Disney’s new streaming service launched today, pumping directly into your home the debut episode of The Mandalorian. Disney knows the three rules of competing streaming services are content, content, content. So here, for your viewing pleasure, is Disney doing what Disney does best: pandering.
If you want to see what Star Wars product looks like when it’s stripped of any creative energy, look no further than this premiere episode. The Mandalorian strolls around for about twenty minutes, arrives at a five-minute made-for-TV action sequence, and then pulls back the lid on an obligatory wrinkle. Not quite a twist. The Star Wars universe cannot brook twists. It’s too small, too predictable, too safely and corporately constrained. Instead, it has wrinkles like what’s under the lifted lid of this premiere episode.
If you hoped for some of Pedro Pascal’s charm, which is why I tuned in, you’ll be disappointed to discover that a Mandalorian is apparently just a helmet. Shiny, sure, but charmless. The only reason you know Pascal is under there is because he gets lead billing in the credits. Disney has cast an actor who does a fantastic space rogue and they just don’t seem to care. All they ask of him is a speaker-modulated voice that might as well ask TK-421 why he isn’t at his post.
Early in the episode, the Mandalorian meets another Mandalorian, also comprised of a helmet, but this helmet looks vaguely Greek. The Mandalorian — the show and the character — waits while the vaguely Greek helmet makes a pauldron. I’m not kidding. A pauldron. Not a vambrace, not a greave, not a solleret or a gusset. Werner Herzog’s tight German accent had just told us about pucks and fobs and a four-digit code. And now we’re waiting at the pauldron crafter. The Mandalorian has placed his order, and he’s hanging fire, as if he were at a deli counter, waiting for his number to be called.
“Number 48? Number 48! Your pauldron is ready. Number 48!”
Nick Nolte’s unmistakable growl will provide the voice for a sad man-dog who narrates a mount training montage where a horse would normally go. At least we can see the sad man-dog’s eyes. I don’t know if they’re actually Nolte’s eyes — doubtful — but at least they’re eyes. When we look at the Mandalorian, we don’t see any eyes. He is only a costume. Disney, like so many other animation studios, doesn’t seem to understand the importance of seeing actual humans, and especially eyes. It’s hard to empathize without eyes on both sides of the equation. Later, when the Mandalorian teams up with a wacky droid — is there any other kind? — they briefly enjoy the kind of chemistry some actors manage from behind animation. It’s not much, but it’s something.
It’s all Star Wars enough, but that’s such a low bar to clear these days. The overriding mandate, as we’ve seen from the movies Disney has made and the people they’ve fired, is to toe the line, to keep it safe, keep it simple, keep it stupid, keep it Kathleen Kennedy. If it’s bold, if it’s clever, if it’s got a voice, it’s not welcome. It has to be conventional enough to pump into red states, anodyne enough to export to China. Note how few moving mouths you’ll see in The Mandalorian. It’s so much easier to dub a helmet.
Contrast this to the premiere episode of Rick and Morty’s fourth season, which debuted at the same time. Justin Roiland sustains an astonishing amount of creativity. Whoever holds that show’s modest purse strings can afford to just let him do whatever the *bleep* he wants, and the result is deliriously crass, entertaining, and unpredictable science fiction. But Star Wars can’t afford unpredictability. It insists on delivering the same handful of story beats, the same established characters types, the same worn adventures, which have long since been leached of that USC film-student can-do that whipped it into existence, lo, those many years ago on the sands of Tunisia. This is corporate product now flowing along a direct pipeline, from soup to nuts, from office buildings to iPads, from production to streaming, all for Disney, none for anyone else. Welcome to the future, where you look upon a lucrative what instead of a creative who.