The Mandalorian (2019)
The Mandalorian is what you get when you lock any half dozen reasonably competent writers in a room and tell them not to come out until they’ve figured out a way to file the serial numbers off Boba Fett. Light on character and plot, heavy on distinctive iconography and marketing opportunities, and resolutely middle of the road, it doesn’t mark the nadir of the Star Wars franchise, but it is a worrying signifier of what the likely future is: risk-averse, generic, steeped in arcane lore but empty of meaningful themes.
Which is a damn shame because, going by surface details alone, I should be in the bag for Mando. It’s a space Western, after all, and sci-fi and Westerns are two of my favorite things. It’s a Star Wars joint and, despite my recent exhaustion with the Discourse, I’m a fan of the overall property, if not some of the individual entries. We’ve been promised a deep dive into the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars Universe for some time now, and while the Saga heavily depends on a precise mix of influences and tones to really function, spending some time among the various bounty hunters and smugglers and what have you that populate its fringes holds some appeal.
But The Mandalorian is frustrating in that it gives the viewer everything they think they want, but not in any truly interesting, engaging, or innovative ways. Star Wars — in particular, George Lucas’ 1977 original film — is a decidedly post-modern work, mixing together 1930s adventure serials, classic and revisionist Westerns, World War II combat flicks (and not just dogfighting movies), Japanese samurai cinema and more to synthesize something greater than the sum of its parts, while remaining rooted in the politics and counterculture of its time and famously invoking Joseph Campbell’s notion of the monomyth. That’s no small thing.
The Mandalorian, by contrast, is an exercise in simplification, reduction, and imitation. It takes the appellation ‘space Western’ utterly literally, offering up a series of riffs on well-known examples of the genre — The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Searchers (1956), The Wild Bunch (1969), Rio Bravo (1959) — and only lightly rewriting the scenarios to make them fit in the Star Wars milieu. Japanese chambara samurai flicks get a brief look-in, but only inasmuch as The Mandalorian’s central pair are reminiscent of Lone Wolf and Cub, and the historical fact that there was a degree of cross-pollination between post-war Japanese cinema and the American Westerns of the 1940s, largely due to Akira Kurosawa’s admiration of John Ford, and between Kurosawa’s work and the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.
So, hark to the tale of Mando the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal most of the time) journeyman bounty hunter who finds himself on the wrong side of just about everyone when his quarry turns out to be a baby of the same species as Yoda. Deciding to go against the Bounty Hunting Guild ‘code’ and betray his client (a typically wonderful Werner Herzog), our stoic hero finds himself the unwilling guardian of ‘The Child’ across eight episodes worth of loosely connected adventures, culminating in a couple of reveals in the finale that might mean something if you’re down with a deep degree of Star Wars arcana, and will most likely barely register if you’re not.
There’s fun to be had along the way, though. The cast is pretty great. Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit (2019), crops up as assassin droid IG-11, Nick Nolte, 48 Hrs. (1982), slaps on the latex to play gruff Ugnaught sage Kuiil (and channels Chief Dan George’s work in 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales), Carl Weathers, Predator (1987), is bounty hunter middleman Greef Karga, and we get cameos and guest spots from Bill Burr, Clancy Brown, Richard Ayoade, Ming-Na Wen, Jason Sudeikis, and more. They’re not all gems, though: Jake Cannavale’s turn as a young gunslinger is embarrassingly bad, and while Gina Carano, Haywire (2011), has improved as a performer over the years, there are times when the major supporting role of mercenary Cara Dune is little beyond her.
But the real problem with The Mandalorian is that it’s not designed to do anything new; rather, its specific and obvious remit is to remind you of other things. The joys it offers are Pavlovian; we don’t care about Mando as a character because of who he is (which is occluded by some J.J. Abrams Mystery Box nonsense) but because he looks like Boba Fett. Baby Yoda is a chibi version of an already iconic character, IG-11 is just comedy relief IG-88, and so on and so on. Every episode is peppered with callbacks and Easter eggs — ‘Ooh! An AT-ST!’ ‘Ooh! Biker scouts!’ At one point, a character rhapsodizes about the power of the E-web heavy repeating blaster, an in-universe artifact I only know about because of the old West End Games Tabletop RPG back in the day. There’s no reason for it, except to invite viewers to participate in the knowledge economy of obsessive fandom.
This is a feature of every successful alternate world fantasy and science fiction franchise — encyclopedias’ worth of trivia and minutiae to memorize and regurgitate as an act of faith, and whether it’s a feature or a bug really depends on how skillfully this stuff is integrated into the narrative. In The Mandalorian it’s pretty clunky, with rote scripts and at times painfully poor dialogue essentially acting as a support system for reams of trivia and setting information.
I wonder if that’s going to matter to many fans, though. I have a theory that a lot of the appeal of Star Wars as it currently exists is not the narratives being told, but the world they’re being played out in. The flavor of Star Wars is an intoxicating one, and I think for many viewers, the opportunity to spend time in that galaxy far, far away trumps any concerns about plot and character — the destination means more than the journey. A look at the fandom activities peripheral to the films supports this: consider the cosplay, whether amateur or with the organized 501st Legion; or the popularity of Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge park, which is effectively an open-air Star Wars-themed shopping mall whose chief aim is to submerge the visitor into the ‘reality’ of Star Wars as completely as possible, pausing only to exchange real money for custom lightsabers and Astromech droids.
Taking this appeal into account, Mando’s generic character is an asset. With the series’ Western trappings it’s been easy for pundits to compare him to Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name persona, but Mando is even more stoic and faceless, with the script (and we may as well credit showrunner and executive producer Jon Favreau with this wrinkle, although I suspect guidelines came from higher up) giving the Mandalorians (a warrior cult, not a race per se) a geas against removing their helmets in public to make him really, really anonymous. Spider-Man could be anyone under that mask, but we empathize with perennial loser Peter Parker; Mando has no alter ego, no inner life, no animus; he’s an action figure or, more accurately, a video game protagonist. His anonymity invites us to project our own agency into his actions, without the extra, vital step of empathy.
The gamification of the property extends to the first season’s overarching plot — and will presumably continue in the already-announced second season — which feels like a FPS RPG game, complete with side missions (episode 2’s ‘The Egg’), support NPCs (Nolte’s Ugnaught is an exposition dispenser more than anything else), equipment upgrades (Mando returns to a Mandalorian forge to have his armor improved) and more. It’s an accumulative negative; as the series progresses, what at first was an interesting, occasionally jarring element of the show’s fabric becomes more intrusive to the point where you must wonder if this is a deliberate act of vertical integration and cross-marketing for an upcoming game release. Star Wars is unarguably a cross-media franchise now, with books, comics, games, television and more all contributing to some weirdly religious notion of canonicity, but in this case, it feels detrimental to the work at hand, sacrificing success in the medium in play in favor of knitting together the larger whole.
The Mandalorian has built-in a lip-service mystery around the nature of The Child and his origin, along with some fairly obvious trauma in its protagonists’ past (he’s a war orphan raised in the Mandalorian cult) to lend its events some broad forward momentum and hopefully keep viewers hooked for the next season, but even these middling efforts seem surplus to requirements. The aesthetic — and the marketability thereof — is the object of the exercise here, and the show’s impact on popular culture proves that it works. Whether it’ll work for you depends on what you want out of the experience, but for me, this is a pretty empty effort.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson