The Nov. 12 launch of Disney+, The Walt Disney Company’s new streaming service and latest attempt to further consolidate its power in the entertainment media landscape, came with a great deal of fanfare. Having signed up more than 10 million users only a day after its release, the streaming service is finding success among subscribers not only for its expansive and nostalgia-inducing catalog but also for the promise of original, scripted content that builds upon the fictional universes of well-beloved Disney brands.
The first of these promised expansions premiered Nov. 12: creator Jon Favreau’s “The Mandalorian.” The “Star Wars” spinoff centers on a mysterious, nameless bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal), who traverses the galaxy in the wake of the Galactic Empire’s collapse, searching for his marks. “Chapter 1” follows the Mandalorian, as he travels to a desert planet to nab a lucrative target, which turns out to be a 50-year-old infant (“species age differently,” another character explains) of Yoda’s species. “Chapter 2: The Child” sees the Mandalorian jump through various hurdles, including bargaining with stingy Jawas and a battle with a rhinolike alien creature, in order to escape this planet with his meme-ably cute bounty in tow.
As the show frisks across parsecs in its first two episodes, the only character that remains constant is Pascal’s unsociable, stoic protagonist. Though the Mandalorian — with his slick armor, unbothered demeanor and generally adequate combat skills — is undoubtedly cool, he’s not very sympathetic. The mask that always shields his face and the dearth of his dialogue make him a challenging character for audiences to engage with, especially since any supporting players are only given a precious few minutes of screen time with which to build a believable rapport. Only early and ham-fisted flashbacks, as well as a smattering of endearing moments with “Baby Yoda,” hint at the human underneath the mask — an angle that the show will have to lean into in coming episodes if it wants to emotionally invest audiences.
Thus far, the Mandalorian’s adventures have allowed for some perfectly serviceable action sequences in the absence of any weighty character beats. “Chapter 1” has its share of gunfights, while “Chapter 2: The Child” utilizes the desert planet setting for some slightly more imaginative set pieces. Neatly shot by directors Dave Filoni and Rick Famuyiwa, these sequences are fun but undoubtedly by the numbers; unlike recent entries into the “Star Wars” canon, there’s little artistic innovation or risk at play in these particular space battles.
“The Mandalorian” really shines in building upon the aesthetic of existing “Star Wars” media, as the show chooses to plant itself in the periphery of this universe rather than in the Skywalker-shaped center. The opening scene of “Chapter 1” borrows its atmosphere from the gritty, galactic underbelly of the Mos Eisley Cantina, as renderings of brittle snow planets, desert creatures and beat-up stormtrooper armor continue to scaffold a familiar “Star Wars” feel. Yet the grounded, grungy nature of the show’s narrative and the edgy, noticeably-not-composed-by-John-Williams score by Ludwig Göransson are promising grace notes that help “The Mandalorian” carve out its own niche in the wider “Star Wars” galaxy.
As of now, this niche is an aggressively palatable one. The first two episodes of “The Mandalorian” are visually cohesive, tightly plotted and perfectly entertaining, honing in on interesting, as-yet-unexplored corners of “a galaxy far, far away.” But the flat characters who inhabit these corners and the series’ painstakingly calibrated creative direction bar “The Mandalorian” from becoming anything noteworthy.
“The Mandalorian” does just enough to please the mandated amount of Disney+ subscribers and, let’s face it, manage one of Disney’s most valuable brands. But in terms of bold, creative choices and true originality, it’s got a couple of more light-years to go.