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These days, a Star Wars film is both made and destroyed by its audience’s expectations. The Force Awakens, back in 2015, faced an unenviable challenge – soothe any ill will left over from the previous prequel trilogy and return everybody into the warm, familiar embrace of “classic” Star Wars. It also had to prove that Disney, having acquired Lucasfilm for $4bn, could confidently take the reins from George Lucas, without putting the Ewoks in tiny Mickey hats and forcing them to do a song and dance about their dreams coming true.
What we ended up with was a sly retread of A New Hope, complete with a masked villain, an orphan in the desert, and a planet-blasting super-laser. It was The Last Jedi’s job to counteract any claims that Star Wars was running purely on nostalgic fumes by becoming the boldest, or most heretical, take on the franchise yet – depending on who you ask. And, with the fandom now supposedly cleaved in two, last year’s The Rise of Skywalker tried to please both camps and, for the most part, pleased neither.
The problem is that these films always had something to prove – they could never simply be. Any whiff of mediocrity would turn the internet into a feeding frenzy. Even Rogue One and Solo, both relatively self-contained spin-offs, were subjected to fierce scrutiny. But things were different for The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars TV show and the crown jewel of Disney+, the studio’s new streaming service. When it debuted in the US last autumn (and the following spring in the UK) it was, for the most part, shielded from the burdens of expectation. There were no box office numbers, nothing to obsessively compare it to or rank it with. It was one, inseparable part of the whole Disney+ package.
In short, Star Wars could finally breathe. Whichever way you may think of the films, whether as a triumph or an embarrassing defeat – here was a pure, unencumbered exploration of what Star Wars is and what it could be in the future. It’s the most promising thing that’s happened to the franchise since Disney’s takeover. There was no legacy to uphold, no Luke, Leia, or Han; no great families, armies, senators, or chosen ones. All The Mandalorian needed was a father and a child.
Specifically, it needed *the* Child, a 50-year-old infant of Yoda’s species that a Mandalorian bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal’s Din Djarin) is sent to recover on behalf of an ex-Imperial lackey (Werner Herzog, the exquisitely monotone German director). But the Child – with his puppy dog eyes and wrinkled, little forehead – manages to coax out Din’s parental urges. He wants to protect it. We want to protect it. The Child, which the internet swiftly christened Baby Yoda, has since attracted its own international cult of admirers. There are endless memes, an endless line of merchandise – in the near future, you’ll be able to acquire a Baby Yoda skateboard and a Baby Yoda slow cooker. Laura Dern, in a red carpet interview, once confidently announced that she’d seen Baby Yoda at a basketball game.
Yes, the little sprog had managed to out-cute both the Porgs and the Ewoks. But his appeal isn’t just some Frankenstein-esque feat of engineering (Make the eyes bigger! Make the ears floppier!) – we love Baby Yoda because we’ve had time bond with him, in a way that even BB-8 and all his beep-booping wasn’t afforded in the sequel trilogy. Sure, The Mandalorian has all the usual shoot-outs and speeder chases, but it’s filled equally with quiet moments between Din and the Child, which run the gamut of emotion despite them solely involving a puppet and a man in a full-face helmet.
It helps that this is a series of eight, half-hour-long episodes, roughly equating to the length of two films. But Jon Favreau, the show’s creator, has also shown himself to be surprisingly economical in his storytelling. The Mandalorian is a throwback to the sci-fi serials of the 30s and 40s, shown weekly on cinema screens – the very things that first inspired Lucas to create Star Wars. Each episode is largely a self-contained adventure, with its own villains to defeat and worlds to explore, plus a handful of plot points that inch the central story forward. Maybe we’ll meet Mayfeld (Bill Burr) and his ragtag crew of mercenaries again, maybe we won’t. It won’t particularly matter either way.
The Mandalorian isn’t really about the bigger picture. It’s a chance, instead, to roll around in the everyday dirt and grime of the Star Wars universe, thanks to some of the franchise’s most direct nods to the western genre – from its laconic protagonist, a riff on the “Man With No Name” from Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, to the way Ludwig Göransson’s score generously borrows from the work of Ennio Morricone. It’s also set in the relatively unexplored time period which spans between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. We’re shown how ordinary folk got by after the battles ended, and the galaxy was plunged into a kind of post-colonial neglect – dirt-encrusted stormtroopers stalk the backstreets, villagers try to fend off raiders, and bounty hunters fight over work like it’s the last scraps of a meal.
Admittedly, the show’s second season seems to be inching toward more familiar ground, thanks to a last-minute appearance by the Darksaber, a powerful weapon familiar to fans of The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. Rumours of returning characters are rife – some say we’ll see Ahsoka Tano, the breakout star of Clone Wars, others think Boba Fett might miraculously return from the dead.
But the show has an ace up its sleeve: no matter who we encounter, it’ll always be from the perspective of a complete outsider. Here, in the Outer Rim, the Jedis have become the stuff of legend, their stories whispered in the dark corners of local cantinas. And with the series offering the first (and urgently needed) break from a long line of white, male Star Wars directors – thanks to the efforts of Deborah Chow, Taika Waititi, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Rick Famuyiwa – the idea of seeing things from a new perspective is right at the very heart of The Mandalorian. Let’s hope it stays that way.
The Mandalorian S2 launches exclusively on Disney+ on 30 October.
Watch: The Mandalorian season 2 trailer