The actual start of this era of pop culture sci-fi/fantasy’s reign may be disputed, but the results are inarguable: For the past 20 years or so, geek has been chic and nerd is the word and, no, I will not apologize for those rhymes. Somewhere around The Fellowship of the Ring making absolute bank, Generation Potter, and Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman reboot, the suits in charge of doling out budget money realized that being into superheroes, aliens, and wizards was no longer a campy fringe interest to be derided, but a legitimate and enthusiastic marketing demographic. For better or for worse, science fiction and fantasy moved mainstream. (For more on the studios’ tumultuous relationship with nerds, check out Imaginary Worlds podcast Episode 150: “The Once and Future Comic Con.”)
It’s been a magical ride, one that’s lasted long enough to keep making nerd shows and films even when someone puts out a bad one or a flop and, yes, even long enough to finally start making shows and films in which the leads are not all straight white men (gasp!). We’ve had some truly incredible art, some audaciously ambitious projects, and some things that were a perfect Venn Diagram of the two (looking at you, MCU). By and large, getting the world to admit that everyone’s a little nerdy if the material is good enough has been liberating and inspiring, but as with all new and successful trends, not everyone who jumps on the bandwagon actually gets where that band and wagon are going.
People with MBAs who never read a comic or thought twice about Tolkien see what’s making money and charge some creatives they know with coming up with something “like that,” but trying to check off marketing boxes (Superhero? Check! Love triangle? Check! Diverse, sassy sidekick? Check!) without an artistic heart is like reanimating a corpse—you get something with legs enough to walk, with arms to catch a captive audience, but it’s empty, gruesome, and hungry. Without a soul, it cannot truly live.
These undead projects are usually highly polished and chromatically saturated, often with 30-year-old actors playing sexy, sexually active teens, who make bad decisions but, as leads, never experience lasting consequences. The men are all shredded and the women are all waifishly thin, often in catsuits. The plots are fast and everything has a cliffhanger to keep you coming back for more. The lighting is moody so you feel like you’re getting something dark and subversive and the CGI is shiny, aggressive, and obviously fake. All the women characters and characters of color know all the right lingo about feminism and gender identity and
racial empowerment so you know the show is Woke even as those characters are sidelined and enacting the same tropes that lingo was designed to undo. They’re the junk food of nerd culture—flashy, sugary, processed, and lacking in nutrients. Fine in moderation, but deadly when they become your entire diet, and recommended by zero out of ten experts. (I’m sorry for mixing my zombie metaphors with my food metaphors.)
But when the people who love the material and want to create something with that love are in charge of the projects or have enough creative control to make most of the decisions, they can build something extraordinary, like Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, like Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, and, you guessed it, like Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian.
If you were to take a history of the epoch of mainstream geekery, you’d have to dedicate several chapters to the steady, unassuming presence of Jon Favreau. Way back in the mid-aughts, when Kevin Feige was first taking meetings to hear what various writers and directors would want to do with an Iron Man movie, Favreau suggested being faithful to the source material.
The Tony Stark comics were great, he argued, and they really only needed to replace Vietnam with Afghanistan to update them. In a time when superhero movies had to include a hot new take to get made, Favreau and Feige agreed on a fateful, fundamental idea: the stories were already enough.
Ultimately, isn’t that what all our best art, nerd or not, comes down to telling a good story? It’s why we love the source material in the first place: compelling characters, arresting art, and a good story. By the time Feige and Favreau were done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’d completely revolutionized the landscape of Hollywood, television, and supe heroes, in addition to creating a stunning new market for multimedia, multiversal franchises.
The Marvel movies are what happens when the people in charge give their creatives the money and room to take their time and do a thing right: the most interesting plot lines from the comics, first rate actors with long-term contracts, passionate directors, great writing, innovative designers, cutting edge filmmaking techniques, and people
generally having a good time doing their best work. The films strike a perfect tonal equilibrium between self-aware comedy, action/adventure, and sincere character journeys. They know exactly what they are and they never apologize for it or shrink from it. That’s exactly the nuanced artistic understanding Jon Favreau imbued into The Mandalorian.
Favreau originally came up with the idea for a television show set in the expanded Star Wars universe while directing The Lion King remake for Disney. He would film during the day and then spend several hours every night developing the concept that eventually became The Mandalorian. When he pitched the idea to Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy, she pointed him to Dave Filoni, who was the supervising director of the Star Wars animated series The Clone Wars.
