Disney+’s live-action Star Wars series shakes off its fan-film cobwebs and shows glimmers of space Western intrigue.
It’s finally here, folks – Disney+, the media giant’s most concerted attempt to unseat Netflix as the top dog of the streaming space. Unlike its fellow competitor Apple TV+, whose slate of just original content we’ve covered a fair amount of here on this humble site, Disney+ is mostly content to rest on its valuable slate of Disney favorites old and new, the vast majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Hulk and Spidey aside, since they’re owned by different studios) and more Star Wars content than you can shake a gaffi stick at. But it’s still got original content to attract new subscribers, and its flagship show, The Mandalorian, is off to a pretty decent start.
Developed by Jon Favreau and Star Wars television stalwart Dave Filoni (Clone Wars, Rebels), The Mandalorian is much more in the vein of the Star Wars Storys than the Skywalker Saga: no lightsabers, no Force, just the universe as a wretched hive of scum & villainy. Set in between the original trilogy and the new, “Chapter One” throws us into a post-Empire world on the Outer Rim of the galaxy, where everyone is scrambling to carve out a place for themselves amongst the wreckage of those blasted star wars.
Directed by Filoni and written by Favreau, “Chapter One” is sparse on direct exposition, and is all the better for it, acting more as a mood piece that sets up our mysterious bounty hunter (played by Pedro Pascal, whose stony visage is perpetually hidden under the iconic T-slitted Mando mask) as a man of few words and simple motivations. When we first meet him, he collects a bounty on a nebbish blue alien (Horatio Sanz), after dispatching a few competitors in a tense bar shootout. In these first few scenes, The Mandalorian feels like little more than an expensive fan-film — it remembers how cool you think Boba Fett’s armor was, and how you really liked the cantina scene, so by God, it’s gonna give it to you.
And yet, there’s something intriguing about the sparse, moodier way the show wishes to dole out information. Mando starts off as a stoic, Man-With-No-Name type, but as the episode continues we learn some intriguing things about him: he’s not a native-born Mandalorian, but a ‘foundling’ taken in by the clan. He has yet to get his ‘signet,’ and spends every possible credit he can converting a precious metal called beskar into new bits of Mandalorian armor (essentially, his current kicks are a bit too Boba, and he wants to upgrade to the Jango). In the wake of the Empire’s fall, the Outer Rim is crawling with bounty hunters and there aren’t enough jobs to go around. Even Mando’s normal handler, Greef Carga (Carl Weathers), has no choice but to refer him to an off-books client, an Imperial officer played with mercurial menace by Werner Herzog (who else?). He’s sent to a new planet to bring in a new mark — alive, if possible.
It’s in this latter half that “Chapter One” starts to show glimmers of nuance among the flash and fanboy signposts. The Mandalorian is certainly leaning heavily into its space-Western aesthetic, and a middle-act heart-to-heart with an Ugnaught farmer (voiced by Nick Nolte) and subsequent shootout in a Western-style abandoned town lean into that hard. The latter sequence is the episode’s highlight, a fast-paced, well-orchestrated showdown featuring a rival bounty droid named IG-11 (voiced by Taika Waititi); the two have great chemistry as they realistically fumble to best the raiders housed in the town, and it’s here we get to see Mando show a bit more vulnerability and personality. He’s much more interesting when he’s not the coolest guy in the room; here’s hoping the show puts him in that position more often.
There’s something intriguing about the sparse, moodier way the show wishes to dole out information.
And of course, at episode’s end, we see the major plot hook that will likely inform the rest of the season: Mando’s mark is a li’l baby Yoda. Even hardcore Star Wars fans know little about Yoda’s species — they have no name, and we’ve only seen one other like him, Yaddle — but the presence of a baby being pursued by nefarious Imperial forces sets us up for a classic Fight, Zatoichi, Fight kind of situation. Rote, to be sure, and hardly anything we haven’t seen before.
In its first forty minutes, The Mandalorian does a lot of bridge-building, and suffers under the weight of its own slickness and a pathological obsession with the Cool Factor. But as Disney+ navigates a new world of Star Wars on television (which is presumably where they’re going to focus after Rise of Skywalker completes the new trilogy next month), The Mandalorian carries enough potential to keep people watching in between marathons of Gargoyles and a deep dive through the Disney vault.
- Ludwig Göransson’s score takes some getting used to – it’s deliberately far less bombastic than John Williams, John Powell, Michael Giacchino, or anyone else who’s scored for the franchise – but it’s appropriately tribal with a few flourishes of personality here and there, especially with the main theme. Can’t wait to listen to more.
- IG-11’s definitely not dead, right? They’re not going to introduce a Taika Waititi-voiced murderbot with a Chekov’s Self-Destruct Device and not pay it off later.
- Shoutout to Brian Posehn as the doomed Landspeeder Lyft driver; by the way, what’s Mando’s beef with droids?
- Flashbacks to Mando’s history as an orphan found during “The Great Purge” definitely set up a thematic kinship between him and li’l Yoda.
- Speaking of which, if Mando isn’t a native Mandalorian, does his fetishism of Mando culture and obsession with his armor make him a Mandalorian weeaboo?
- The dewback-like creature Mando has to learn to ride is called a blurgg, further evidence that most of Star Wars exists exclusively in Liz Lemon’s imagination.
- I’m also really digging the concept art-drive credits; Star Wars concept art is almost always beautiful, and has long been a part of the behind-the-scenes experience, so it’s a sweet change of pace from the usual starfield.