The Mandalorian wants to be your family-friendly ultraviolent Star Wars
Warning: This review contains spoilers for the premiere episode of The Mandalorian.
A perfect helmet: That was Boba Fett. The bounty hunter, played by Jeremy Bulloch in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, had a recognizably Medieval face-slit on his head covering, and yet the red-green coloration suggested modern military pomp, with a faded paint job scratched off by bullet or claw. Boba Fett didn’t say much, and he looked like a bloody battle someone was having fun losing. The lead characters in the original Star Wars trilogy loved on the run or learned life lessons from kindly elders, so Boba Fett was the fandom you graduated towards when you wanted something darker, more cynical, even just cooler.
The character had an eternal afterlife beyond his swallowed Return of the Jedi expiration, and vague plans for some bounty-adjacent skulldugger spin-off rumorized across the last decade or so. One problem, I suspect, is Disney. The family-friendly megacompany can produce bleak material with a social purpose or mature subject matter under cover of plausibly deniable metaphor. But there’s a fundamental nastiness built into stories about a non-talkative blaster-murderer snatching criminals dead or alive.
On Tuesday, the new streaming platform Disney+ launched with The Mandalorian, which awkwardly attempted to give Boba Fett-ness a conscience. The first-ever live-action Star Wars television series stars a nameless bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) modeling some variation of Fett’s armor. This new Mandalorian tends to walk into rooms full of people who are about to die. He speaks clipped Frank Miller-ish dialogue: “I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold.” He’s an effective capture-killer, with a collection of carbonited marks stowed in his spaceship’s hold.
He is also, it turns out, a man with a past. The kind of past that will, it seems, be gradually doled out with ludicrous flashbacks designed to deepen these violent adventures with tragic-origin pathos. Disney+ did not make any future episodes available to critics, and the scope of the premiere stretched to intriguing horizons. But this was a very strange debut, merging grim toughness with mawkish softening twists. That is the formula of, like, The Walking Dead, a goresoaked death parade baked in sentimental sorrow. You won’t go broke imitating The Walking Dead, but the climax of the Mandalorian premiere cut strangely between misshapen tones, from laser-cannon gundowns to a cute baby melting even the coldest heart.
The Mandalorian rolls with some interesting people, no doubt. Carl Weathers heads the bounty hunter guild, and the highest-paying client is none other than Werner Herzog. Pure poetry hearing the Fitzcarraldo director say the word “parsec,” and it’s also cheering to see Herzog’s hanging with a scientist played by the wonderful actor Omid Abtahi.
The Mandalorian takes place in the wake of Return of the Jedi, with the Empire freshly gone, and creator Jon Favreau clearly prefers the scuzzier settings of the original trilogy. The premiere featured two different bad-side-of-town creature taverns, and once-gleaming stormtrooper armor covered in the dirt of recent failure. The backdrop was Tatooine vintage: The refrigerator with legs, a cackling Salacious Crumb-a-like, another locked door with a gabby globedroid greeting all knockers with an aggressively inquisitive “Hachooma Binky?” Your mileage for fan service may vary — I always worry when a franchise extension models more old furniture than new — but I dug the IG bounty droid, a killbot model introduced for a Empire Strikes Back millisecond, rendered here with sprinkler-rotational gun-toting limbs and the voice of Taika Waititi.
Certain problems were obvious, and worrisome. In this first episode, Favreau and director Dave Filoni opted for a mulchy color palette, “gritty” enough to render every climate zone gray. The space lingo needs work. All new Star Wars stories have a technology problem, struggling to incorporate the real-world advances of our past four computerized decades into a galaxy built on retro-wartime radar chic. So you hire Herzog to explain mysteriously that he can only offer “a tracking FOB,” to which the cool bounty hunter inquires “What’s the chain code?” This is great dialogue for any office’s Slack channel. Also: The Mandalorian flew his spaceship to a planet, where a local loon (Nick Nolte) said he would need to learn how to ride a local monster because “the way is impossible to pass,” and you’ll recall this sentence started with the Mandalorian flying a spaceship.
There might be a larger saga here, promising new resonance for this far-away galaxy. Mandalorians are, apparently, some sort of diaspora race, a Tribe wandering after a Great Purge. Pascal was such a charmer on Game of Thrones, and I’m not sure why Star Wars keeps putting charming Game of Thrones actors underneath perpetual helmets. I assume we’ll see more of him, though, and his line readings edged some unforced sadness into the Mandalorian’s videogame-avatar badassery.
I don’t know. I enjoy ultraviolent black-humored action epics, and I enjoy stories about emotionally wounded heroes shocked toward nobility by adorable baby creatures. (For a near-perfect recent variation on those two themes, check out Adult Swim’s sensational series Primal.) And the particular spoiler baby at the end of The Mandalorian premiere is especially adorable, given that it seems to be some relation of Yoda. But the clash of tones in this first episode felt cheap in both directions, striving for moral justifications of thrilling amorality. The Mandalorian really is Disney’s Boba Fett, a mercenary safe enough for kids. Premiere Grade: C+
The live-action Star Wars series follows a lone Mandalorian gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy.