For better or worse, it is not unfair to describe either of Star Wars' most recent major projects—at the box office, the climax of the saga, The Rise of Skywalker; and on streaming, the culmination of years of attempts to bring live-action Star Wars to the small screen The Mandalorian—as stories that deeply engage in fan service. But what differentiates their use of it makes for some fascinating parallels and contrasts.
The Rise of Skywalker’s biggest strength, and greatest source of frustration, is its constant, overwhelming awareness of the fact that is meant to be—ostensibly, given how open-ended it leaves several of its narrative arcs—the end of the Skywalker Saga, and of Star Wars as we really know it.
To the expense of quite a bit of itself, it commits to this awareness by throwing as much familiarity on the screen as possible, as it attempts to address and bid farewell to over 40 years of storytelling. Beyond giving us a conclusion to the stories of the sequel trilogy’s protagonists, it has to say goodbye to Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia; it has to end this renewed Empire vs. Rebellion conflict in the form of the First Order and the Resistance; and it has to contextualize and culminate eight, increasingly disparate movies that came before it.
It does so by relishing in the familiarity of that lauded past. Emperor Palpatine’s back! Our heroes are running around in the Tantive IV again! Kylo Ren’s literally reforged his Vader-esque mask to don once more! Here’s Lando! Here’s Luke lifting the X-Wing he could not lift in Empire Strikes Back!
Here’s Leia, flashing back to her youthful days and learning to become the Jedi people were hand-wringing about since The Last Jedi dared to acknowledge she could use the Force! Here are so many spaceships you know—so many! Here’s Tatooine! Here’s some Ewoks!
This familiarity is indeed rote at this point—especially as it’s a well of indulgence that this Disney-owned era of Star Wars has dipped into time and time again, on the big screen and in ancillary material—but, as gregariously bonkers as it is, there is something earnestly gleeful about it.
“Oh go on, one last time, for old time’s sake,” The Rise of Skywalker says as it nudges the pleasure centre of brains with every X-Wing and Star Destroyer and casual five-second-appearance-of-Wedge-Goddamn-Antilles it can bring to bear. It is, like so much of Star Wars’ joys, playfully childish. It is a movie almost like an overeager and excitable kid throwing together their action figures in a manner that, even to those most aggrieved by its indulgences, is nothing if not a little infectious.
There’s a celebratory aspect to its fan service, this embrace of every little thing that makes this franchise so good, so bad, and so very, very silly, even if it embraces it so hard it’s gotten itself in a chokehold and can barely breathe.
So even if there are things you don’t like about it—and there are plenty of areas in which to critique a movie as messy as The Rise of Skywalker—there is bound to be a least something in there, among the laser swords and the big explosions, that makes you go “Oh yeah, that was pretty fun.”
The Mandalorian might not be in such a hyperactive mood, but it would be hard to deny that its commitment to fan service isn’t as deep as The Rise of Skywalker’s. So what is it about The Mandalorian—a show that made some people scream in adulation over a return to the Mos Eisley Cantina and some sand—that makes its catering-to-fans approach so well received in a way The Rise of Skywalker’s hasn’t? If anything, it’s a question of scale.
If what makes Rise’s indulgent approach equal parts eminently frustrating and delightfully silly is the fact that its stakes are so grand—that it is shaping our understanding of what Star Wars is, what the Skywalker Saga at large is, on a galactic scale—then having a preponderance for calling back to what came before gets in the way of what could’ve been set up for the future. In turn, The Mandalorian’s intimacy is one of its greatest strengths.
To us as an audience, the existence of Baby Yoda is a huge event because we only know of one such other being of his species on the galactic scale, but for Din Djarin and the rest of The Mandalorian’s heroes and villains? The Child is just that: a child. Who he is and where he’s from are concerns, but they are concerns because they want to see the Child protected from harm (or, in Werner Herzog’s case, exploited by the ashes of the Empire). The thrust of The Mandalorian’s season arc is not in fleshing out Baby Yoda’s Wookieepedia page, it is Din coming to care for his new ward and how it changes him as a man and a bounty hunter.
