Spoilers for the first episode of “The Mandalorian” are included in the last half of this article.
Star Wars has had a rough ride in the Disney era. The first Disney Star Wars movie was 2015’s “The Force Awakens” helmed by J.J. Abrams, which was warmly received but ultimately a retelling of the original Star Wars film from 1977.
Then we got “Rogue One” the next year, the first spinoff film, or “Star Wars Story,” which served as a direct prequel to the original Star Wars film, telling the story of how the heroes stole the Death Star plans. It had a rocky production, but ultimately was a perfect recreation of the lived-in, imperfect 1977 Star Wars esthetic.
Then came the 2017 film, “The Last Jedi,” a sequel to “The Force Awakens” that was as controversial as it was successful at the global box office. Many fans hated the way filmmaker Rian Johnson treated series hero Luke Skywalker, and were bored by much of the plot.
That was followed by the first Star Wars movie to lose money, the terribly troubled “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which told the tale of how Han Solo met Chewbacca and gained the famous Millennium Falcon. It had three directors, and a budget bigger than that galaxy far, far away. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as everyone initially thought, but on the heels of the disappointment in “Last Jedi,” it left a bad taste in the mouths of many Star Wars fans.
Now it’s 2019, and with the launch of Disney Plus, Star Wars fans are getting their first taste of live-action Star Wars since that troubled “Solo” origin flick. That Star Wars is a gritty story of a bounty hunter on the fringes of the galaxy, on a very expensive prestige TV show with a budget that will make even “Game of Thrones” producers turn bluer than a Twi’lek.
“The Mandalorian” is helmed by Jon Favreau, his generation’s most underappreciated director, and Dave Filoni, Lucasfilm’s real life Obi-Wan Kenobi who once studied at the feet of Star Wars creator George Lucas on the superb “Clone Wars” cartoon series. The show they’ve created is as much a western as it is any other genre, inspired by the likes of “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” The title character looks an awful lot like original trilogy fan favorite Boba Fett, but he’s not.
No Binging on This Baby
The first episode of “The Mandalorian” is less than 40 minutes, and just the intro to what we know is going to be at least two seasons with these characters, but it is so rich with wonderful content, and bursting with Easter Eggs, that it was hard to contain my glee when watching it at 5 a.m. this morning. Yes, I woke up at 5 in the morning to watch a TV show. I’ve never done that before, which brings me to Disney’s strategy with Plus.
When the latest season of “Stranger Things” comes out on Netflix, you block off an entire evening, put the kids to bed early, and binge all the episodes at once. With Disney Plus, “The Mandalorian” and other prestige TV shows like it will be weekly, just like old-school TV, or more importantly, just like “Game of Thrones” used to be.
Why? Because then the show stays in the news for a longer time. Instead of writing one story on the entire season of “The Mandalorian,” every critic will talk about it every week between now and the end of the year. That’s smart marketing on Disney’s part, because it’s yet another reminder for people to sign up and remain signed up for their streaming service.
Finally, the Directorial Debut of Dave Filoni
Back to the show. This is the live-action directorial debut of Filoni, a humble guy from Pittsburgh who helped George Lucas create “The Clone Wars” cartoon series, then created “Rebels” and “Resistance” for Disney. He is the ultimate expert on Star Wars at Lucasfilm. Even Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy has said she always checks with Filoni on The Force, and deep Star Wars lore.
His turn in the director’s chair on The Mandalorian is superb. After the mess of the prequels, it’s easy to forget that Lucas was heavily inspired by old spaghetti westerns when creating the original Star Wars movie in 1977. The character of Han Solo, the desert town of Mos Eisley and its cantina, all were heavily influenced by the old Clint Eastwood films of the 1960s.
Clearly that influence has rubbed off on Filoni. “The Mandalorian” looks like a western, is shot like a western, and it even has a soundtrack reminiscent of a western. Its main hero has the same blemished, mysterious persona that Eastwood’s famous characters did. He’s not the perfect guy who gets everything right, can do anything, and is a shiny hero in a white hat. He’s a gun for hire who has several missteps in just this first episode. As we find out at the end, he has a heart, too.
Of Course It’s Dark and Gritty (Spoiler Section)
The last 10 minutes of this first episode are its best. We get to meet Nick Nolte as an Ugnaught guide in a role that I hope was not just for the first episode. We see a fast-paced, funny, well-executed shootout, and meet Taika Waititi’s fantastic bounty hunter droid with a penchant for self-destruction.
The final scene is the most intriguing. We learn that the bounty our hero has been searching for is none other than a baby Yoda. It’s not Yoda himself, as he’s dead at this point in the Star Wars timeline, but it is a child of Yoda’s race, which is, as far as we know, powerful in The Force.
With what we’ve seen from the previews, I’m wondering if Mando has been tasked with finding Children of the Force, kids from across the galaxy who are Force sensitive. This has been addressed in other Star Wars mediums, including previous works by Filoni, and illustrates just how this show is going to work itself into the seedier side of the Star Wars galaxy.
One of the things that really worked in “Rogue One” was the dirty, morally ambiguous nature of the movie. It was the darker side of the good guys, and showed that Star Wars isn’t always black and white. “The Mandolorian” covers itself in that dirt, like rashnold on a kalak, and it’s glorious.
Get Your Kids Addicted Now, Just Like You Are
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, this is the kind of story that was perfect for them to explore over many hours on the small screen. It has also been the primary hook for getting people to spend $6.99 per month to get yet another streaming service.
Let’s be clear: Disney Plus is essential for parents. I’d be surprised if they don’t start offering it in the delivery room as soon as you have a kid. “Here’s your bouncing baby boy, and an offer for all the Disney, Marvel and Star Wars content he’ll want to watch for just $6.99 per month. Sign here.”
You know it’s not as crazy as it sounds. It’s also essential for adults though who love Star Wars, Marvel, National Geographic, “The Simpsons,” and all those Disney movies and shows you grew up watching. Disney’s challenge will be keeping everyone interested in the service after the shiny newness wears off, but by dripping out new shows and exclusive movies, they hope to do just that.
Netflix is the Ranchor of streaming, the big beast that has ruled its domain for a long time, but it made a lot of its reputation by shilling the content of other companies, including Disney properties. Those Disney and Pixar movies, Star Wars films, and Marvel shows are all gone now. Their new home is Disney Plus.
Disney’s plan is to hook you with big-budget exclusives like “The Mandalorian,” coming shows from Marvel, a remake of “The Lady and the Tramp,” and kids’ offerings you can’t find anywhere else. Then they hope to keep you there by reminding you that you can watch just about every Disney movie ever made (with a few exceptions), anywhere, anytime you want in glorious 4K HDR.
If all of the content is as good as “The Mandalorian,” then Netflix needs to watch out, because Disney may be an awful lot like that slamming gate in Jabba’s Palace.