Dave Filoni is also a card-carrying, life-long nerd. He saw Revenge of the Sith in cosplay as the Jedi Plo Koon, whose paraphernalia also decorates his office. He considers himself a “Star Wars encyclopedia,” and that was long before he ever worked with George Lucas. His own career as animator, director, writer, producer, and voice actor is as influential and impressive as Favreau’s, though his wheelhouse is an animated one. Before he was hired by Lucasfilm to create a Star Wars animated series, Filoni worked on classic Disney Channel and Nickelodeon fare like Kim Possible, and, yes, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar, particularly, is one of the most significant animated series ever made, but subtly so, gaining speed and popularity mostly by word of mouth and its presence on streaming platforms. Like The Mandalorian, Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t flashy or loud. It’s simply a story told well by people who care. Likewise, the inspiration for The Mandalorian was a quiet, unassuming one. Rather than trying to break away from the source material in defiance like so many new series in classic franchises being made these days, Favreau and Filoni dug deep into what made Star Wars sing in the first place, the things about the original trilogy they’d loved as kids. Favreau wanted to explore the Westerns and samurai themes that had influenced George Lucas and are so obvious in the first half of A New Hope. To find out what it feels like to live on Tatooine, to be a regular at the
Mos Eisley cantina. To experience the stories of the freaky and the fringe, the side characters and the cultures mentioned in passing. They leaned on the 40 years of work done by the writers of all those Star Wars novels. They understood they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel; they could just turn it a little and see where else it could take them. In this way, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni created a masterwork. Favreau and Filoni invested in some essential tools for the building of their new show. They tapped Legacy Effects to create a $5 million animatronic puppet of their secret child star and did everything possible to build aliens and creatures with practical effects, costuming, and makeup, only using CGI to polish things in post. Not only does this give The Mandalorian a classic Star Wars vibe, but it also feels more realistic to the audience, letting the characters and animals interact with the human actors in ways that have weight and follow the laws of physics.
Then, to further the believability of the galaxy the characters inhabit, Jon Favreau actually commissioned the creation of a gamechanging technology with the help of Industrial Light & Magic: using the Unreal Game Engine from the video game industry and LED displays to render and adjust real-time computer-generated displays as sets. He did this, of course, to aid the directors and the atmosphere of the show in general, but any actor will tell you that looking out on the planet Nevarro instead of a green curtain on a soundstage makes playing a space cowboy infinitely easier and more fun. It is the best of old school storytelling techniques being partnered with nascent technology, sort of like a lone bounty hunter who meets a baby with power and, in caring for him, comes literally out of his shell.
Finally, Favreau and Filoni, these two white dudes, did something truly extraordinary: they cast actors of all races, ages, and body types, and hired directors from traditionally underrepresented groups to steer each episode. The end result is a cast led by a Chilean, supported by co-stars of multiple ethnicities and nationalities, helmed by directors from diverse backgrounds and points of view. It is a rich tapestry of collaboration that results in a more expansive, more imaginative universe. And don’t worry about whether or not The Mandalorian passes the Bechdel Test. The youngest recurring woman character in a show full of badass women characters is played by a 28-year-old actress. Everyone else is 35 and over, often muscular or athletically built instead of the usual nymphette body type.
They are always dressed practically, for whatever their jobs may be mechanic’s coveralls or armor designed for comfort and combat rather than to make sure the enemy can see every curve of the fighter’s breasts. They exist in their own lives, in their own storylines, crossing paths with our hero but never only there to play sidekick or love interest to his narrative. The women are allowed, finally, their own agendas, and complexity that doesn’t rest solely on “She’s strong because she fights.” It’s a kind of nonchalant feminism that is a genuine revelation.
Then there’s the fan service, because there will always be fan service in a franchise like Star Wars, especially when the people making it grew up watching and reading about that galaxy far, far away. It’s once again about finding balance neither making it so full of inside knowledge that the layman audience is lost nor making it so expository that the other nerds are rolling their eyes.
Favreau and Filoni do this subtly, in design choices, in the characters they le slip in and out of the story, in a name dropped here or a particular helmet there. They hide Easter eggs for the loyal to find and pore over together without distracting from a story that unfolds for everyone at the same pace. That pace, by the way, is perhaps the most important aspect of The Mandalorian. It takes its time. It’s in no hurry and it has nothing to prove to anyone. We get the sense that while they’re happy for us to go on the journey with them, the story would still happen if we stayed home on Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s moisture farm. It is a show that respects its audience’s intelligence and our innate human love of a tale told well.
