Back in the 1970s, there were real reasons to believe movies had been changed forever. New directors and visions were breaking through yearly. Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde made violence and death sexy, yet horrifying. The Godfather placed the mafia into the public psyche, crafting the most exciting and cautionary tale the American Dream corrupting us to our core. Martin Scorsese tapped into the anger and violence brewing within New York with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
Yet it was a young man named George Lucas, whose own American Graffiti provided a nostalgic and tragic look car culture from the 1950s, that changed the way films have been made for the past forty years. A nostalgic space opera, combining westerns, sci-fi, and serialized storytelling, became Star Wars. The rest is history. However, for those who have grown up with these characters dominating our lives, we’ve grown accustomed to this galaxy and the inherent oddity of it all. For everything character that embarks in Campbellian journey, Lucas tossed in creepy Jawa monsters, a cantina band made of squid monsters, and space yetis. Oddly, we do not acknowledge just how weird Star Wars is at its core. Yet that might pave the way for some of the best Star Wars content ever created.
Disney+ launched on November 12, and the eleven days since then have been interesting. While more than 10 million people jumped right in, I think few were ready for the firestorm that would hit. The Mandalorian had long been pegged as the landmark show of the platform, and it has not disappointed. Bringing Star Wars to the small screen, in episodes shorter than your average This Is Us has helped fuel Disney+ serge in pop culture already. The Mandalorian has become must-watch television and might be the best the series has been since The Empire Strikes Back.
THIS IS A SPOILER WARNING FOR EPISODES 1 THROUGH 3.
Written and created by Jon Favreau, The Mandalorian follows an unnamed bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal), as he hunts down a high reward bounty. After turning in a few bounties for his guild leader Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), he gains access to a new client (Werner Herzog). The client asks Mando (as our title bounty hunter is colloquially referred to) to hunt down a fifty-year-old prize on a desert planet. With the help of a moisture farmer named Kuiil (Nick Nolte), and an IG Unit bounty hunter (Taika Waititi), Mando recovers the bounty only discover it is but a child. Thus the character known only as “Baby Yoda” or “the asset” has come to dominate pop culture.
While the actual story through the first three episodes has been basic, Favreau has tapped into something special about Star Wars. Favreau has thanked fellow executive producer Dave Filoni for helping bring this story to life, and there’s reason to believe this is the perfect partnership. While Favreau has the big-budget blockbuster filmmaking experience that LucasFilm required out of a venture like this one, Filoni spent years crafting hits for expanded canon fans. After directing Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 Animated Film), and developing the accompanying TV series, Filoni became Lucas’ right-hand man. Combining his knowledge of Star Wars and Favreau’s eye for spectacle, the two make a formidable team.
What has truly allowed The Mandalorian to become such a massive hit has been their willingness to make everything real. The show features some CGI, but the vast majority of the series has been created using practical effects for both production design and characters. The tactile world The Mandalorian stands out, even among the J.J. Abrams and Gareth Edwards directed films.
These design elements have been critical, as many characters are either puppets or rely entirely on their visual aesthetic. Mando has yet to take his helmet off, leaving us with a character who must convey all of his emotions through his voice. The popular green baby bears a closer resemblance to Gizmo from the Gremlins than to Maz Katana or many other alien creatures in the recent films. Even Kuiil, Nick Nolte’s character, appears to be a puppet-based creation. All of this has helped ground the show as the weird, throwback series it was always intended to become. Lucas loved B-movies and serialized storytelling. Reembracing these elements, including silly puppets, brings that love back to life.
Creating the show in this fashion has strengthened the Western tones that are often present within the series. After all, Star Wars has often prioritized gun-slinging scum bucket characters over pristine high-drama situations. The lived-in worlds of Star Wars are part of what helped build the franchise, and while modern effects make this less appealing, it’s undeniably effective to build the world this way. Combining these design elements with the outstanding score from Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, Childish Gambino producer), the show has embraced Star Wars‘ roots.
Pascal has been dynamite so far, expertly employing his physicality. The other vocal performances have been great, with Waititi’s pinch-hitting knocked the comedy of his scene out of the park. Nolte’s role was also perfect, both in how silly some of the dialogue comes across, but also utilizing the gruffness of his voice to showcase his character’s long journey to this moment. I could literally watch an entire-show based on his character’s journey, and the choice to leave so much of his backstory a mystery further adds to the fun of the series. Weathers has been excellent as Karga, but the real takeaway has been Herzog. Embracing his inner bad guy, it’s a role that the famed director could have done in his sleep. Yet his attitude and demeanor are perfect for this story.
Few shows breakthrough the way The Mandalorian did from the word go. Then again, few shows are this well crafted. Favreau and Filoni have tapped into something special, and I never thought I would say a Star Wars show could surpass the content of the films, let alone stand up as one of the best pieces of content around. With any luck, the show will continue its dominant run.