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The verdict is in, and Disney+’s The Mandalorian — arguably the flagship of the streaming service’s original programs at launch — is a hit with critics… to an extent. Early critical word on the first live-action Star Wars series is generally positive, with some notable reservations.
For some, including The Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Feinberg, the first episode of the series was good enough, but also lacking from what might be expected from the franchise at this point.
“Where the series feels intimate, or underpopulated, is in the largely vacated city streets, less-than-packed bars and general conflicts,” he wrote. “The outside world and franchise context is barely acknowledged. The first half of the pilot has only a single skirmish and it lasts less than 10 seconds. A gatling gun becomes involved in a later fight, but it doesn’t reach the level of a star battle, much less a star war. For most of the running time, it’s just the Mandalorian bopping along from one location to another facing minimal jeopardy and putting no more effort or ingenuity into his quest than the challenges of learning to ride the aforementioned Blurrg. It’s not bad. It’s just small and it moves quickly, but not breathlessly. Then the pilot ends with the first sense of an actual mission for the series. It’s a cliff-hanger that offers a totally effective record-scratch moment and puts everything somewhat in context.”
Not everyone was convinced by the cliff-hanger, however, as Matt Patches from Polygon made clear. “[The first episode of] The Mandalorian ends with a twist, a sign that the series might follow [executive producer Dave] Filoni’s past animated work and excavate Star Wars lore,” Patches writes. “I hope that’s not the case; as giddy as I feel watching a Garindan hail a landspeeder taxi with a flute, or a Kowakian monkey-lizard roast over an open fire, the Star Wars universe doesn’t need more connective tissue. … Favreau and Filoni seem very aware of one specific part of Star Wars that has yet to be explained, and I’m not sure it’s where viewers actually want to go. Everything before the reveal promises a lean Western series carried by a hero who’ll always save the day. As history proves, that’s the basis for pure entertainment, and it’s a promise the show should keep.”
The clear influence of the Western genre was also noted by Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya, who asked, “Without a backstory or facial expressions, how do you build an audience rapport with a character? In the pilot, The Mandalorian has one idea: General space-Western badassery. Most of the pilot is the Mandalorian showing off his moves in inadvisably risky circumstances — like a Mexican standoff with four stormtroopers at Werner Herzog’s office, or taking off in the middle of an ice field while an ice monster is attacking you. He’s very effective, which is part of the appeal of a character like this, and if you love watching a bunch of armored space soldiers shooting at each other with blasters, you’ll have nothing to complain about. But — sans history, motivation, or facial expressions — it rings a bit hollow, lacking the achingly human element of the Star Wars universe.”
The emotional void behind the helmet of Pedro Pascal’s protagonist was repeatedly referenced as a problem that the show didn’t manage to address in its first episode. “Having him hidden behind all that armor makes it a bit challenging to connect with him; there is a brief flashback to the Mandalorian’s childhood that implies that — shocker — he had a traumatic upbringing. We also learn that he’s not usually a fan of droids. Apart from that, he’s a cipher,” notes Jen Chaney from Vulture. “Again, though, it’s only the first episode and presumably more episodes will provide some sense of flesh beneath that sleek helmet.”
ScreenCrush critic Matt Singer felt similarly bereft, yet hopeful, writing, “As for the Mandalorian himself, he swaggers through the far reaches of the galaxy, and his costume is incredibly striking: the flowing cape, the blaster rifle slung over his shoulder at just the right angle, the modular armor with pieces he can swap in and out. Still, without a single glimpse of his face — or even his eyes, which remain completely invisible behind his helmet’s blackened visor — it’s a bit tough to get very invested in this character at first. He’s just a cool dude doing cool things. The Mandalorian will surely be fleshed out over the season ahead. But when you compare the depth of this guy to the kinds of complex, layered protagonists we’ve gotten used to on cable and streaming TV, he kind of stumbles coming out of the blocks.”
That stumble proved fatal for some — USA Today’s Kelly Lawler writes, “Crafted around a protagonist designed to be obscure (he never removes his helmet, and even his voice is modulated into bland evenness), there’s little in the way of an emotional connection in the first episode. … Like prequel film Rogue One, Mandalorian captures the aesthetics of the Star Wars universe without understanding its heart” — but was barely noticed by others.
Evan Saathoff from Birth.Movies.Death enthused, “Clearly, there is a lot we don’t yet know about The Mandalorian, but I am in. I like Star Wars, I love Westerns, the creature work is great, and it offers us a look at the weirder corners of the Star Wars universe. Furthermore, it’s refreshingly simple. I don’t yet know what’s up with The Mandalorian’s surprising bounty or his obviously important backstory, but everything else feels solidified and known, which can be nice when so much television is mired in overwhelming mystery. Those shows are great too, but it’s also nice to just sit back and watch a fun space Western. This is more Bosch than Westworld.”
Besides, there are other characters to get excited about, as Esquire’s Matt Miller notes: “One of the highlights of this episode is the bounty hunter droid IG-11, voiced by Taika Waititi. Continuing in the proud tradition of modern Star Wars productions, there are some seriously endearing droids (BB-8, K-2SO, L3-37). IG-11 is a hilariously soulless and effective killer that meets Pascal’s Mandalorian while their both trying to collect this big bounty. The dynamic of these two is fantastic, with IG bringing out some much needed humanity from the Mandalorian, as the droid continuously attempts to self-destruct. Here’s to seeing more of these two going forward.”
More than anything, there’s a shared feeling among critics that, while the first episode of The Mandalorian may not be perfect, there’s enough potential — both in the show itself and the very idea of a Star Wars television series — that it escapes harsh criticism for the moment.
“While [George] Lucas’ Star Wars movies have always shared creative DNA with a TV show just by telling a serialized story over multiple ‘episodes,’ there’s an argument to be made that Star Wars as a franchise — if it’s to survive and thrive past the conclusion of the Skywalker saga — needs to expand into areas that are better suited to weekly, episodic storytelling, with characters and adventures that can grow right along with the audience,” argues Laura Prudom of IGN. “While it’s still early days for The Mandalorian (and episodes 2 and 3 will be far more tangible proof of concept than the premiere) there’s certainly enough potential in this character to guide us to previously unexplored corners of the galaxy for years to come, and that’s a thrilling prospect.”
Of course, there’s always the attitude displayed by Lorraine Ali from the Los Angeles Times. The show, she writes, is “long on impressive special effects and alien shootouts, and short on a fresh story line beyond the usual unwitting hero with a mysterious family tree and a destiny that involves saving the universe (or part of it).” Not that that’s a problem for her, it turns out: “I have no idea what the series is about, at least not yet. But it looked cool, like a trip to Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge without the long lines and screaming children.”
The first episode of The Mandalorian is streaming now on Disney+, with a second episode to be released Friday.
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