The Force is strong with “The Mandalorian” debut, but not the glitchy Disney+ launch

The first live-action "Star Wars" series delights with action and a surprise twist – if you got Disney+ to work

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 12, 2019 5:33PM (EST)

Pedro Pascal is The Mandalorian in the Disney+ series "The Mandalorian" (Francois Duhamel/Lucasfilm Ltd.)
Pedro Pascal is The Mandalorian in the Disney+ series "The Mandalorian" (Francois Duhamel/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

"Star Wars" followers understand the vital import of feeling and sensation. Jedi and Sith alike drop those terms with reverence and in doing so, grant the viewer a tendril of connection to the Force. But we also taste it whenever a new chapter of the universe opens to us. That surge of excitement, the dancing nerves in the gut, those tiny sparks skipping along your spine? Those are your feelings searching, sensing.

Right off the bat, the first episode of the Disney+ original series "The Mandalorian" teases us with that feeling. But if we're being honest, that alone is worth a lot less than it used to be. Blame the mixed bag that is "Solo" for shaking that faith in the tingle, or the knowledge that an armada of filmmakers, Jon Favreau included, are familiar enough with the Lucasfilm formula to clone the top notes of any new "Star Wars" project. All it takes is nailing the font on the title card and pairing it with a swell of melodic majestic to get that tingle.

What matters more is everything that follows.

"The Mandalorian" intentionally mimics the style of classic "Star Wars," down to the '70s-style comic graphics featured in the end credits. That old-school ethos also guides the first season's rollout, in that each of its eight episodes debuts on a more or less weekly basis, and mostly on Fridays.

The second episode will be available on Friday, Nov. 15, and it continues weekly from there save for the penultimate episode, which lands on Dec. 18, getting it out of the way of the Dec. 20 arrival of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."

If only Disney's rollout strategy were as airtight. For whatever reason, the company decided to only make the Disney+ app available and operational on the actual day of launch, instead of allowing advance time for trouble shooting as consumers figured out how to add it to their devices. This created a raft of technical issues on Tuesday that made it impossible for new subscribers to connect. And even when the app launched, some programs – most notably "The Mandalorian" – had glitches that made it unavailable to watch for a good portion of the day. Some modes of thinking are more pressing to parse than others.

With respect to "The Mandalorian" itself, however,  Favreau and his fellow writers (including Dave Filoni, a veteran of the excellent animated series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars") get the 39-minute launch off to a decent start in large part by sticking to the Lucasfilm checklist.

Moments into the series premiere, we get a cantina scene, a dangerous creature with massive teeth, the first view of a vessel we're informed is a junkheap but looks pretty damn fly to the average driver, and a display of the title character's (played by Pedro Pascal) fearsome combat skills.

"The Mandalorian" delivers heaping helpings of lethal, albeit bloodless violence in its calling card episode, which pretty much lets you know who the intended audience is for this series. It's fun for the whole family, as long as the family is headed by parents who were and are fascinated by gigantic, blockbuster action film effects and the bigger-than-big storytelling ethos forged by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

An enduring fascination with Boba Fett also helps its case.  Lots of people were, and are, Fett fans – he's the Dark Side version of Han Solo, not a card-carrying follower of the Empire but definitely Darth-adjacent. The galactic bounty hunter also had the best outfit of his kind,  largely defined by that streamlined helmet he never took off. A man of mystery, he is.

Given that the series' action is set after the events of "The Return of the Jedi, the Fett is slowly digesting in the belly of the Sarlacc (presumably, we never saw a body!). Hence, Pascal's (anti?-)hero is an entirely different Mandalorian with No Name.

Like the rest of his ilk, the Mandalorian is mostly a man of action: he takes jobs, and completes them with unerring efficiency, which makes him, we find out, quite expensive. This allows for a small tip-of-the-hat to real-world issues of the powers that be exploiting the gig economy – like the best of his kind, he belongs to a guild. But the fall of the Empire was hell on currency values. Now the game's been Uber-ized, with lots of unaffiliated hunters stepping up and lowering everyone's rates.

A Mandalorian needs to eat, leading our protagonist, whom we're told is a man who follows a questionable moral code, to take a hush-hush, deeply off-the-books job, one that also draws a direct line from a character played by Carl Weathers to one played by Werner Herzog, renowned director and an icon of New German Cinema. In a "Star Wars" property. The mind reels.

There's more to parse in Herzog's presence and stony presentation than meaning threaded within the dialogue. In fact, there isn't much dialogue or narrative complexity in the pilot; it's mostly blasting, grunting, running and blasting, with a quiet meditative side mission to a Mandalorian hideout where handy exposition takes place.

The assumption is that viewers tuning in to watch "The Mandalorian" are already thoroughly steeped in "Star Wars" lore and don't need much setup. Of course if they do, Disney+ also has all the movies available to stream on its service, including yet another new George Lucas edit on the scene in "A New Hope" (i.e. the first "Star Wars" movie) featuring Greedo and Han Solo, in which Han shot first, dammit . . . and apparently Greedo's dying utterance sounds like he's saying, "McClunkey."

A larger takeaway is the apparent role Disney may be banking on "The Mandalorian" to play in the larger "Star Wars" theatrical universe. This is the first live-action TV series in the "Star Wars" franchise, and the celebrity caliber of "The Mandalorian" cast is just as significant as the mythos surrounding the title character. Taika Waititi even drops in to voice a droid.

Unless you have been trapped in the innards of a space monster until now, you already know that "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" brings an end to the classic family saga portion of this universe.

Presumably it also marks the beginning of a new length of rope for the Force, and there may be no clearer indication of that then the gasp-inducing revelation at the end of the premiere. That's exciting for a viewer who would happily ingest a steady diet of content related to the all things long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

It may be a bit less so for anyone curious to see how creatively this story could develop if it were to exist as a separate yet still related entity — one that links up to the greater "Star Wars" universe but isn't explicitly beholden to line up with the theatrical arcs.

Mainly, the charm of "The Mandalorian" is in its relative removal from Resistance-centered adventures bound to frequent reminders of Jedi and light saber battles. Placing the action in the outer reaches of civilization lends more of a spaghetti-Western-meets-ronin-samurai vibe to the narrative, and this feels like a more intriguing and sustainable fuel for the longterm.

Yet to be fully displayed here are Pascal's emotional range, owing to the concept that Mandalorians don't remove their helmets. Pascal shines in feet-on-the-ground action scenes as opposed to space battles, but his powerful work in "Narcos" shows that he's capable of many dramatic challenges beyond explosions and athleticism.

Then again, we only have the first episode to evaluate, and to its credit, that small window into "The Mandalorian" fulfills its overall mission. Our curiosity has been ignited, granting us hope that this expansion of the mythology may be worth our faith. It gave us that tingle, in other words. Let's see if we're still feeling it eight weeks from now.

"The Mandalorian" is currently streaming in (almost) weekly installments on the newly launched Disney+ . 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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