How The Mandalorian Can Work for Disney+

The Star Wars series, now two episodes in, is a good example of how the streaming service can mine smaller, solid stories out of massive franchises.


This story contains spoilers for Episode 2 of The Mandalorian.

The first episode of The Mandalorian might have been too slight to carry the hopes of an entire streaming service, but two entries in, that sleekness is starting to look like an asset. When Disney+ launched last week, the flashiest original offering for subscribers was a show set in the Star Wars universe that felt consciously removed from the high stakes of the cinematic “Skywalker saga.” Set on the fringes of George Lucas’s galaxy and focusing on a nameless character identified only by his species, The Mandalorian had some crisply shot action, but only the barest hint of a plot.

The second episode hit Disney+ on Friday (six more installments will follow weekly), and, being a little removed from the hype of the service’s launch, it functioned rather beautifully. The pilot followed the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) as he was tasked with hunting a difficult, off-the-books bounty by the sinister Client (Werner Herzog). His travels led him to a desert planet where he realized his target was an infant alien, a member of Yoda’s unnamed species. The backstory of that wise, small, frog-like Jedi is one of the few things the Star Wars creator George Lucas chose not to delve into in his much-maligned prequel trilogy. By building his show around a Yoda-esque baby, the Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau could be changing that—giving people yet another reason to sign up for Disney+.

The service debuted to 10 million subscribers, according to the company, even with initial technical problems. Despite the relative paucity of new programming on the site—one of the other original shows centers on the Toy Story 4 character Forky and has five-minute-long episodes—the nostalgia factor helped lure people in. Viewed alongside the database of animated classics, Marvel movies, and Star Wars material that the studio is offering, The Mandalorian makes sense: It’s a nerdy throwback that’s happy to exist on the margins of a bigger world.

Filling in the gaps of Star Wars’ wider universe, it seems, will be the purpose of the blockbuster original programming on Disney+. The other announced Star Wars shows include one that will feature Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, depicting his life in the years between the original and prequel trilogies. Another will follow Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a character from the spin-off film Rogue One who worked as an operative in the heroic Rebel Alliance. The Marvel shows will similarly spotlight supporting characters from the cinematic universe such as Loki, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and the Falcon, before introducing new comic-book characters such as Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk.

Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel, has insisted that those shows will matter to the wider movie universe, knocking down the barriers between television and cinema for his colossal connected diegesis. But it’s likely those crossovers will provide only background information for devoted completionist fans. Marvel movies have always been designed so that casual viewers can understand the nuts and bolts of the plot without worrying about everything the Winter Soldier or Hawkeye has been up to.

Star Wars is an even bigger sandbox to play in, and Episode 2 of The Mandalorian had fun dredging up minutiae from Lucas’s original trilogy. Coming in at a slender 33 minutes, it embraced the humor of its protagonist’s anonymous persona rather than using it to build suspense. “Chapter Two” saw the Mandalorian get battered by villainous rivals and huge desert fauna; it also reintroduced the impish Jawas (small, hooded scavengers who play a supporting role in the original Star Wars) as bugbears who torment our stoic hero.

The episode reminded me of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a stunning 2003 series developed by the animation legend Genndy Tartakovsky (known for creating shows such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack). The Clone Wars, which aired on Cartoon Network, similarly existed between two installments of the cinematic series, and relied on spectacular, dialogue-light action sequences that told stories with little unnecessary exposition. The Mandalorian’s face-off against a horde of Jawas or a hairy desert beast (with the assistance of his alien quarry, who possesses some modicum of Jedi power) had more pure, joyful energy than the dreary first episode.

Favreau’s biggest inspiration for The Mandalorian appears to be Lone Wolf and Cub, a Japanese manga series about an assassin and his 3-year-old son seeking revenge during the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Much as Lucas acknowledged that his movies were indebted to the cinema of Akira Kurosawa (Star Wars has the same broad plot strokes as The Hidden Fortress), Favreau is drawing on elemental tropes for a smaller tale. The Mandalorian probably won’t end its run as the most popular Star Wars story ever, but it is working to earn its spot at the apex of Disney+’s new programming.