HEAT VISION

'Star Wars': How 'The Mandalorian' Can Recast the Empire

The show has the opportunity to make a strong political statement about the nature of the villainous entity.
'The Mandalorian'   |   Lucasfilm/Melinda Sue Gordon
The show has the opportunity to make a strong political statement about the nature of the villainous entity.

The Mandalorian is a key test for Disney as it unveils its new streaming service. It was the centerpiece of last week's Disney+ presentation at D23, where fans got the first trailer for the live-action Star Wars series. The teaser promises to explore the darker side of the galaxy far, far away with Pedro Pascal as the masked bounty hunter striding through a dusty, Western-influenced intergalactic landscape. Stylish, gritty and exciting, the trailer also offers fans an uncompromising look at the way the inhabitants of the world view the Empire and its fascistic ways, with the teaser opening on a set of bloodied Stormtrooper heads set on spikes. It's a stark reminder of the violence and war at the center of the fictional world which occasionally gets lost in all the galactic adventures.

With The Mandalorian taking place seven years after the Return of the Jedi (1983) in what official Star Wars terminology calls 11 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin) and decades before the rise of the First Order, this will be the first live-action entry to Star Wars canon that doesn't feature a fascistic leadership oppressing the people. Instead, it will center on the power vacuum left by the Empire and potentially the political struggle to replace it with something better. Just the absence of both the Empire and the First Order as all-knowing powers is vaguely radical, as it not only establishes a space outside the natural law and order of the classic Star Wars films but also looks like it will showcase the desperation with which these groups will attempt to regain power.

Since 1977, the social commentary of Star Wars has been clear: Rebellious underdogs fight space Nazis for the freedom of the known universe. The parallels between the Empire and real-life fascists is obvious; the name "Stormtrooper" comes from the nickname for the "German Sturmtruppen," which was a violent paramilitary organization that aided Adolf Hitler's rise. The aesthetics of the Empire and the Imperial Forces — stylized uniforms and clean lines — echo the garments worn by the SS and Nazi forces in World War II-era Germany. Yet despite this obvious reflection alongside the '70s and '80s Hollywood trend of Nazis as go-to bad guys, the pop culture saturation of Star Wars has often seen these origins forgotten by certain fans.

With the massive popularity of Star Wars over the last four-plus decades, it's only natural that merchandising has become part and parcel of the franchise's success. But that same merch has created a landscape in which the space Nazis are just one side of an ideological coin. In Star Wars fandom, the question is always Dark Side or Light? Sith or Jedi? That's a natural conundrum and one that appeals to the duality of humans. But when it comes to the Empire and the First Order, the fact that you can buy lunch boxes, t-shirts and underwear with their iconography on them becomes increasingly strange when you think of the realities of what they represent.

The Empire and the First Order are both genocidal forces, ones that have stylish costuming and cool masks but that still kill millions of people indiscriminately to further their ideological campaigns. It's a complex conversation that can easily be explained away by the "it's fictional" argument, but it's one worth having. In an era when real fascism is once again on the rise, the entertainment that utilizes these tropes and reflects this reality has a responsibility to engage with it in a thoughtful way.

Mandalorians hold a unique place within this power dynamic. From the original trilogy to the prequels to the animated series, the people of Mandalore have played a key part in the struggle of Star Wars. Boba Fett was our iconic — if short-lived — introduction to the Mandalorians, as a hard-hearted bounty hunter working for both Darth Vadar and the crime syndicate of the Hutts. His father, Jango — who shared his son's profession — ended up being the genetic basis for the first Clone Troopers, his DNA and remains exploited as tools of war by the Empire. The most recent and important addition to Mandalore canon is Sabine Wren, protagonist of the animated series Rebels. Once an Imperial Cadet on Mandalore, she left the Academy after the weapons she created were used for war and genocide. The archaeologist and artist soon joined the Rebellion, playing a major part in the Mandalorian Civil War and the Rebel Alliance's struggle against the Empire.

Pedro Pascal's Mandalorian offers up a new chance to explore the mindset of Mandalore after the end of the violent reign of the Empire. Given the timeline, it's likely Pascal's Mandalorian would have fought in the Mandalorian Civil War (perhaps alongside Sabine Wren...) and he could have lost loved ones in the battle. He's described as a lone gunslinger, which implies that loss might be a key part of his past. The Western influence on the show also means that it's likely the loner might find solace and family in a young charge, a trope which is often used in the genre and could help the Mandalorian choose a side.

The Mandalorian trailer shows the casualties of war — not only the dead Stormtroopers, but the families torn apart and the villains vying for power in the void that's left. We don't know exactly where this Mandalorian will stand, after all, as Werner Herzog's character states, "Bounty hunting is a complicated business." But if there's ever been a time for a new hero to stand up against space Nazis and fight for the people, then that time is now.

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