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This is instantly recognizable. Whether you’ve seen Star Wars or not the classic score and image of the yellow text scrolling into the darkness of space is as iconic a piece of cinema as Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain or Charlton Hesston cursing mankind from the base of a fallen, and half-buried statue of liberty. It really doesn’t even matter what the text says, because you’re hooked right away. The yellow letters pop against the black backdrop and the score, THAT SCORE is powerful and thematic. It’s important and you immediately recognize that. Since the release of the first Star Wars film in May of 1977, the fan base has grown to be one of the largest and most vocal fan bases of any movie or show or, well, anything, really. There are books, comics, movies, shows, and toys. Lots and lots of toys!
But the thing about having a franchise that expands to this magnitude is that the quality of each outing can vary wildly. When Star Wars is good, it’s great. But when it’s bad… well. So, what makes a good Star Wars story? Let’s start by looking at one of Star Wars’ biggest successes to release in recent years. The Mandalorian.
So what is it about this show? Why is this… So much better than this…. Or this…. Or this… or anything else to come out of Star Wars since Disney bought it, really? Well, I think there are a few major reasons for that, and they start with the initial creative process. Star Wars has been around a long time so when creating something new, something to continue the lore of this vast and intricate universe, you have to do so carefully. If Episodes 4, 5, and 6, the “Holy Trinity”, are the foundation, then anything built upon them is going to require some creative pillars.
Pillar number one. “The Source.”
In The Force Awakens, we meet a spunky orphan who dreams of greater things, beyond the sand-covered dessert planet they live on. After receiving a distress call message delivered to them by a droid they’ll embark on a journey, learning the ways of the force as they team up with Han Solo and Chewbacca to destroy the death star… No… wait. That’s A New Hope… Or is it The Force Awakens? You know what, they’re essentially the same movie. For the first Star Wars film to come out under Disney’s control they went back to the original source material, but rather than using that original source as a launching pad to give us something new, they recycled it and hoped we wouldn’t notice because “Hey! These graphics are REALLY good!”
Now let’s look at The Mandalorian. Of course, it is a Star Wars show and Star Wars is obviously a major source, but that source is a starting point. And it’s not the only starting point. This is the big thing here, The Mandalorian is MORE than just a Star Wars story because it draws from so much more than just Star Wars. It’s a western at heart. A science-fiction western featuring alien species, spaceships, and the force, but a western, nonetheless. From Mando’s tilted stance and draped cape that are clear nods to Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” to its cantina showdowns. Mando is the mysterious lone gunman, wandering from town to town and running into trouble each time. He’s quick to the draw. He’s fearless. Like a Ronin, a masterless samurai on a quest. And Mando’s similarities to both a lawless western gunslinger and a wandering samurai are no accident. The lore and mythos of these two genres are deeply intertwined. We wouldn’t have the spaghetti westerns that we remember without those classic samurai films laying the groundwork and we wouldn’t have The Mandalorian, either. And while we can see influences and references to samurai cinema throughout The Mandalorian, like in “Chapter 4: Sanctuary” which is essentially a direct, shortened adaptation of Seven Samurai, and “Chapter 13: The Jedi” which ditched the blasters for a “Shogun-esque” lightsaber showdown, it’s impossible to ignore the clearest and most prominent influence of all. Lone Wolf and Cub. The iconic film series and Manga that follows a lone assassin for hire traveling from place to place and accompanied only by his infant son in a baby carriage that’s outfitted with swords and guns, and yes it’s as awesome as it sounds.
To be clear The Mandalorian isn’t the first Star Wars film to draw from Samurai and Western influences. George Lucas has openly credited 1958’s The Hidden Fortress another Kurosawa classic, as being a major influence on his original trilogy. But why this works so well isn’t necessarily BECAUSE it’s a western, or a samurai epic, or… whatever. It’s because the story came first. For the sequel trilogy, they returned to the same “creative well” over and over again, reusing and rehashing things we’d already seen before. The movies were essentially pieced together moments of forced nostalgia. Too afraid to vary from their original source, until they’d run that source… that creative well… dry.
When you draw inspiration from things you love and use those inspirations to craft a story that you care about, the product is going to be better. Now you take that story, and you transplant it into the world of Star Wars, and then… well and then you’ve got something. Of course, this won’t work without great characters which leads us to “Pillar Number 2: Characters.”
This is where the sequel trilogy could have really excelled. There were a slew of minor characters in the Star Wars canon who could be fully adapted into major players in the new trilogy. They had the freedom and the power to create brand new characters. They were deciding who would bring the legendary “Skywalker Saga,” a series that was over three decades in the making, to an end. What sort of interesting, well-rounded, and relatable characters would they bring in to accomplish such a feat?
Well, unfortunately, most of the major characters we got here were bland, one-dimensional characters with weak motivations. They were poorly fleshed out and we, the audience, didn’t feel any emotional connections to them. Not really. When Poe or Finn are fleeing from one dangerous situation to the next, sure it’s exciting enough, but if something were to happen to them… well, the movie would continue and our feeling probably wouldn’t change much at all.
