[Editor’s Note: The following review of “The Mandalorian” contains spoilers for the first episode, “Chapter 1.”]
In a way, it’s quite satisfying to see a much-anticipated, heavily guarded pilot episode like “The Mandalorian” execute with such efficiency. Characters are introduced with clarity. The story as told is simple and effective. Patterns are established in order to be consciously subverted, creating visceral surprises and substantial twists. By the time Jon Favreau wraps his first episode, the creator and writer has constructed a clear path forward and an enticing relationship worth watching unfold. Perfect. Great. Sign us up for three months of Disney+, please.
That is… unless you’re struck by a lingering sense of déjà vu. Yes, “The Mandalorian’s” pilot episode is a formally sound 39 minutes of television; even with an extra nine minutes, the half-hour series moves with assurance, and looks by most attributes to be a well-polished new piece of the franchise. But for anyone who’s seen enough Marvel movies to grow tired of their formula, or who was irked by how often “The Force Awakens” relies on nostalgia over originality, “The Mandalorian” may evoke different feelings. It’s not sound, it’s predictable. It’s not surprising, it’s calculated. By the end, Episode 1 will feel like nothing more than a cog in the ever-expanding Disney machine — worse yet, you may feel nothing at all.
Taking place between the fall of the Empire and before the emergence of the First Order — aka after “Return of the Jedi” but before “The Force Awakens” — “The Mandalorian” picks up with the franchise’s third featured bounty hunter, after Jango and Boba Fett. Pedro Pascal’s masked lead goes by The Mandalorian, but if feels like “Mando,” the nickname given him by a drunk bar patron, is bound to stick. Viewers are introduced to Mando as he exits his cruiser on a cold planet in search of a blue-skinned bounty. After dispatching said bar patron (who gets a little too into Mando’s personal space), the bounty hunter takes his bounty back to his ship, frees his ship from a giant walrus by stabbing him with a cattle prod, and flies off to collect his due.
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It’s a simple assignment. It’s dangerous. Mando handles himself just fine — with the confidence of someone with experience, and the expertise of an above-average professional. All of these observations can be absorbed during a relatively exciting first adventure. But Mando’s next assignment is off-the-books. Werner Herzog, playing a character I can only assume is called Werner Herzog, offers the bounty hunter a handsome reward if he can track down a bounty that’s eluded quite a few predecessors. Details are sparse, but it’s clear from the price and Herzog’s pronunciation of “proof of termination” that this is going to be a more challenging bounty than the last.
Lo and behold it is more challenging — so challenging that Mando needs the assistance of a short, old alien creature with a cute old man catchphrase (“I have spoken”) and Nick Nolte’s voice to find his bounty, as well as a few extra hands from a robot bounty hunter with a cute robot catchphrase (“initiate self-destruct”) and Taika Waititi’s voice to capture his bounty. The climactic shootout puts the opening action sequence to shame (as it should), even if it’s mainly a whole bunch of laser fire that just happens to miss hitting our hero.
Therein lies not only Mando’s prize, but the audience’s, as well. Early, carefully leaked buzz led “Star Wars” die-hards to believe there was a game-changing twist at the end of “The Mandalorian” pilot, and the rumors, as usual, proved true. But much like everything else about “The Mandalorian,” its monetary benefits largely outweigh its narrative appeal. Yes, I can’t wait to watch a grumpy, quiet, tough guy like Mando pal around with a [spoiler alert, again] baby Yoda that looks like an old man and acts like a toddler for eight episodes — that’s not the plot I was expecting “The Mandalorian” to hinge upon, but it’s still a plot that conveniently offers a hot new toy for families and fans to buy just in time for Christmas, in addition to the action figures we knew were coming of Ol’ Mando and Angry Werner.
“Star Wars” has long been plagued by merchandising, so to chastise the show for its corporate mandates isn’t entirely fair. It’s distracting, sure, but Baby Yoda is almost as cute as Werner Herzog sporting a giant medallion, which makes the fuzzy little green guy too cute to fail. What’s less excusable is that lingering feeling of familiarity. Favreau has become an elite member of the Disney family by milking nostalgia through false-fronting reinvention; he established the MCU formula in “Iron Man,” before going the photorealistic reboot route via “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King.” Here, there are so many nods to the original “Star Wars” trilogy in just the pilot — from opening cantina fight reminiscent of Greedo and Han’s “who shot first” debacle, to the speeder racing across the plains, to a possible Boba Fett cameo — that easter eggs alone could drive this series from here on out.
Everything else driving the series feels equally strategic. The formula that’s helped build Disney into the giant corporate behemoth offering far more than animated classics is alive and well in “The Mandalorian,” the series launching the Mouse’s next phase of world domination, Disney+. No matter how much Favreau’s show tries to evoke the spirit of the first “Star Wars” trilogy, it’s safer to coast on references than to imagine something different. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has been the unofficial motto for quite some time, which is great news for everyone who’s already signed up for the streaming service — you know what you want, and you know what you’re getting. So, good news: There may be more Yoda-like surprises in store during the next eight episodes, but actual surprises seem to be left in a galaxy far, far away.
“The Mandalorian” Episode 1 is now streaming on Disney+. Episode 2, “Chapter 2,” debuts Friday, November 15 with subsequent episodes rolling out each Friday thereafter.