Streaming platforms are introducing new types of cinematic entertainment, and Midwest Film Journal will approach these stories on a case-by-case basis. Disney+, in particular, is bringing to life classic film franchises in the form of new series. The Mandalorian is the first live-action Star Wars series, so we thought it best to wait until the first eight-episode season had streamed in full before writing about it. Turns out the simultaneous release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker provided plenty of food for thought in this realm as well.
The Mandalorian on Disney+ is currently being hailed as a high point of the Disney era of Star Wars. Fair enough. Over the course of its eight episodes to date, it has expanded on the Star Wars universe — remixing familiar nostalgic elements into the straightforward format of 1950s Western TV: hero takes a job, hero saves a village, etc., etc. I’ve enjoyed it greatly. I’ve more or less enjoyed all of Disney’s Star Wars products. I’m an easy mark for Star Wars. Like our contributor Dave Gutierrez wrote in his essay about playing Star Wars RPG’s, I grew up living in it.
Here are my reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Aly’s review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story captures my sentiments about that film. My initial reviews of TFA and Solo were mixed, although the latter has become a favorite casual rewatch in our house. I have never stopped loving The Last Jedi. I’m pretty low on Rogue One, which feels like a lot of hollow nostalgia bait mixed with a haphazard story. Many have said the same about The Rise of Skywalker, and it’s a fair criticism, although I think my review of The Rise of Skywalker is clear-eyed about the reasons why I went against critical consensus: Mostly, my low expectations were met and exceeded by what I felt to be a solid emotional core.
The Mandalorian can’t be reviewed without discussing the rest of Disney’s Star Wars output so far, which plays a huge role in why it has been such a success. Allow me to digress briefly to talk the Sequel Trilogy (TFA, Last Jedi, Rise) as a whole. Contemplating the failures and successes of the now-completed trilogy brings into relief why The Mandalorian is the future of the franchise and what that means.
The Sequel Trilogy
The Force Awakens was a rushed production propelled by necessity. Disney purchased Star Wars creator George Lucas’ three outlines for the sequel trilogy and found those stories wanting. Lucas reportedly planned on bringing back his Original Trilogy (New Hope, Empire, Return) cast as a means of exploring the realm of Midicholorians and his personal philosophy of the Force.
Hard to blame Disney for avoiding something so esoteric and odd with their $4 billion purchase. Lucas had already smothered the franchise with his prequel movies and subsequent CGI Clone Wars series, the latter being popular among die-hard fans but ignored by the culture at large. Why would they trust his vision for their new presumed cash cow?
Given the size of the purchase, though, Disney needed to put out a Star Wars movie in 2015 come hell or high water. Unfortunately Michael Arndt, writer of Toy Story 3, spent the first few years of development time trying to figure out what such a story would even look like. The clock ran down, so Disney broughtAbrams and veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan onboard to produce a new script and film in just under two years, and thus their re-hash of A New Hope was born.
The Force Awakens is a failure filled with promise. Everything good about the sequel trilogy is here — charming new characters, the startling story direction, a modern-meets-classic aesthetic. Choosing to start the sequels with our original heroes in dire straits was an incredibly interesting premise that J.J. Abrams never fully embraced, although Rian Johnson dove into it properly with The Last Jedi.
Abrams only reset the main heroes because he had no idea what to do with them otherwise, a storytelling rationale that also informs his return to the director’s chair on The Rise of Skywalker. Everything worthwhile in Abrams’ two films is thanks to serendipitous casting of Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo. Otherwise, it’s all remixes. That worked for him on The Force Awakens because that’s what audiences wanted. It is still what they want today.
It’s clear, though, that Disney had no idea what it was working with long-term. Abrams made very few hard choices in telling the story, leaving everything to Johnson to figure out. Everything about The Force Awakens is rough, rough, rough. The dialogue is worse than even the prequels. Audiences wanted to see these new movies to check in on old friends, and it lazily presents Han in particular as a fuck-up and a failure who doesn’t seem remotely concerned that his son is running around slaughtering innocents. Aside from the characters it introduces, it is a meaningless gesture of a film.
Lucasfilm simultaneously developed Rogue One with director Gareth Edwards, whose Godzilla was a surprise hit in 2014. In post-production, Edwards was unofficially booted off the film and the entire third act rewritten, resulting in a movie that, like The Force Awakens, hinges on straight nostalgia for A New Hope.
