Better Late Than Never: The Mandalorian and My Problems With Star Wars
Note: In order to explain my exact feelings and problems with this series, I’m going to have to get personal with my own issues with movies in general and Star Wars in particular. It’s going to be longer, and it may not inspire love from certain members of the cinema world. I can live with that.
I’m going to say something that needs to be clear up front: I never really liked Star Wars. Let’s start with the fact that when it came into existence, it pretty much destroyed the way films were made in Hollywood and did damage to the role of the critic that has never truly recovered.
Setting that aside, I’ve never much liked it as a film or a franchise. The more often I see even the original trilogy, I find it hard to figure out what so many people see in it now, and even back then. The effects are great, sure. But the dialogue has been, and always be, the most wooden of any popular film in history. It’s a matter of public record that the cast hated the dialogue and had to do rewriting of it just to make it tolerable to say. Hell, Alec Guinness, one of the great actors of all time, considered this the nadir of his career; even though it’s the role he’s most remembered for.
And the problems with Star Wars seem to be unique compared even to other film franchises or blockbusters. Steven Spielberg’s big budget movies are almost always about something, as well as being entertaining. You could find something dramatic in Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones series, and ET; something that made you feel you’d seen a movie. Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Batman gave it a real world bite, as well as some of the most indelible acting performances of the past decade. And many of the Marvel movies — I’m thinking mainly of the Captain America franchise — had ideas about our current society that resonated, but not so obviously that you couldn’t enjoy the film for its effects and fun.
The Star Wars franchise has always been about — well, Star Wars. There’s discussion of something called the Force, which after nine whole movies no one has come close to giving an explanation of or for, a lot of battles with light sabers — which frankly Errol Flynn and Cary Elwes would laugh at when seen in action — and a lot of weird looking aliens and awesome special effects. That’s it. I have yet to see a fully developed character in any of the nine movies, and I have yet to hear any dialogue that doesn’t make an amateur screenwriter wince. Yet somehow, it has inspired an entire universe and a rabid bunch of fans that seem to have a lavish devotion to it, even though they haven’t really liked any of the movies in nearly forty years.
What hold does Star Wars have over so many people? I remember the anticipation that everybody had over The Phantom Menace for nearly a year. To quote a book I read: “It made $430 million, though you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who actually liked it.” Every subsequent prequel or sequel has made billions world wide, and yet that statement seems to be true for every film. Are people really just going to these movies to bitch about them online?
Somehow, every single project that is connected to Star Wars, no matter how remotely or awful, creates a great disturbance in the Force, i.e., online. As someone who never had much patience for anything connected with it, I was happy to observe from afar. This became impossible last month, however.
When The Mandalorian premiered on Disney+ last November, I ignored it like I had everything else about Star Wars for the past twenty years. It was on a service I had no interest in getting about a character I didn’t care about. I was a little alarmed to see it ranked by imdb.com as the 108th greatest show ever made a few weeks ago — that’s higher than 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation and Mad Men (though granted it is after just one season) — but still, not my problem. Then it got 15 Emmy nominations, including Best Drama. Now it was my problem. I found an FYC DVD collection on Ebay, and bought it cheap.
Normally, when I’m looking at a series that I’ve ignored, there’s a certain genuine anticipation, the fact that I’m either going to see what all the fuss is about or find a hidden gem. I’ve felt that way about a lot of streaming series, most of which I’ve listed in the Better Late Than Never columns. With The Mandalorian, it wasn’t so much anticipation as it was dread. Sort of like the feeling I was about to get root canal, only they would start going through the nose. Still, I felt an obligation. Having seen the first three episodes, I really do wish it had been root canal. Without anesthetic.
The Pilot, which for most series explains the universe you’re in and the nature of the central characters did almost the complete opposite. We meet the Mandalorian (the writers have never given him a name) go to an ice planet, break up a bar fight where a creature is being tortured, kills everyone in the bar, and then reveals the only reason he did it was to get the creature as bounty. He then takes him back to his ship, which is haunted by an ice creature along the way, encased the subject in carbonite when he tries to escape, and returns to whatever planet he’s on. His interplanetary bondsman (for a lack of a better term) pays him, and when the Mandalorian asks for a bigger job, gets one that involves what are obviously remnants of the Empire. (Even I recognized the storm troopers.) He is given the vaguest possible terms for what he is trying to catch, and is told dead or alive. He goes to the planet and has to go through a long process of riding a hostile creature, surviving a shootout with the help of a bounty hunting droid, and getting his creature, which is apparently a child.
