Disney announced an upcoming movie featuring the characters The Mandalorian and Grogu, titled The Mandalorian and Grogu. In addition to hoping that Jon Favreau has a different title in the works, I’m also a little bit confused and disappointed by the announcement.
To be clear: I’m absolutely going to be seeing this movie, and if you think otherwise then I’m not sure why you’re reading this blog, since it’s clear you don’t know me at all. If they sold tickets before movies entered pre-production, I would’ve already bought one.
But The Mandalorian is, to me, inherently televised. It’s the most perfect translation of everything I like about Star Wars into the television format. It’s the show that I dreamed of when I was a little kid, obsessed with Star Wars and obsessed with television. But better, because it couldn’t possibly have existed back then. In fact, I think a big part of why I can’t help but gush about it is that it’s got failsafes built in: anything that might seem corny or underdeveloped feeds back into the charm of the series, because it feels like a callback to what television was like at the time Star Wars was at its peak.
In fact, I can call out the aspects of it that make it feel inherently suited to television, in handy blog list form:
Star Wars as a Western
Maybe the most essential part, the first thing The Mandalorian gets right about Star Wars is that it’s not science fiction. There were countless attempts to rip off Star Wars in the late 1970s and early 80s, and the crucial part that they missed was that the movie’s sci-fi elements were really just extremely elaborate, perfectly-executed set dressing. The core of the thing is a fantasy story inspired by old pulp serials.
That’s part of why I think the most successful imitator was Battlestar Galactica; it had its own variant of Mormon-ish mysticism running underneath the spaceships and lasers. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, ironically, didn’t copy the pulp serials, but instead went for disco-era High Camp. (Which is also awesome, but for different reasons).
Anyway, The Mandalorian understands that Star Wars is a melange of influences from different genres. Instead of trying to translate the movies directly to television, it took a step back and looked at what inspired the movies in the first place: Dune, samurai movies, serials, Flash Gordon. And then it took inspiration from a format that was inherently televised, and would’ve been familiar to anyone who grew up watching Star Wars: episodic TV westerns like Gunsmoke.
The Theme Music
Once you’ve got “TV western” as the template, then all you need to do is get a brilliant composer who’s able to understand the influences completely, and synthesize something completely new out of them. The music sounds vaguely like that of a spaghetti western, without ever being an obvious pastiche of Ennio Morricone’s scores. It’s got the bombast of something like Branded or The Big Valley, or even The Wild Wild West, but if their inspiration had been aliens instead of Aaron Copland. And it also builds wonderfully to a big orchestral moment, because it’s still Star Wars, but never feels like someone just trying to copy John Williams.
The End Credits
That extends all the way to the end credits, which have the feel of TV westerns without ever feeling like a direct reference. They’ve got stills of concept art recounting the events of the episode, with the names displayed on top in plain yellow text. I’ve said frequently that they remind of me of The Wild Wild West, even though they’re not actually all that similar. They’re kind of more like the end credits to Star Trek, which was itself (famously) originally pitched as “Wagon Train in space.”
A big part of why the end credits trigger so many nostalgia neurons in my brain is that I spent a lot of my childhood with mini-posters of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art hanging on my wall, and so much of the art for The Mandalorian seems to be deliberately calling back to his style.
Special Guest Stars
I’ve read complaints that The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett relied so much on stunt casting that it was a distraction, which seems to be missing the point. Granted, casting Lizzo, Jack Black, and Christopher Lloyd all in the same episode might’ve been a step too far, but the concept itself is inherent to television series. Especially TV dramas from the 1950s through the 80s.
You really can’t top casting Werner Herzog in a Star Wars series; the only way I can imagine to go one better would be to have him say the line, “I would like to see the baby.” But they’ve also been unafraid to cast Carl Weathers, Timothy Olyphant, Amy Sedaris, and of course Thundercat, along with other recognizable actors in prominent supporting roles, plus plenty more as voices or cameos. It’s a defining feature of episodic television, since you can get the boost of recognition without having to pay a big name for a longer run, or a part in a feature film beyond a cameo.
Changes in Tone
Because it’s episodic, you can get fairly dramatic shifts in tone from different directors all working within the same story framework. Some episodes will be darker, some will be lighter, if not outright comedies. The episode that Carl Weathers directed felt appropriately like an early 1980s action movie from start to finish.
I think no matter how famous or successful Jon Favreau has been, he’s still severely underrated. I think his mindset is key to what makes The Mandalorian work so well, above everything else that goes into it: he has a seemingly preternatural ability to just get it, and understand exactly how and why genre fiction and comedy work. You can see it in Iron Man, and Elf, and all the way back to Swingers. For the series to work, it’s got to take itself seriously enough to stand up to all the “myth-building” of the movies, but not so seriously that it loses sight of how goofy Star Wars inherently is. If I trace a line through his work (that I’ve seen), it’s clear he has a good idea of how to keep things funny and charming without ever feeling too silly.
Very Special Episodes
Related to the above: the episodic format means that individual stories can be a little bit more experimental and self-contained. I remember the second episode having almost no (English) dialogue; it’s almost entirely about the Mandalorian trying to get his stuff back from the Jawas, including an extended chase on a sandcrawler that calls back to some of the best sequences in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Another standout episode is all about the Mandalorian trying to escort an alien and her offspring to her partner, without freezing to death or being killed by spiders, and without his own protege eating all of the children. It’s got such a great focus to it, tying into the larger story but feeling complete on its own.
It would’ve been easy for this series to fall into “Monster of the Week” syndrome, or go too far in the other direction and just be so wrapped up in its own lore that individual episodes don’t stand out. The series has fallen into the latter, especially with its third season. But there’s still an implicit promise that each episode is going to show you at least one thing you’ve never seen before.
I need to find a BuzzFeed style guide, since I don’t know a graceful way to tack on a conclusion to a list post without its looking like part of the list.
In any case: so much of what I love about The Mandalorian is that it feels inherently conceived and designed for episodic television. It forgoes most of the obvious signifiers of Star Wars — in particular, the “A long time ago” text and the opening crawl; along with the over-the-top, ever-present score — in favor of deconstructing the movies down to their influences, and then rebuilding on top of a separate set of influences. It requires a down-to-the-bones understanding of how and why Star Wars works, in addition to an understanding of how episodic television works, and how it’s different from film.
Of course, that’s not to say that The Mandalorian as a feature film won’t be great, just that it will probably be more like a Star Wars movie than like The Mandalorian. So many of the interesting aspects of its format — not to mention the charm inherent in its somewhat reduced scope — will be lost when it has to get translated back into a movie.
Maybe Jon Favreau will surprise me, and he’ll go all-in on the style of western movies, and make A Fistful of Credits, or The Wild Bunch (of Mandalorians), or The Man Who Shot Moff Gideon. Or go back to samurai movies, and do it in the style of Lone Wolf and Cub or Yojimbo.
Or, you know, just make a really good movie with fun and charming characters. Not everything needs to be deconstructionist. Favreau seems to have so much genuine love for Star Wars that he deserves to see his version of it on a huge screen, like I imagine he’s wanted to see ever since he was a little kid.