Thus, the question after The Force Awakens and Rogue One: What do these new movies have to say if they’re not simply leaning on A New Hope callbacks?
Meanwhile, Johnson had been hired to write and direct The Last Jedi. Johnson was already a cult favorite. His crime film Brick, comedy The Brothers Bloom, sci-fi Looper and steady hand behind the best episodes of Breaking Bad meant that his entry into the Star Wars universe was something to look forward to for film fans. Apparently he worked well with the Lucasfilm crew because they gave him carte blanche to solve the puzzle Abrams left him. His solution — a lengthy, complex celebration of Star Wars — is probably the best contemporary smuggling of artistic vision into a film of this size and scope.
Luke Skywalker’s character is given a journey that echoes his status as a mythological character, and the supporting cast of The Force Awakens is all fleshed out into three-dimensional characters who possess motivations rather than function as plot beats. Finn (John Boyega) becomes a rebel. Poe (Oscar Isaac) becomes a leader. You can tell by Carrie Fisher’s much more engaged performance as General Leia and John Williams’ career-high score that the production was more energized and focused than Abrams’ initial effort.
Most importantly, Johnson brought a sexual and spiritual element to the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, whose relationships with Luke Skywalker anchor the best parts of The Last Jedi. To be clear (if it wasn’t already): I think The Last Jedi is near perfect, a testament to Star Wars and its lasting power. I wouldn’t trade it away.
However, in the context of what the sequel trilogy needed to be for Disney’s sake, The Last Jedi is arguably just as much a screwup in the grand scheme of the sequel trilogy as The Force Awakens — because once again Disney did not understand what they had. Johnson did, and produced the best film the franchise will ever have. But the fact remains that Disney’s overall vision for the sequel trilogy misunderstood that the primary appeal was reconnecting with old friends. Allowing Johnson to take Luke in a thoughtful direction is the best mistake Disney ever made in managing the franchise as a long-term investment, from a financial or narrative standpoint.
The Force Awakens got a pass because it was the first in a trilogy and promised those reunions, but The Last Jedi closed the door on Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo ever having a big onscreen reunion. Many audience members were pissed. Outside of rote nostalgia, this was Disney’s largest marketing card and they blew it without seeming to understand its value. Rey, Finn, Poe and Rose are all great characters — just without the same built-in investment.
As a fan of the sequel characters, this has never personally bothered me. Once again, I’m happy with the Sequel Trilogy. As a fan of the franchise, thought, it’s undeniably one of the most colossal IP fuckups in the modern era — particularly given what happened next, and where that will likely lead.
Abrams’ last-minute return for The Rise of Skywalker had already been announced by the time The Last Jedi was released, setting in stone that Disney was desperate to replay the success of The Force Awakens. When the lights went up after my first viewing of The Last Jedi, I was personally contented with the fact that, for me, Star Wars had reached a spiritual summit and that The Rise of Skywalker would be nothing more than another of Abrams’ attempts to mine nostalgia. It was, and I enjoy the end product.
I won’t belabor my review of the film: It met my expectations generally and, in regard to Rey and Kylo, exceeded them. Is Rey turning out to be a Palpatine kind of a letdown? Sort of, but it isn’t without merit and I ultimately like it. Did Abrams waste Poe and Finn? For sure, but I expected nothing else and their action bits were fun. Was Palpatine’s return silly? I found it properly absurd.
Reactions to The Rise of Skywalker are far from surprising. For many older fans, the Sequel Trilogy’s ship sailed with The Last Jedi, although arguably it left port during The Force Awakens with the wasting of Han Solo. They just didn’t know it yet. Fans of The Last Jedi didn’t approach The Rise of Skywalker with a realistic vision of what Disney was asking Abrams to do with the movie or Abrams’ capabilities as a filmmaker.
New-generation fans who grew up on, and love, the prequel movies (myself included in that number) didn’t recognize their Star Wars in any of the sequel movies, which avoided prequel aesthetics and ideas like the plague.
Even some fans who loved Rey and Kylo’s romantic tension seem to be disappointed by The Rise of Skywalker. Ben’s ultimate demise means their story becomes a tragic one, although I found his sacrifice beautiful and a much better version of Darth Vader’s bullshit in Return of the Jedi. I do wonder whether Return would’ve been met with the same ire had it been released in the age of social media and the politicization of corporate popular culture. Most of its plot is either callbacks to A New Hope in the wake of Empire’s mixed reception or out-of-nowhere plot twists of cravenness equal to anything in The Rise of Skywalker.