Another form of intimacy The Mandalorian plays with is also the simple fact that the familiar elements it does go after are largely from aspects of Star Wars that the fanbase at large—not just the diehards, but the average people who go out to see the movies and that’s about it for their engagement with the galaxy far, far away—aren’t already particularly aware of. Every Star Wars fan knows who Emperor Palpatine is. In comparison, how many know that Moff Gideon whipping out the Darksaber in the final moments of the season is a mindblowingly huge deal?
There is a freedom, given what The Mandalorian plays with as it fleshes out its world of outcasts and bounty hunters, to dabbling in the esoteric ephemera of this universe. That freedom, in turn, means that a truly diehard Star Wars fan and a more casual one can share an intrigue in what the show is doing, without being bogged down by making the context of all these references feel mandatory.
But it’s also important to consider how The Mandalorian’s fanservice is wrapped up in the imagery of Star Wars, rather than specific characters, and what it does with that imagery. The Darksaber is a notable artefact if you’re a fan of Clone Wars or Rebels, but to the many more Star Wars fans who aren’t familiar with those shows, it’s just a cool looking weapon that looks like a lightsaber.
While Rise is busy playing with the iconic characters of this universe, from Luke Skywalker and his fellow Jedi spirits, to Lando Calrissian and Wedge Antilles, and yes, to big daddy Sheev himself, The Mandalorian’s characters are, at the basest of levels, a series of copycats.
You’ve got Din himself, who looks like Boba Fett and, for the most part, acts like him. You’ve got the Child, who looks like Yoda but is, very explicitly, not Yoda.
You’ve got IG-11, who, while practically identical to IG-88, is not the same assassin droid (much to the frustration of Star Wars action figure collectors, no doubt). Extrapolated beyond the most literal of comparisons you’ve got characters like Cara Dune—who has the imagery of the Rebellion literally tattooed on her face—and the Client and Moff Gideon as stand-ins for these Galactic forces we’ve seen warring with for years. But they’re among the rank and file and not wholly encompassing of them in a way heroes and villains like Leia Organa and Darth Vader would be.
Crucially The Mandalorian does not simply offer this imagery and say nothing more—akin to, say, the sequel trilogy giving us new TIE Fighters, new X-Wings, new Stormtroopers, and so on without really commenting on what the reappearance of those things means beyond “look, it’s that thing you know and like, just different enough to warrant a new action figure.” It uses the parallels between these pieces of iconography to say something interesting about our perceptions of them. Din Djarin might look like Boba Fett and therefore be wrapped up in the imagery we have conjured in our heads of that character, but he is deliberately presented as flawed and imperfect as if to puncture our preconception of that imagery.
On the lighter side, turning Taika Waiti’s threatening, petrifying-looking assassin droid into the galaxy’s most tragically protective babysitter is a subversion of terror into something hilarious. Even Cara and the Client are nuanced expansions of what we can conceive people aligned to the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire to be beyond “good guys” and “bad guys”—especially Cara, whose trauma as a frontline soldier, and her bloodthirst for hunting the Imperials who caused that trauma in the first place, is far-flung from the hopefully pure-hearted idealists we typically associate as Rebels.
Both these approaches to servicing fandom have flaws and strengths. Arguably, that Star Wars at the box office allows itself the joyfully bonkers indulgence of smashing all of its toys together for a few hours is what allows franchise material elsewhere—be it The Mandalorian or the myriad books, games, comics, and other shows that make up the fabric of its canon—to take a more measured, nuanced approach to this world, setting itself about detailing the broad strokes painted by the movies.
It’s not a case if one is better than the other, another war to be fought between divided fans. Instead, it’s about seeing them work in tandem to create a galaxy far, far away that feels textured and varied, that celebrates what we love most about this world while always adding new things and new perspectives to it.