The much-anticipated second season of The Mandalorian kicked off last Friday, and already, this Disney+ Star Wars TV series is shaping up to be another home run for Disney and Lucasfilm. At least, that’s if the overwhelmingly positive critical response (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) and online buzz (fans are still talking about that ending) to Season 2 opener “Chapter 9: The Marshal” are anything to go by.
It’s fair to say, then, that for the time being, everybody loves The Mandalorian – which isn’t something that can be said about the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Sure, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker each raked in well over $1 billion at the global box office, but the reactions of fans and critics to those flicks could best be described as…mixed.
So, what does The Mandalorian get right that the Star Wars sequel trilogy doesn’t? And what problem does the showshare with the movies, and how can it be fixed? Let’s find out!
A unified (creative) vision of the Force
Obviously, a TV series as popular as The Mandalorian has plenty going for it, so trying to narrow down what gives it the edge over the Star Wars sequel trilogy is a tall order. However, if you pointed a blaster at my head and asked me to pick just one reason why this sci-fi/western TV series outdoes its big screen space opera cousins, the first thing I’d blurt out would be: “A singular creative vision!”
And really, that’s what it all boils down to: The Mandalorian is masterminded by one guy – series creator Jon Favreau.
Sure, like Star Wars creator George Lucas did on the original trilogy, Favreau collaborates with a bunch of other talented writers and directors – including Taika Waititi, Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Dave Filoni – to tell his story. But everything they do is moulded to fit within his ground design for the show’s wider narrative; like Lucas, he’s ultimately the one calling all the shots.
And since Favreau clearly has a general sense of where The Mandalorian’s story is headed and where it will eventually end up, it also means he can get away with the occasional narrative detour, because the overarching plot remains broadly on track.
Put simply? There’s a plan and a clear creative “voice” – and consciously or otherwise, as viewers, we appreciate it.
By contrast, the Star Wars sequel trilogy felt like it was made by a whole heap of different folks who were making things up as they went along… mostly because they were!
Sure, The Force Awakens’s co-writer/director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt had vague ideas of how the subsequent two movies might play out.
Yet Episode VII is ultimately another example of Abrams doing what he does best: setting up a bunch of mystery box plot threads – Rey’s mysterious parentage, Luke Skywalker’s exile, Snoke’s backstory and so on – without any real idea of how they’re going to pay off later.
But then, that wasn’t his problem. Abrams knew he wasn’t helming Episode VIII – incoming writer/director Rian Johnson was.
Given free rein to take The Last Jedi in whatever direction he wanted by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, Johnson devised his own answers to the questions posed by Abrams; answers which proved controversial, to say the least. That’ll happen when you hire a filmmaker known for subverting established genre tropes.
And so it was that Kennedy, eager to deliver a finale to the trilogy – not to mention the main Star Wars saga itself – that would make everybody happy, turned to Abrams once more to handle directing duties on The Rise of Skywalker.
Ever the unabashed crowd pleaser, Abrams set out to do just that, devoting a sizeable chunk of Episode IX’s runtime to clumsily rolling back Johnson’s more polarizing plot twists and character developments.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make for an overly satisfying moviegoing experience. Indeed, The Rise of Skywalker often felt more like an apologetic checklist than it did a triumphant celebration of the franchise’s 40+ year history.
By the time everything was said and done, both main camps within Star Wars fandom – those who hated The Last Jedi and those who loved it – could at least agree on one thing: The Rise of Skywalker was a bit, well…meh.
If you loathed The Last Jedi, Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio hadn’t done enough to retcon it out of existence. On the flipside, if you adored The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker undermined practically everything about it that you enjoyed, all in service of an underwhelming, overstuffed story which spends so much time hitting the reset button that it barely has time to focus on its characters.
And all of this – the narrative flip-flopping; the tonal, thematic, and stylistic gear-crunching; and the disjointed or unresolved character arcs – could have been solved with a bit of cohesion behind the camera.