In a television landscape that looks more and more like long-form cinema, where all episodes must drive the action of the season- and series long arcs forward and plot twists are more important than characters, where all that action must be dramatic and there can be no silence or stillness, in a streaming milieu where a full season will drop at midnight and is built to be as crushable as a can of summer ale, where the audience is targeted, hooked, and held hostage by a formula built for binging, The Mandalorian feels like breaking free, like finally coming up for air.
That’s not to say it isn’t crushable, that there aren’t explosions and blaster fights, that no thought was given to merchandising or marketability. Of course it’s all those things this is Disney, after all, and “Baby Yoda” follows in the time-honored, adorable footsteps of Yoda, Ewoks, Porgs, R2-D2 and BB-8 before him. Of course its creators want us to like it, watch it, and buy it. That’s how they keep it going. But The Mandalorian isn’t only or even mainly concerned with popularity, which, given it was the very first original series available on Disney+, is nothing short of a miracle.
Set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the story is about a Mandalorian bounty hunter named Din Djarin who travels primarily between impoverished fringe planets to track down and turn in anyone with a price on their heads. A loner whose beliefs require he never let another living being see his face, Din has a relatively ambiguous moral compass, a very particular set of skills, and a soft spot for the helpless a and hurting. The locations he frequents are often forgotten backwaters, communities trapped between the New Republic and the fallen Empire, simple folk trying to eke out an existence with what little resources are left when the armies, marauders, oligarchs, and temperamental wildlife get done with them. It is an atmosphere based on old Westerns in which our hero (or anti-hero) roams the outskirts of civilization, having adventures and helping desperate villagers.
The formula is timeless. It is the knight errant, the noble samurai, the dime novel gunslinger. Each episode, the Mandalorian encounters a new place, a new group of characters, sometimes because he’s passing through and sometimes because he needs supplies, repairs, information, or help. These new characters also need something from him usually help or protection, but sometimes some unsavory errands and he either agrees to assist or strikes a deal. He completes his end or he doesn’t and then they complete their end or they don’t. He can either move on or he can’t. Sometimes he rides a speeder into the sunset like a cyberpunk Paladin or the Hulk. The catch is, of course, that on one of those bounty hunting jobs across the galaxy, the Mandalorian discovers that his target…is a child. The Child, actually the now infamous Baby Yoda, a little green moppet (and Muppet) with Force powers and an Empire after him.
Did I mention the Mandalorian has a soft spot for the helpless?
Without giving anything else away, suffice it to say our hero blows up (sometimes literally) his own life and livelihood to protect this child, and ends up on a dangerous quest to ensure the safety and happiness of his new ward.
Outside of the occasional Monster of the Week romp in shows like Supernatural, the now-retro episodic television style of the Western that The Mandalorian most resembles was largely left behind in the ‘90s outside of prime time procedurals. It was a necessity when syndication and a lack of recording ability meant shows avoided major character growth or lasting plot twists so that an audience member could miss several episodes and then jump in again at any point. But as with their combination of practical effects and new tech, Favreau and Filoni once again found equilibrium by cherry picking the best of the classic formats and marrying them with the plot-driven season arcs that make up the marrow of the modern TV series. Yes, each episode is sort of a standa lone adventure—a heist this time, a jailbreak next, a spaceship chase after that—but each hour we spend with Din Djarin and The Child is one that reveals more to us of their mysterious backstories, of the machinations of the galaxy around them, and of the ways in which their beautiful father/ son relationship is changing them both.
As with The Force, The Mandalorian seems to be finding success in balance.
What The Mandalorian is doing is by no means new. Artists especially artists in television and film often conflate novelty with quality and get caught up looking for The Next Big Thing. This is not the way.
A thing doesn’t have to be new to be good, but a thing done well will always feel new.
This is the way.
In the credits of the second season finale of The Mandalorian, it was revealed that there are six—six! new Star Wars Expanded Universe shows coming to Disney+, including shows about fan favorite characters Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Ahsoka Tano. With so much television being pumped out at once, it would be easy for the quality to suffer. We can only hope that Jon Favreau leaned how to manage a multiverse from his time with the MCU, and that Disney keeps trusting in their artists.