Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Mandalorian: For Every Character There is a Season

Every since Disney bought out Lucasfilm and announced their plans to carry on the Star Wars franchise, I've approached each new installment in the Star Wars story with a mix of trepidation and excitement. Like a junkie, part of me wanted to keep chasing that high I felt from the Original Star Wars Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy, to recapture that same feeling of wonder and adventure and excitement and strangeness like surprise incest or random '50s-style diners. But the rational part of my brain kept trying to tell me that Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm marked the end of an era, and that the high I was chasing didn't exist, and I should devote my energies to other, more fruitful pursuits, like developing the world's first mass-produced, consumer-grade flamethrower. Unfortunately, Elon Musk beat me to this totally useful and not in any way egregious misuse of humanity's finite resources in a world where people are literally going homeless and dying from easily treatable medical conditions in the richest country in the world, so I guess I'll have to go with Plan B: miniature bidets for cats and dogs.

The Star Wars content that Disney did put out has, for me, been an exercise in diminishing returns. I'm still not completely caught up on the animated shows, but for me, Star Wars has always been about the silver screen experience: the epic storytelling, the larger than life characters and plot, the cheer of the crowd, the crushing of the enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of the women. At the time I'm writing this, there've been five Star Wars feature films released under the Disney Regime so far: Episodes VII, VIII, and IX carrying on the main movie storyline, and two spinoffs set between Episodes III and IV of the main series, Solo and Rogue One. Out of those five, Episode VII: The Force Awakens was essentially a soft reboot of Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi stands with the best that Star Wars has to offer, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker keeps getting worse the more I think about it, Solo was a decently fun galactic romp, and Rogue One was the movie equivalent of a couple of kids playing with their toys for a couple of hours.

The frustrating part of how disappointing Disney's Star Wars movies have been overall (with the notable exception of The Last Jedi), especially the main trilogy, is how disjointed and unplanned they all seemed. Though of course the Original Trilogy and Prequel Trilogy went through various changes in the course of their productions, they feel like unified stories with clear connective tissue between them telling parts of the same story.

Watching the Sequel Trilogy, it felt like nobody at Disney had taken the time to actually sit down and map out a story for the next three movies in the main storyline. As an audience member, it felt so strange how these chapters that were supposedly from the same story felt so disjointed, especially considering the resources Disney has at its disposal which, for all intents and purposes, are basically limitless. Why hadn't somebody somewhere sat down and written out a general treatment for a single storyline spanning three chapters or gotten some air fresheners for the inside of Chewbacca's suit? Judging by the online dialogue, I was not alone in my wondering. The lack of a cohesive story connecting the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy seemed like such an obvious misstep. This wasn't just a failure of storytelling; anybody who works on a team or has any inkling of basic principles of project management (and who also has a giant nerd-boner for Star Wars) no doubt felt a tiny knot in the pit of their stomach that grew to galactic proportions as they watched the Sequel Trilogy unfold.

Fast forward to 2020, and the release of the second season of The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars TV show. The first season, released in 2019, was generally well-received by audiences, and regarded by quite a few fans as a "return" to what made Star Wars great. The second season seemed to be even more of a hit with audiences, and the fandom seemed to be feeling a resurgence of excitement or, to coin a phrase, a new hope for their beloved intellectual property. 

It wasn't until I had watched the final scene of the final episode of The Mandalorian Season 2 that my feelings on the matter finally became clear.

Watching the first season of The Mandalorian, following the exploits of the titular bounty hunter as he travelled from adventure to adventure with the child he had rescued (originally unnamed in the series and colloquially referred to as Baby Yoda due to his resemblance to the fan-favourite character from the Original Trilogy), I felt a strange mixture of emotions I couldn't quite articulate. As a long-time disciple of all things Star Wars, it was exciting, at least on a surface level, to watch this brand new cast of characters going about their adventures in that familiar galaxy far, far away. But at the same time, something felt off to me. 

I couldn't quite put my finger on what was troubling me about the whole Disney Star Wars content until Season 2, and especially one key difference between the first and second seasons. And that difference was the change between alluding to or referencing characters and elements from the Star Wars movies that so many people grew up loving to actually including those characters and elements. The second season of The Mandalorian was a veritable piñata of recognizable characters, with the live action debut of Asohka Tano (Rosario Dawson) and Bo Katan (Katee Sackhoff) from The Clone Wars and Rebels animates shows, and the return of Boba Fett (Temura Morrison) and Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) himself, in the much-raved-about final scene of the final episode of Season 2.