The Sequel Trilogy is a mixture of frustratingly missed opportunities and surprising successes. They add to the overall lore of the Skywalker Saga via Rey and Kylo’s battle over the legacy of the Original Trilogy heroes, and everything Johnson did in The Last Jedi gave the trilogy its own identity and thematic edge. Like the Original Trilogy, it concludes with a fun but cowardly final chapter that only works because it plays off relationships set up in the previous movie. It’s hard to say that the Sequel Trilogy is a waste, but is 100% proof that Disney had no idea about the type of franchise they were inheriting. The tonal and plot inconsistencies are grating and, at the end of the day, ultimately disappointing.
Had they committed to making it a thorough rehash a la The Force Awakens, it would’ve been consistent. Had they been brave enough to make an overall trilogy as reflective and heartfelt as The Last Jedi, it would’ve been grand. Either would’ve made about the same amount of money as The Rise of Skywalker is making now, and perhaps given the franchise a clearer future on the big screen.
I think that this is most seen in the contrast between the public’s reception of The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian. They’re both products built and tailored to the specific type of nostalgia viewers have for the Star Wars universe. But with The Mandalorian, Disney finally figured out that doing anything beyond that nostalgia wasn’t remotely what the audience wants from its new Star Wars.
They didn’t have a chance to fill our plates with member-berry gruel in The Rise of Skywalker, having thrown out their key ingredients and then rehiring an uninspired line cook to conclude their story. The Mandalorian isn’t quite as copy / paste as The Force Awakens, which average audiences found annoying, too.
The Mandalorian had plenty of time to simmer, under the steady hand of Jon Favreau, who fried up the first appetizer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Favreau’s last non-Disney effort, Chef, is actually pretty charming, too.) It’s exactly what Disney is going to do from now on, for better or ill. So maybe now is a good time to actually talk about …
Pedro Pascal (ostensibly) stars as the titular Mandalorian, a bounty hunter travelling the Outer Rim in the years following the events of Return of the Jedi. Although the Rebellion defeated the Empire, order was not necessarily restored. The fledgeling New Republic has little power beyond the Core Worlds. Chaos reigns.
“Mando,” as he’s known, is a gun-for-hire hailing from the legendary warrior culture of Mandalore. He’s a Foundling, meaning he isn’t a Mandalorian by blood but rather an orphan adopted by one of the culture’s various clans. Part of their ritual is to never remove their armor. Think Klingons mixed with Kree mixed with, well, Boba Fett.
The spirit of Boba Fett certainly informs The Mandalorian, which is essentially writer-creator Favreau’s backdoor method of using Star Wars‘ most infamous bounty hunter without the weight of his stupid backstory. Fett is far too steeped in Star Wars lore thanks to Lucas wanting to merchandise the character during the prequels. Few additions to the mythology are as cravenly stupid as the introduction of Jango Fett as the father of every Clone.
Mando has everything we’ve always loved about Fett: a T-Visor helmet, wrist rockets, a jetpack, a flamethrower, a badass rifle, a silent-but-deadly demeanor. He is, to be frank, an action figure incarnate.
That’s the truth of The Mandalorian as a whole: Unlike the movies they’ve stumbled into theaters, this is the first Disney product they’ve successfully built as an action-figure commercial masquerading as something bigger. Two-hour movies require narrative arcs and dramatic stakes to feel meaningful, but these eight 30- to 40-odd-minute episodes only need an inciting incident, a few action sequences and a cute baby Yoda to give Mando something relatable as he stumbles through the Star Wars underworld.
A few great cameos by well-known faces like Werner Herzog and Nick Nolte flesh out the supporting cast in the same way Max Von Sydow granted gravitas to the shaky opening of The Force Awakens or how Laura Dern sold Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi.
Calling The Mandalorian an action figure commercial isn’t a dig, however. It is just an honest description of the sort of Star Wars product Disney has finally figured out how to offer.
The show has eight chapters of varying quality. Franchise veteran Dave Filoni directed the first (“The Mandalorian”) and the fifth (“The Gunslinger”). They’re arguably the weakest of the whole show. His steady hand guided the canon-heavy Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons for the past decade. He is reportedly Lucas’s protege, but his technique is rough. It is here that The Mandalorian’s lower production budget is most apparent.