This may seem linear and coherent, but I spent the entire pilot wondering whether I was hearing a foreign language or something that had been translated from English to a foreign language and then back again. The vocabulary was barely comprehensible, character development was non-existent, and I suppose I was supposed to be in awe of the CGI and shootouts. I wasn’t. Primarily because I watch TV to get away from these kinds of things.
The second episode ‘The Child’ was a little better, mainly because so much of it was done with either no dialogue or most of it translated into subtitles. We saw Jawas pick his ship clean, he went hunting after them, was blown off the ship, had to make a bargain to get his parts back, and then had to go on a hunt for ‘The Egg’. He hunted a creature known as a mudhorn, and only managed to survive by help from the child. He gives the Egg back to the Jawas (and boy, that was an anticlimax; they get a Mandalorian to go grocery shopping for them?) and he flies back to his home planet.
‘The Sin’ was the third episode, and by now, a very clear picture of what this series is was coming, and was confirmed by the end of the episode. The Mandalorian returns with his bounty, asks what they’re going to do with the creature, is pushed back by his client, goes to his clan where his fortune is used to put together armor, and he is berated by them for helping the Empire. He goes to his bondsman, wants another job, is about to fly off, and well, you can probably guess what happens next.
Two things occurred to me very clearly. First is that for a TV show in any era, The Mandalorian is moving god-awful slow. Vince Gilligan or Sam Esmail would’ve been able to get us this far in one episode, never mind three. You’d think considering that the episodes are 30–40 minutes in length, there’d be a desire to keep things moving efficiently. Jon Favreau and the rest of his writers apparently see no need to do so, but even by the standards of Star Wars, this is a glacial pace.
But that doesn’t matter because halfway through the second episode, I realized what The Mandalorian is. It’s not a TV show. It’s not a tribute to Star Wars. It’s a video game. Every aspect of the plot so far has reminded very clearly of the missions of a video game. Fight, find bounty, fly ship, story unfolds, sequence where you meet new characters, shootout, obtain mission goal, shootout, mission goal… that’s what this show is. And they give away the game by not giving the central character a name. They call him Mando, which sounds what some kind of fan would type in when naming his character!
And because this is a video game, and not a show that depends on a narrative, you don’t need character development or a clear storyline. It also helps you get over the fact that the central character in just three episodes has a higher body count than Tony Soprano or Walter White managed personally the entirety of their series. He’s a video game character, and all your avatars have to do is shoot people.
Now, I should state up front than I don’t blame any of the actors who have taken roles in this series. Carl Weathers hasn’t had a regular job since Apollo Creed was killed off. Nick Nolte has always danced to the beat of his own drummer, and to be honest his presence in the first two episodes was the best thing about the series. As for Werner Herzog, it’s hard finding imposing actors with the right voice for the Empire these days, and hell, he’s gotta find a way to make money for his next movie.
But Jon Favreau? With your work on Iron Man, you revolutionized what the comic book movie was capable of. Marvel doesn’t exist without you. And you take over Star Wars and this is what you come up with? Tony Stark would laugh at how wooden these characters are.
And the Emmys nominating this for Best Drama makes even less sense. It doesn’t have the inner humanity that Battlestar Galactica did (and they mostly ignored it when it was on the air) or the utter charm that Stranger Things does. Hell, I’d rather have seen Westworld nominated for Best Drama. The show may be byzantine as all hell, but no one can argue it’s unoriginal. The Emmys goes out of its way to nominate dramas that are at least about human being with characters we can care about. The Mandalorian seems to be a basic grab to get the Star Wars base to watch the Emmys this year. That is the only logical reason I can see for the staff to have nominated it over Pose or Big Little Lies or This is Us or any of a dozen different shows.
But much like Roger Ebert must’ve felt when he lambasted Transformers or Twilight, I know this review isn’t for the connoisseur of great television. It has great CGI and laser shots and Baby Yoda. For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they’ll like. For me, I think I’ll just go through the rest of Ozark. It may be an imitation of better shows, but at least it’s trying to tell a story. The Mandalorian is pure popcorn. This is not the dramas the Emmys were looking for, and they really should’ve moved along.
My score: 1 star.