Why The Mandalorian has soared where Star Wars’ sequels have struggled

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Ryan Lambie on how the essence of Star Wars has been recognised by The Mandalorian in a way the recent sequel trilogy didn’t quite get.

From the beginning, George Lucas wanted Star Wars to feel big. It was a franchise steeped in cinema history, and the first movie revelled in making the most of the theatrical experience. There were the special effects; the booming sounds of laser fire as the Star Destroyer roared overhead; John Williams’ rousing score; widescreen shots that simply wouldn’t have looked the same on your typical 1970s television.


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Ironically, it’s The Mandalorian, a show currently exclusive to the small-screen Disney+ streaming service, that arguably captures the essence of what Lucas first defined with the original Star Wars in 1977. Over the course of the two seasons aired so far, it’s told an episodic yet engrossing story of a lone warrior (the Mandalorian of the title) who winds up as the unlikely protector of an adorably vulnerable creature known in the first season simply as The Child.

The hallmarks of the Star Wars franchise are all over the series, and the recognisability of everything from the Mandalorian’s armour to The Child’s resemblance to Yoda are reminders to series fans that they’re travelling through familiar territory.

Beyond the nostalgic references, however, The Mandalorian recognises something important: Star Wars isn’t a genre. It’s a saga made from bits of genres.

To understand what that really means, we only have to look at the recent Star Wars sequels, beginning with 2015’s The Force Awakens. It’s a film made by storytellers who’ve endlessly studied and analysed the earlier films in the series. They’ve asked: what is the essence of Star Wars? What do fans expect to see? Whether they consciously meant to or not, the makers of The Force Awakens and the movies that came after were so beholden to the imagery, lore and trappings of earlier Star Wars movies that they essentially treated it like a genre unto itself, as clearly defined and (potentially) rigid as, say, a romance, horror or samurai movie.

In reality, Star Wars – as George Lucas envisioned it – is all those genres and more besides. Sometimes, 1977’s Star Wars is multiple genres in one scene. Cinema-goers in the 1970s and 80s didn’t necessarily spot all the allusions and outright steals, but Star Wars owes a debt to westerns, samurai movies, early 20th century sci-fi matinee serials, and mid-century war films, and more besides. You can poke and prod at Lucas’ characterisation and ear for dialogue all you like, but his cine-literacy was beyond question.

It’s this flexibility and willingness to crib from a broad range of cinematic and genre influences that, I’d argue, makes The Mandalorian feel so very Star Wars. In one episode, the feel is very much of a western; in another, it’s more like a samurai flick. With a plot that appears to borrow from, say, Lone Wolf And Cub one moment and Rio Bravo the next, you wind up with a series that constantly feels fresh and surprising – which is exactly how the Star Wars movies felt when they were new.

This isn’t to say the Star Wars films made since 2015 were bad; they were entertaining thrill-rides, and really came to life when the new characters are given room to breathe (Adam Driver’s petulant, trying-too-hard villain Kylo Ren is, for this writer, one of the finest creations in any Star Wars movie).

It’s telling, though, that the most effective and powerful moments weren’t found in the mainline sequels, but in the 2016 spin-off, Rogue One: with a cast of largely original characters and a starker tone – akin to a war movie like The Dirty Dozen – it feels in retrospect almost like a dry run for The Mandalorian, right down to the sombre mood and desaturated lighting. (It’s also fair to say that Rogue One’s weakest moments came when it shoe-horned in bits of rib-nudging fan-service.)

George Lucas always thought of Star Wars as a cinematic experience, then, but in the 21st century – particularly with the industry now reeling from a global pandemic – it’ll only become more unusual to see studios and their filmmakers take creative, genre-blurring risks with their biggest franchises.

If the Star Wars universe is going to feel big and bold again, then maybe its destiny really does lie on the small screen.

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