Rick Fumuyiwa directed the second and sixth chapters. “The Child” is by far the best Mandalorian episode, a straightforward Stagecoach-inspired chase sequence wherein Mando invades a Sandcrawler. As far as this series is entirely reliant on repurposing old action figures, having him climb a Sandcrawler to disintegrate Jawas is deeply satisfying. “The Child” also has the distinction of fully introducing “baby Yoda,” the breakout “character” who is literally just a cute animatronic that reminds us of a character we already love. He’s great! He’s also nothing new. Fumuyiwa’s second episode, “The Prisoner,” has another centerpiece action sequence and a cool noir-ish plot about Mando helping a gang of rogues invade a prison ship. It’s good, aside from a post-credits bit that reveals he didn’t actually kill anyone.
Deborah Chow (who will helm Disney+’s forthcoming Obi-Wan series) shepherded chapters three (“The Sin”) and seven (“The Reckoning”) — both on-the-level entries that introduced new action figures for me to buy and furthered Mando’s overarching decision to protect “baby Yoda” rather than give him over to remnant Imperial forces for experimentation. Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) helmed the fourth chapter, “Sanctuary,” a Seven Samurai riff that looks the cheapest of the lot and feels as thought it was filmed first. Taika Waititi provided the voice of assassin droid IG-11 and also directed the final episode, “Redemption” — maybe the series’ best blend of displaying future collectibles and good character work.
If I had to rank these episodes, I would rank them 2, 8, 6, 3, 5, 1, 4. If I had to.
All of this is to say that I genuinely enjoy The Mandalorian and think the hype is justified. Audiences want to either love or hate Star Wars, and they want to love or hate Star Wars together. The fandom is notoriously mercurial and toxic, having driven Lucas to sell his company in the first place after consistent slamming of the Prequel Trilogy (which the same communities now champion as a way of being contrary to Disney’s films). I’m elated that this tale is beloved.
However, the success of The Mandalorian also drives home, more than even The Rise of Skywalker, how calculated the future of the franchise is set to be. The Rise of Skywalker followed a genuinely shocking and interesting entry in the overall saga and had to carry the weight of appealing to multiple fanbases while being hampered by one of the least creative storytelling minds in this generation of blockbuster filmmaking. The result is a conclusion that tried to dance between the raindrops of divergent expectations and ended up utterly soaked and deathly hypothermic, a shivering mess of a movie that serves as a fascinating example of studio production gone awry.
The Mandalorian, by contrast, is deeply calculated at every level. Rogue One is popular for a similar reason, with its final act giving us resurrected old faces, battles and Darth Vader, but mired with two acts of discombobulated, character-less storytelling. The Mandalorian has no such problem. It is eight episodes of fan service and nostalgia callbacks. It references The Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons so liberally that I have friends inquiring whether they’re worth watching. (Answer: I could never finish them, but find the Wikipedia entries exciting.) The last episode features a character describing an E-Webb repeating blaster, essentially just reading a Star Wars encyclopedia page (or the back of an action-figure card) for the sake of continuity porn.
The Obi-Wan and Cassian Andor (from Rogue One) series will likely be the same way, as will whatever movies Lucasfilm produces for 2022 and beyond. There is clearly a market for this; it may well be the only market Star Wars has ever had. It’s a shock that it took a half-decade for Disney to find its own anti-life equation for the franchise, although maybe the biggest surprise is that The Last Jedi was able to exist in the interim to give the whole series a gravitas it has lacked since The Empire Strikes Back. That will pay dividends in critical contemplation for a long time, although it’s certainly underscored the fact that pleasing as wide an audience as the Marvel films may never be in the cards for Star Wars.
Again: Star Wars has invaded my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as it has so many others. The Mandalorian was designed for me in the same way products at McDonald’s products are chemically perfected for maximum cognitive appeal. I am utterly fine with the fact that Disney has settled on an approach to the franchise, as it’s still better than the state of Star Wars between 2005 and 2015 in regard to new content and new toys.
But critically? It’s dispiriting to wonder if we’ll ever have any reason to talk about Star Wars excitement in the culture at large ever again. The Mandalorian succeeded in creating a meme with Baby Yoda, but I’ve already explained why that doesn’t equate to new life for the series.. Star Wars is far from a dead franchise; it has survived much worse stories and much more dire cultural relevance.
But it is on its way to becoming dormant once again … and without a guiding hand, or the easy chips of returning heroes to play, it may be creatively diminished in a way it never has been before.