The Mandalorian — the first live-action Star Wars TV show — has landed on the same day as Disney+, and so far, it’s exactly what we expected: A rich, gritty look at the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars Universe.
Game of Thrones and Narcos actor Pablo Pascal stars as a masked bounty hunter who crosses paths with former Imperial operatives, displaced Rebel soldiers, murderous droids, and all kinds of funky aliens. It’s exciting, it’s packed with action, and it’s full of plot twists. The real reason why it’s so good, though?
All of that sweet nostalgia — in all the right places.
(Spoilers for the first two episodes of The Mandalorian follow.)
The folks behind The Mandalorian know their Star Wars lore. Series creator Jon Favreau is such a big fan that he wrote the first five scripts for The Mandalorian before he’d even pitched the series to Disney. Co-producer Dave Filoni, who directed the first episode, is the co-creator of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the mastermind behind Star Wars Rebels.
That knowledge bears out on screen. Early on in The Mandalorian’s first episode, Horatio Sanz’s blue alien drops a reference to Life Day, the fictional holiday celebrated in the infamously terrible Star Wars Holiday Special. The Mandalorian’s cattle-prod baton is a callback to The Faithful Wookiee, the Holiday Special animated short that introduced Boba Fett to the world. Given that the Star Wars Holiday Special hasn’t aired since 1978 (although bootlegs are easy to find), those are pretty deep cuts.
And so far, the entire series is like that. While set after the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, The Mandalorian evokes the first hour of the very first Star Wars film more than any otherN. That’s intentional. In interviews, Favreau said that he was most inspired by A New Hope’s Tatooine scenes, especially the sequence in the Mos Eisley cantina. That’s when Star Wars was still unexplained and the world felt the most alive, mysterious, and dangerous.
As such, The Mandalorian is full of nods to Star Wars’ forgotten past. Blurrgs, the ugly creatures that the Mandalorian and his Ugnaught companion ride, first appeared in the made-for-TV movie Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. A line of dialogue acknowledges the Mythosaur, a vaguely understood creature from the old, now non-canon Star Wars Expanded Universe. Even Favreau’s involvement is kind of a look back: The filmmaker voiced a character on The Clone Wars who just happened to be — wait for it — a Mandalorian.
Then, of course, there’s that cliffhanger. As we learned at the end of episode one, The Mandalorian’s latest bounty isn’t a hardened criminal. It’s a baby that looks awfully similar to one green, pointy-eared Jedi Master.
While even Star Wars’ background characters have been given names, elaborate backstories, and action figures, Yoda’s species remains a secret. Even as the character became one of the most popular in the entire series, George Lucas refused to spill the beans about where he came from or what kind of being he was. And yet, fans love answers. Diving into that backstory is the ultimate piece of fanservice.
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. This is Dave Filoni’s M.O. On both The Clone Wars and Rebels, Filoni delved into the more obscure parts of Star Wars lore and played with our nostalgia to spin intriguing and thought-provoking new stories. He uses the past to make Star Wars feel even bigger, stranger, and more complex.
If Favreau and Filoni can weave the same magic on The Mandalorian, we’re in for one heck of a treat.
The Mandalorian isn’t just nostalgia porn for Star Wars nerds, though. It also plays on our infatuation with classic Hollywood westerns and Japanese samurai flicks. Not that we’re surprised. The very first plot summary for The Mandalorian used the language of westerns, talking about a “gunfighter” roaming the “outer reaches” of known civilization where the government has little say. Still, it was surprising to see how heavily the series has leaned into this genre early on.
Again, The Mandalorian isn’t subtle about its influences. Pascal watched Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy to prepare for his turn as a taciturn warrior. Kuiil, Nick Nolte’s wise Ugnaugh guide, plays the same role in The Mandalorian as Native American spiritualists did in countless cowboy movies. Many of The Mandalorian’s shots — the Mandalorian learning to ride the Blurrg, the long ride across the sun-drenched Arvala-7 desert, and his grand entrance into an outer-space saloon — are simply western tropes drenched in a Star Wars aesthetic. Ludwig Göransson’s score is a techno-spin on Ennio Morricone’s twangy soundtracks, with a hint of John Williams thrown in for good measure.
Westerns and samurai films come from the same tradition. Both genres deal with warriors who operate on the fringes of society, traveling alone while fighting injustice. In fact, many samurai movies — especially Akira Kurosawa’s — have been remade as westerns. The Magnificent Seven is a well-known remake of The Seven Samurai. Clint Eastwood’s first Leone flick, A Fistful of Dollars, is a straight-up rip-off of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (Kurosawa actually sued Leone for plagiarism and won a hefty settlement).
Similarly, The Mandalorian is clearly inspired by Lone Wolf and Cub, a manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima that eventually spawned six feature films, a TV show, and four stage plays in Japan. In Lone Wolf and Cub, a disgraced soldier travels the Japanese countryside while working as an assassin, towing his infant son behind him in a cart.
If The Mandalorian really is going to be about ol’ Mando traveling the galaxy and getting into trouble while protecting the Yoda-esque baby — and episode two indicates that it is — it’s hard not to draw those parallels.
That’s by design. And at its core, it’s all very Star Wars.
Nostalgia for westerns and samurai movies is a core part of the sci-fi franchise. George Lucas’ original treatment for Star Wars is a beat-for-beat remake of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, and while A New Hope changed a lot before making it to the screen, Lucas re-used many of The Hidden Fortress’ plot twists in The Phantom Menace. Lucas originally wanted to cast Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator, Toshiro Mifune, as Obi-Wan Kenobi. He asked production designer Ralph McQuarrie to make Darth Vader’s helmet look like a samurai warrior’s.
In the same vein, Han Solo’s sneak attack on Greedo — back when Harrison Ford’s smuggler really did shoot first — looks a lot like a similar scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Before shooting Star Wars, Lucas screened Once Upon a Time in the West for his crew. Sound designer Brett Burt added the sound of spurs to Boba Fett’s footsteps, while the animators behind Fett’s debut in The Faithful Wookiee looked to Leone’s films to create the short’s signature style.
Star Wars has always been a nostalgic property. In addition to samurais and cowboys, it draws heavily on pulp serials like Flash Gordon (reports suggest Lucas only made Star Wars after the Gordon rights slipped through his fingers) and classic mythology. By playing with older traditions, The Mandalorian isn’t just providing fanservice. It’s honoring the Star Wars legacy.
The best part of The Mandalorian’s devotion to revitalizing older genres isn’t what it means for The Mandalorian, but what it means for Disney+’s other Star Wars shows.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 and announced that there’d be a new Star Wars film every year, it sounded like we were going to get a bunch of fresh and different takes on the franchise at the multiplex. So far, that hasn’t actually happened. Disney’s Star Wars movies — even Rogue One, which only kind of feels like a war movie – fit a pre-defined style. They’re fun, but they’re all pretty similar.
On Disney+, it looks like Disney is willing to experiment. We already know that Diego Luna’s Rogue One prequel is supposed to be a spy thriller. If that show embraces its genre in the same way that The Mandalorian celebrates westerns while exploring the hitherto unknown regions of the Star Wars Universe, we could have multiple new dimensions of Star Wars waiting for us.
Embracing nostalgia for both its own weird legacy and also cinematic history is the road map Disney needs to follow to keep Star Wars fresh. It’s worked so far for The Mandalorian, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for other projects as well. As the series’ big-screen hiatus proves, cranking out the same thing over and over leads to fatigue.
By looking to the past to shake things up, Disney+’s new series can help secure Star Wars’ future.
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