But… let me tell you this. If one ounce of harm comes to this beautiful… magnificent, little being, I would travel land and sea to bring those responsible for that harm, fictional or non,… to quick and merciless justice.
So why is that? Why do we care so much more about him (BABY YODA) than we do them (REY, FINN, POE)? I mean, of course, he’s cute. Like really cute. Adorable actually. But it’s more than just that. It’s his story. We’re introduced to The Child, Baby Yoda… Grogu, through the journey of the shows lead. The Mandalorian. When we first see Grogu we know that he is in danger. The Mandalorian is here to bring him harm. That’s what he does, that’s what he has been paid to do. And so far we know that the Mandalorian is pretty merciless. So, when he shows mercy here, we’re instantly intrigued. Why?
Then of course there’s the antagonists. The villains who have hired The Mandalorian to bring in Grogu and again we wonder… why? What is it about him that these evil people want? This mystery revealed just a little at a time, keeps us intrigued. We have theories and guesses, but we want to see it through. We want to see the conclusion of the character arc.
And Character arcs are something that this show does really well. The developments and changes that we see, primarily to Mando, throughout the series, stem mostly from Grogu and Mando’s bond. Their emotional attachment and dependence on one another is something that at once feels both unlikely… and absolutely true. For a show that features an animatronic puppet and a man whose face is almost never seen… they manage to create a friendship that we all believe in and care about. When the sequel trilogy wants to show you two characters are bonding they do this… (ROSE AND FINN KISSING). This feels forced. It feels awkward. That’s because nothing leading up to this moment has suggested anything remotely romantic here. The chemistry, even on a friendship level, between these two characters is nonexistent. We don’t care.
Another way the Mandalorian draws us in, is it’s characters look familiar to things we know from Star Wars. When we see Mando we think “Hey cool. His armor reminds me of Boba Fett!” and we see Grogu we think, “Hey! I recognize that species. He’s a baby yoda!” They’re new characters, but they’re characters that remind us of things we know and love from the originals. This is nostalgia done right.
This… (CHEWY, R2D2 OR C3P0 FROM SEQUELS) is redundant. Chewbacca, R2D2, C3P0, none of these characters need to be here. They serve no significant purpose to the plot and their inclusion doesn’t really make sense. What are the odds that these characters would keep meeting up, over and over again by chance? How small is this galaxy? No. The filmmakers instead bring these characters back because when we see them in the trailer we go “Wow! I know him! I know that guy! I can’t wait to see what he’s up to!” It’s filler. It’s filler meant to pull you in and hope that you don’t realize that they don’t really have any clear direction of where they’re going… Which brings us to Pillar Number 3: The Story Arc.
The sequel trilogies had a blank slate to build from here and could really do whatever they wanted. I mean, think about it. The last trilogy we’d gotten was the prequel trilogy. It takes place before the originals and we more or less already know the final outcome. We know where that trilogy will end. But with a sequel trilogy, the options are limitless. Now ordinarily, a studio handing over full control of a film and its story to the filmmaker would be a dream come true. Especially when they are filmmakers who have proven they know how to make a quality film. But when you’re making a story that spans over three films and wraps up a saga that is already six films in the making… well, it’s probably a good idea to have a road map of where you want the story to go. At least, some of the major plot points that should carry over from film to film.
Instead, we got three films that feel like they are totally detached from one another. We get varying tones, plot threads left unattended to or cut short, and no clear path of where the story was headed from start to finish.
The Mandalorian is a series, and as a result, has a bit more freedom with where the story goes, but it still never feels like it strays off track. Part of the show’s style is treating many of the episodes as their own mini adventure. Mando shows up somewhere, meets somebody who needs help, and he helps them. It’s a style reminiscent of those old westers we talked about in pillar one. But throughout these different adventures, the overlying story arc is still in place and moving forward. From the time Mando first sees Grogu till the moment he hands him over to Luke Skywalker in that AMAZING season 2 finale, their journey was on track and moving towards its important conclusion. We learn why the villains wanted him, we learn that there are others like him, we learn about the Mandalorians… we learn a lot and everything makes sense. Nothing feels like it was forced into place last minute. And that’s the sign of a well-told story.
That’s what Star Wars should be. When the focus is money, and toys, and making trailers that look good, instead of a strong source, believable characters and a well-flowing story arc we get what many fans feel was… a disappointment. But The Mandalorian is still going strong and has introduced us to some new and returning characters who will likely become major parts of Disney’s plans for Star Wars moving forward.
So, that’s it. That’s why I think The Mandalorian works and the sequel trilogy didn’t, but of course, that is just my opinion and I’d love to hear yours in the comments. Don’t forget to go ahead and like this video, that helps a lot, and subscribe for more great content.