The scene featured Luke showing up to save the Mandalorian and his small group of plucky rebels from certain doom at the hands of a seemingly unstoppable droid army. Cloaked in black and face hidden beneath a hood, his identity was all but confirmed by his distinctive belt buckle and black clothing, black-gloved right hand, and green light saber. Then, with the help of some CGI, the Luke Skywalker that people recognized from the end of Return of the Jedi revealed his identity in appropriately dramatic fashion.

As the credits rolled and I began to contemplate what I had just witnessed, and what I had been witnessing since The Force Awakens was first released in 2015, a calmness washed over me as I came to what felt like a strangely definitive realization.

I was ready to part ways with all of the new Star Wars content going forward.

This was not an easy conclusion considering how attached I am to the series. As I'm sitting here typing this, I'm looking up at shelves full of multiple copies of Star Wars movies on various physical media formats and walls covered with Star Wars action figures. To say that George Lucas' creation has had an influence on me is putting it mildly. Yet I still felt an odd sense of peace letting go of a story and a world I love just at the point where it's reaching critical mass in terms of content.

This year, Disney announced that they would be expanding their current slate of Star Wars television content from one live action show to eight live action shows and an animated series released exclusively on their streaming service, Disney Plus. Upon hearing this and finishing the second season of The Mandalorian, I made immediate plans to cancel my Disney Plus subscription.

It became crystal clear after watching Luke Skywalker's appearance in the show why the stories in the Sequel Trilogy seemed so disjointed. It's because Disney isn't interested in telling more Star Wars stories; what it's really interested in is ensuring that shareholders continue to profit from the just over four billion dollars it cost to acquire the IP in the first place.

The Sequel Trilogy was Disney's way of testing the waters, essentially gauging the most profitable approach to guide new Star Wars content, a sort of trial-and-error test to assess audience reactions to determine the most efficient way to squeeze as much money from audiences as possible. It was like the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) when the filmmakers (and then Disney after the acquisition of that IP as well) were essentially nailing down what is now known as the "Marvel formula" a codified set of general expectations for the look, feel, and narrative approach to the movies. Star Wars is a different beast than Marvel, and Disney needed a different formula.

The final, terrible strategy they settled upon was weaponized nostalgia.

And the scary thing about this approach is that it works.

That final sequence of The Mandalorian Season 2 with Luke Skywalker cutting down legions of bad guys with his lightsaber clearly demonstrated that Star Wars has devolved into pure fan service, the perfect example of the snake eating its own tail. Storytelling for new Star Wars content is now fundamentally broken. It's predicated now on Disney giving the audience what they think they want instead of giving the story what it needs.

The similarities between Luke's action sequence in The Mandalorian and Darth Vader's action sequence at the end of Rogue One weren't lost on me or audiences in general. Besides the obvious visual similarities, they were both extremely similar thematically in that neither sequence was linked to any theme or larger idea in either the series or the movie. Instead, it boiled both of these complex characters down to badasses swinging light sabers in a troubling onscreen power trip fantasy.

Watching Darth Vader just straight up murder a bunch of rebel soldiers at the end of Rogue One was initially engaging and exciting but upon further rumination seemed deeply unsettling, though not in the way that director Gareth Edwards likely intended. Lacking any real nuance or context, the scene felt like an ode the the power and strength of Darth Vader, a truly evil villain, without any sort of critical framework provided through which to evaluate it. In short, it was simply to allow the audience to vicariously feel the power of what it would be like to use space magic and laser swords to cut through people you didn't like. It was visually stunning but morally hollow.

Similarly, seeing Luke Skywalker kick a bunch of ass and dismantle this battalion of elite battle droids dark troopers was initially, on a surface level, incredibly exciting to watch. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked this scene, because it reduced this character to yet another sort of wish fulfillment where a powerful individual steps up to violently impose his will. 

What hit me hardest was when I realized that, on a surface level, I actually did want to see Luke back on the screen just straight up kicking some ass with no greater depth or context than simply that. It was an intoxicating feeling, but ultimately a destructive one, because it was a childish urge to have my immature fantasies of dominance validated. More than that, I realized that Disney and the creative minds behind The Mandalorian had to be aware of this and that they were pandering to my worst impulses as a fan. They were giving me what I immediately wanted but not what I ultimately needed.

For me, the most powerful moment in the Star Wars movies, and certainly the defining moment for the character of Luke Skywalker, is at the end of Episode IV: Return of the Jedi, when he refuses the Emperor's taunting and fall prey to his darkest urges. Instead of killing his father and giving in to his hatred and his anger, he instead chooses to throw down his weapon and refuse to perpetuate the cycles of violence that had plunged the galaxy into a war. He does so knowing that he will in all likelihood be killed at the hands of the Emperor and his own father, Darth Vader. 

Except that he's not killed. 

