Between The Clone Wars, Rebels, and The Mandalorian, maybe the future of Star Wars should stay on the small screen.
For over forty years, Star Wars has dominated the movie box office to the point that Star Wars movies gave rise to many features of the modern blockbuster experience. They arguably created the mainstream midnight movie premiere with The Phantom Menace, as well as some of the earliest online movie trailers, back when you had to download them to watch them.
However, despite being a staple of the silver screen for four decades, does Star Wars work better on the small screen?
The wake of the pandemic rendering many traditional theaters as high risk, combined with Disney’s announcement of eight new Star Wars shows for Disney+, indicates that the foreseeable future of Star Wars will be on the small screen. But this is not a question of quantity so much as quality, and there is quality to be found.
Though it was by no means the first Star Wars cartoon/TV program, the first animated series to demonstrate the potential of Star Wars on the small screen was Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003)—not to be confused with Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008). Helmed by Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky, the series was meant to bridge the time gap between Star Wars episodes II and III and, in many ways, surpassed them. The show won three Emmys and opened the door to Lucasfilm’s future in animated Star Wars media (along with creating the most terrifying portrayal of General Grievous of any Star Wars media).
Many Star Wars fans considered it to be better than the Prequel movies it was made to supplement, a praise later reused for the 2008 series, The Clone Wars, a series so popular that it was brought back for one final season seven years after being canceled in the wake of the Disney buyout.
Even as Star Wars fans (in their typical Star Wars fan fashion) laud some properties by putting others down, The Clone Wars (2008) creator Dave Filoni has noted that many younger fans’ first Star Wars experience is coming from these cartoon shows. Many of this new generation sees no distinction between the movies, the cartoons, or the TV shows. To them, it’s just Star Wars.
But why do Star Wars TV shows/cartoons work so well? Possibly because that’s what Star Wars was initially based on.
From the moment George Lucas decided not to have Darth Vader die in the climax of A New Hope and instead fly off into the darkness of space to fight the rebels another day, he made Star Wars a throwback to the serialized radio and television adventure programs that he grew up on.
Will Luke and his friends save Han Solo from the malicious bounty hunter Boba Fett? Is Darth Vader truly the father of our intrepid hero? Tune in next week to find out!
In particular, The Clone Wars paid tribute to this connection in having Tom Kane* provide a beginning prologue to almost every episode in the style of WWII propaganda newsreels.
Even adopting the “episode” naming scheme shows how they’re all segments of a larger story.
If anything, the Star Wars galaxy has grown too large for even movies to encapsulate, but TV is built for that kind of sprawling story.
A majority of Star Wars worldbuilding of the ’80s and ’90s was done outside of the movies, through books, video games, and toys that captured the imaginations of Star Wars fans through the decades.
Since then, both the Star Wars prequels and sequels have suffered from an excess of content and context having to be condensed into 2 and a half hours. But a Star Wars TV show or cartoon can go into much greater depth with their plotlines because they have much more time to develop characters, themes, and worldbuilding.
Television also allows for a more economical form of storytelling: while one season of The Mandalorian costs about as much as a Star Wars film ($120 million per season vs. $200 million per movie), you also get a lot more content for that price tag (about 5.5 hours vs. 2.5 hours). Even though The Clone Wars’ animation cost Lucas about $1 million per episode, Rebels was produced much cheaper, aided by advances in technology and in the experience of the crew, many of whom were carryovers from The Clone Wars.
Then there’s the medium, as The Clone Wars and Rebels’ animation opens doors for character designs and fighting styles that would be difficult to realize in other mediums. Many of the lightsaber duels of both shows feature inhumanly quick acrobatics that would be nearly impossible even for career stunt doubles, much less the actors, to perform. That is to say nothing of the aliens, creatures, and sceneries they animated, which could cost millions more if made for live-action, only to not look quite as real due to the technological limitations.
The shows also allow for the development of stories and characters outside of the Skywalker saga. Shows like Rebels, Resistance, and The Mandalorian all feature casts with no awareness of the Skywalker/Palpatine family drama, allowing us to see what the galaxy is like for the people who don’t have a destiny.
They feature casts of relatively ordinary characters, from street rats like Rebels’ Ezra Bridger to non-force sensitive pilots in Resistance, to bounty hunters and farmers living paycheck to paycheck like Pascal’s Mandalorian Din Djarin. Many of these characters are more focused on where their next meal will come from, rather than the fate of the galaxy itself, which in turn makes the galaxy feel much more lived in.
These shows also deliver on the promises of representation and diversity where Star Wars has previously faltered. There were barely three female Jedi with speaking lines in the Prequels, to say nothing of the few POC. Clone Wars (2003), The Clone Wars (2008), and Rebels (2015) gave us many female and POC characters, some of whom are now among the most popular characters in the whole franchise (#AhsokaLives).
They’ve also brought many women and POC into the cast and the production crews, so they’re delivering both in and behind the scenes. (Deborah Chow was the first woman to direct Star Wars in live-action with her episodes of The Mandalorian and will be the first female showrunner, at the helm of the Obi-Wan Kenobi series.)
TV shows/cartoons also allow for a large array of experimentation with different genres within the galaxy. The Mandalorian alone has dabbled in space western, heist movies, a Moby-Dick-esque episodes with sci-fi cowboys, samurai stories, war films, and more. This is due in part to the show’s ability to give a wide variety of individual directors the chance to experiment and grow the galaxy in ways that one or two directors may not be able to consider in their movies.
And the eight shows on the binary sunset’s horizon leave plenty of room for sharing the stories of characters old (The Book of Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ahsoka, Andor, Lando, The Bad Batch) and new (The Acolyte, Rangers of the New Republic).
That’s not to say there aren’t potential issues.
There are already indications that The Mandalorian Season 3 is being delayed because of filming for The Book of Boba Fett, which is aggravated by the fact that the creators only have one groundbreaking LED screen stage to film on, meaning each of the live-action shows may have to wait their turn for filming. Even then, eight shows have been announced for the coming years, reminding cautious Star Wars fans of the early days of Disney Star Wars, when movies and whole trilogies were being announced just as quickly as they were being abandoned. (Remember when Game of Thrones’ showrunners were going to make a trilogy?)
Still, there’s plenty of hope in a galaxy far, far away, and I know that for every Rise of Skywalker, there’s going to be a Rogue One that changes the definition of Star Wars as we know it.
*Author’s Note: We wish Tom Kane a speedy recovery from his recent stroke and wish him and his family the best. May the Force be with them.
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