbase that is nearly impossible to please.
The Sequel Trilogy
The Disney’s sequel trilogy, episodes 7- 9, had two approaches that were in direct conflict, mirroring the divide in the fanbase. The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Abrams, seemed to recycle many narrative beats of the original Trilogy’s “A New Hope” (because we all needed a new Death Star apparently) and while very enjoyable didn’t seem to offer much new to audiences aside from new faces and a fresh coat of paint. However with the legacy of the prequels (Lucas’ last trilogy) being so disliked by long-time fans, just having the tone and visual style of the original films back with a few new characters (and old beloved ones) was more than enough to kickstart the new era.
Johnson’s The Last Jedi clearly wanted to cover new ground. It had flaws (yes even I was a bit bored in Canto Bight) but also explored new aspects of the force, new sides to old characters, and new faces we don’t typically see in Star Wars films. It was bold and refreshing but also seemed out of sync with the first installment and of course angered some of the more traditional fans. The subsequent backlash from the latter group was substantial and divided the fanbase from those that wanted bigger changes and traditionalists that wanted the nostalgic approach of the first film.
Hence the third installment, JJ Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker (2019), which charitably can be viewed as an attempt to assuage the growing divide of the fanbase or seen as very bad fan-fiction, depending of course on who you talk to. I won’t dive too deeply into my own takes on the matter but everything from Palpatine and Reylo, to the final line of “Rey Skywalker” seemed out of place in the new trilogy to many fans (myself included) and critics alike. Not to mention that the editing, pace, and character arcs were frankly all over the place if you track them from TFA to TRoS. Beyond heavy doses of nostalgia or feeling validated in the franchise moving away from Johnson’s vision, it’s difficult to say Abrams really stuck the landing. Look no further than Colin Trevorrow’s original script for the final film titled Duel of the Fates, if you want to see how different this was originally supposed to end and how schizophrenic Disney’s final installment ended up being.
In Abrams’ defense had all three films been more or less familiar remakes of the OT with some new twists, it would have been much more coherent, albeit forgettable. Additionally it seems the trilogy was incredibly rushed, especially in making the first and third films . Carrie Fisher’s death only further complicated matters with CGI work-arounds and a truncated opening. With that said, it’s undeniable that the sequel trilogy further divided the fanbase even though it was a commercial success and the first two films were received well critically.
The first 13 episodes of The Mandalorian has, much to the surprise of even myself, done the impossible. It has pleased (almost unanimously) the Star Wars fanbase as a whole. Something that I have barely been alive long enough (in my 30’s) to remember. This isn’t news of course, fresh audiences and long-time fans have been entranced from the moment the opening credits of the Jon Favreau (of Iron Man, Jungle Book, and Swingers fame) led series hit the small screen in the fall of 2019 with the launch of Disney+.
The visual aesthetic and narrative themes are directly from the original trilogy as it takes place after Return of the Jedi and the fall of the empire. Din Djarin (the title character) is a bounty hunter that seems straight out of a western movie aside from the added Mandalorian code making him more similar to to a wandering Ronin than a space cowboy (what could be more Star Wars?). The effects are brilliantly done and more grounded than either the prequel or sequel trilogy, with natural effects and modern technical polish to boot. The acting and direction are superb. New worlds and characters are uncovered, while beloved locales are revisited. The action sequences are thrilling. Not to mention the opening theme (composed by Ludwig Goransson) might be the best Star Wars related music since John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates”. On paper and in execution it is the definition of a what a new Star Wars story should represent from a fan’s point of view. All without being shackled to the weight and expectations that go along with a Star Wars feature film and the “Skywalker Saga”. The acclaim only intensified when the most adorable fictional creature conceived by mankind, Baby Yoda (now Grogu), was introduced to millions.
But in spite of enjoying the series immensely, the first season wasn’t enough to convince me of hope for the fanbase, or the Star Wars franchise as a whole for that matter. At least not in the wake of The Rise of Skywalker which released in the middle of the season. A year ago Mandalorian seemed like a pleasant distraction more than anything from the bigger issues of the Star Wars franchise. An isolated series that was a joy to watch but likely with smaller scale and ambition. The more cynical side of me also wondered if the Baby Yoda and Dark Saber reveals might just be glorified easter eggs to accompany a well-made action show to maintain fan interest.
However that all changed with the first 5 episodes of season 2. For starters, every single episode has been extremely well-made and I would argue that so far the production quality is second to none in terms of streaming content. Every world is vibrant, every character design and ship is extremely detailed and every shot is cinema-quality. The action sequences are quite frankly as good as anything we have seen from the feature films so far. The acting from Pascal as Din, supplemented by the performances of amazing actors that have appeared in each episode (Timothy Olyphant, Kara Thrace, Rosario Dawson, etc.) has been exceptional. More importantly the characters are clearly developing as Din is grappling with his own choices and his own code, particularly in regards to his attachment to Grogu.
In Episode 5, “The Jedi”, all of these elements are truly on display. Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano, the main character of Clone Wars and former apprentice of Anakin Skywalker, has easily been the biggest reveal of the season and the series didn’t pull any punches. The action was as good as any seen in Star Wars, light-sabers and the use of the force included. Ahsoka’s character design was pretty spot-on considering the make-up and effects required. The final duel was beautifully directed by Dave Filoni (Clone Wars director/animator). Not only was the character and performance great but it gave a glimpse into the ambition for the show and what it could become. One thing most fans were not expecting was full-fledged Jedi action in a Disney+ live-action show. With the amount of money and fan interest it is clear that Disney is taking The Mandalorian as seriously any of their feature films and if the show continues to execute as well as it has so far, we are looking at the best thing the Star Wars brand has produced since the Original Trilogy.
The truly astonishing thing that The Mandalorian does is effortlessly walk the tight-rope of old and new that the sequel trilogy and even one-offs like Rogue One and Solo failed to accomplish. The series nails the tone and style of the Original Trilogy while introducing entirely new elements (Baby Yoda, new planets, new characters, etc.), aspects of the expanded universe (The Mandalorians and their Code), the Prequel/Clone Wars era (again Mandalorians, darksaber, Bo-Katan, Ahsoka), as well as Disney-era content like Star Wars Rebels (white lightsabers, Ahsoka’s current and future plot-line). In other words, the series is using the full arsenal of what the universe has to offer.
George Lucas brought the world Star Wars in 1977 and he completed an incredible trilogy by 1983. The prequels were not his finest work but by 2012, Lucas released six movies, an animated series, and countless other media creations within the Star Wars universe. He left behind a massive sandbox built with care by countless talented creators over the course of three decades. If nothing else Lucas is one of the greatest “world-builders” to ever live and it only makes sense to use that world to tell audiences new stories, with new (or under-utilized) characters rather than fill-in gaps left behind from the main entries of the feature films (like Sequel Trilogy, Solo and Rogue One).
The Star Wars fan-base has been divided for a long time. Across generational lines, across the three different trilogies, in opposition to Lucas, in opposition to Disney and recently over political and social issues. What the fanbase needs are new stories told well in the same universe they love. The Mandalorian is not weighed down by the narrow scope of the Skywalker Saga or a trilogy format, and should be treated as a blueprint for how Star Wars can succeed in the future. Is that too much pressure to put on one series? Of course. There’s no way of knowing if the show can keep this up and it won’t matter how good The Mandalorian is if Disney repeats the mistakes it made with the sequel trilogy. Either way, it has provided a guide to a future for Star Wars fans that hopefully won’t be as polarizing as the last two decades.
Then again, it is Star Wars we’re talking about.