Instead his love for his father that allows him to see past all of his evil acts, and the parent finds redemption through his child, with Darth Vader instead turning on the Emperor and throwing him down a giant pit to his death, never to be heard from again. (Never... to... be... heard... from... again!) Luke throwing down his lightsaber isn't a call for blind pacifism in the face of unchecked aggression; it is instead an act of resistance to the hate and anger and revenge that fuelled the current system of violence and oppression, and a source of inspiration to end the cycle of violence by standing up to those most directly responsible for its perpetuation. Vader was going to kill Luke out of hate but instead kills the Emperor out of love for his son.

The Luke Skywalker that appears in The Mandalorian is stripped of any of that meaningful context, and his entire value boils down to how well he can beat up other people (or machines). And its this soulless reduction of the characters and story to their most marketable components that has drained this new era of Star Wars of any of the heart and soul that led to series' inception in the first place. All of the new Star Wars is great as long as you don't think about it too hard. It's a narrative appeal to the lowest common denominator. 

The whole Star Wars universe under Disney, including the upcoming nine new TV shows, feels less like it was intended to tell meaningful stories for audiences and more like it was tailor made to maximize profit for Disney shareholders. The entire franchise feels like it comes from this incredibly cynical place now. George Lucas was a master merchandiser, to be sure, and there's more Star Wars licensed products than you could shake a lightsaber at, but that empire of merchandise was built on a foundation of storytelling. Lucas clearly had something to say. It's easy to forget that George Lucas came from the same auteur school of filmmaking as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, and funded much of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with much of his own money from previous installments reinvested back in each subsequent movie. The Prequel Trilogy was completely self-funded by Lucas from the proceeds of earlier films and merchandising, making them essentially the most expensive independent films ever produced.

All of the Disney Star Wars content, on the other hand, seems specifically designed by committee for the sole purpose of turning a profit. It's not just the focus on profitability, but how the focus of the product has shifted. George Lucas told stories that people loved and then licensed merchandise based on those stories. 

Under Disney, the product is our own childhood, commoditized, repackaged, and sold back to us wholesale. This is weaponized nostalgia. It's emotional manipulation enabled by creating content that is specifically tailored to elicit emotional responses to identifiable iconography for the sole purpose of influencing the behaviour of others for one's own benefit, which in the case of Disney, is pure profit.

Star Wars was extremely profitable under George Lucas. I'm not trying to say that he tried to take the "business" out of show business. The difference between Star Wars guided by Lucas and Star Wars engineered by Disney is not commodification, it's what's being commoditized. George Lucas sold us modern fairy tales that spoke to our inner child; Disney is selling an emotional high based on manipulating our love of those stories.

It was one thing to watch the adventures of a Mandalorian warrior wearing armour inspired by the fan-favourite character Boba Fett. But now, Disney is just saying "Fuck it," and developing a Boba Fett TV show directly. It's no longer homage or influence; it's repetition and regurgitation. It's shameless, it's cynical, and it's narratively vacuous.

In short, it's not my Star Wars anymore. 

And that's fine. I felt a great calm as I realized that the gap between the direction that Star Wars is going and my expectations for quality, meaningful storytelling and character development has grown too large for me to bridge.  

This isn't some bitter rant to try and convince people that the things they love are terrible and I'm one hundred percent right about everything. If you fundamentally disagree with everything I've written here, I have no problem with that. If you still enjoy all of the new Star Wars movies and TV shows, more power to you. I would never want to deprive people of something they enjoy or find meaning in (so long as it's between two or more consenting adults and nobody is getting hurt). If you love the Luke Skywalker scene in The Mandalorian and think my analysis is off base, then I don't want to detract from that. My intent is rather an ode to the end of a personal era. The day I never thought I'd see: my parting ways with Star Wars.

Star Wars used to feel special. Every movie in the series used to feel like an event. They used to be part of a ritual that involved a giant screen and a holy communion of popcorn and carbonated beverage. It used to be a Big Deal that we were getting new Star Wars movies. In a not-too-distant future on a streaming service not that far away, people will be able to turn on their TVs and have nine different shows dropping weekly episodes, to say nothing of whatever movies they plan to release every year until the eventual heat death of our universe once this whole global pandemic thing blows over.

Now Star Wars is just going to be there. New shows. New movies. New comics. New video games. New theme park rides. And all of it designed to give audiences exactly what we want. I've seen and read a hundred different stories imagining dystopic futures forged out of our collective nightmares. Thanks to Disney and the new order of Star Wars content, we don't have to imagine what it's like living through a creative dystopia. For that completely unintentional lesson on Disney's part, I am at least partially grateful. On the other side of the coin, my attention is now ripe for the next epic cinematic story. Come on Dune old buddy, don't let me down.


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