“Cohesion” really is the operative word here, too. You don’t need a fully-fledged plan like Favreau has for The Mandalorian to spin a satisfying multi-part Star Wars yarn.Heck, Lucas didn’t really have a concrete roadmap for where the original Star Wars trilogy or the prequels were headed; he was able to get by with a loose outline and the odd retcon.
Crucially, though, those all movies shared Lucas’ unique sensibilities as a storyteller. Even when he wasn’t in the director’s chair, and even when he was clearly rearranging the plot and the underlying mythology on the fly, this was unmistakeably Lucas’ story – and if we didn’t always like the way he told it, we could at least appreciate how unified it felt.
That’s not the case with the Star Wars sequels. There are too many cooks in the cantina, with all of them pulling the story and its characters in different directions and without one creative vision taking primacy over the rest, resulting in a fractious mess that’s almost impossible to watch sequentially, as intended.
Compared with that, how could The Mandalorian not look amazing?
Where The Mandalorian and the Star Wars sequels both go wrong
Not that The Mandalorian is perfect. On the contrary, it gets at least one thing major wrong that the Star Wars sequel trilogy is also guilty of: not moving the franchise forward. That’s a pretty big deal, too, since from the outset, Lucas intended for each new entry in the saga to dazzle us with new sights and sounds beyond our wildest dreams.
Now, The Force Awakens deserves a free pass in this regard; it was a smart move on Abram’s part to revitalise the Star Wars brand with a “greatest hits album” film after the lukewarm reaction by fans and critics alike to the prequel trilogy. If desert worlds, planet-sized battle stations, and the Millennium Falcon are what it takes to relaunch Star Wars, so be it.
By that logic, The Last Jedi also deserves a reprieve, as Johnson had to work within the constraints of the story handed to him by Abrams – and even then, he still did what he could to shake up the status quo (albeit not as much he gets praised/criticised for).
But there’s really no excusing the full-bore nostalgia-fest that is The Rise of Skywalker. Everything about Episode IX – especially the return of Ian McDiarmid’s cackling Emperor and Billy Dee Williams’ roguish Lando Calrissian, to return trips to well-trodden locales like Endor and Tatooine – feels disappointingly familiar, and that’s the lasting impression we’re left with of the sequels.
As a Lucas himself reportedly observed following a screening of The Force Awakens: “There’s nothing new.”
However, ol’ George could just as easily have been talking about The Mandalorian, too.
Yes, there have been some fun expansions of the existing lore on the show so far; diving deeper into Mandalorian culture has been a blast, and only a monster doesn’t find the Child (aka Baby Yoda) utterly adorable. All the same, it’s just that: existing lore.
Even the big reveal at the end of Season 2’s first episode – which teases the return of fan favourite baddie Boba Fett – is rooted in something we already know we like, not something we’ve never seen before.
And that’s a real shame, because The Mandalorian’s chronological setting (between the original and sequel trilogies) has the potential to be a storytelling sweet spot where new ideas and nostalgia sit neatly side-by-side; it’s familiar enough to evoke what we all loved about Star Wars as kids, but uncharted enough to really run wild creatively, too.
So, what can The Mandalorian do to fix its nostalgia problem?
Fortunately, this isn’t a tough problem to fix: Favreau and his team just need to give us something new.
Obviously, there are going to be budgetary considerations to weigh up – even with Disney picking up the tab. But as much as possible, Favreau and his team should be packing as many fresh environments and previously unimagined creatures into The Mandalorian’s second season as they can. Our anti-hero is a bounty hunter, so let’s see more of the galaxy far, far away’s seedy underbelly, something only hinted at in the films and other media.
More than that though, Favreau needs to broaden the show’s thematic horizons. To his credit, he’s on the right track here; the Mandalorian’s morally ambiguous personality and profession, and his role as a reluctant father figure, have the potential to dramatically reframe Star Wars’ core themes of good versus evil and family. He just needs to push things a little further.
If Favreau can pull this off, he won’t just be ensuring The Mandalorian’s ongoing popularity. He’ll be helping the series(and the rest of the Star Wars franchise) finally take its first proper step out from under the long shadow cast by Lucas – and at the same time, realizing Lucas’ hopes for the saga’s future.