So, everyone has been praising The Mandalorian for a variety of positive attributes. People love the smaller scale, the serious tone, the western/samurai homages, and of course, Baby Yoda. But there’s one rather specific thing that I think The Mandalorian does particularly better than certain Star Wars movies, which is the action set pieces which involve antagonist vehicles.
Each of the sequel movies has an action scene in which the Millenium Falcon is chased by three TIE fighters through a dangerous canyon-like setting. This happens at the beginning of Force Awakens on Jakku, towards the end of Last Jedi on Crait, and in the opening scenes of Rise of Skywalker. Eventually, in each of these sequences, there’s some very specific narrow space that the Falcon can slip through that the TIE fighters can’t, and then the TIE fighters blow up. (This point was raised in Red Letter Media’s review of The Mandalorian, and it resonated with me enough to do a full post on.) These were also seen in the original trilogy, so none of them feel particularly groundbreaking. If you always use the vehicles in the same way, they start to feel like uninteresting fanservice. In order to do something creative, you need to change the way the conflict is laid out.
Enter The Mandalorian.
For one thing, The Mandalorian actually makes AT-STs scary. That’s something, especially when you consider that AT-STs were introduced along the much more robust AT-ATs, so they’ve always played second-fiddle. But, when placed in the proper conflict, AT-STs can prove to be quite the enemy. It was done perfectly in the fourth episode of the series, called “Sanctuary.” The episode is an homage to movies like Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. There’s a village under attack, and the Mandalorian and Cara Dune choose to defend it from attackers. The attackers have an AT-ST, leaving the villagers severely outgunned.
So, what follows is a Seven Samurai-style training montage in which Cara and the Mandalorian prepare the villagers to fight against the invasion. When the AT-ST finally arrives, it ramps up the intensity. The vehicle is about to fall into a trap the villagers laid for it, but then shine a headlight that not only reveals the trap, but endangers the villagers as well.
The AT-ST is suddenly made into a potent threat that feels much more visceral and dangerous relative to the scale of The Mandalorian. In Empire, they were second fiddle to the AT-ATs, and in Return of the Jedi, they were a significant but not insurmountable part of the Empire’s attack on Endor. In The Mandalorian, it feels like a serious threat.
But AT-STs aren’t the only vehicle made prominent by The Mandalorian’s smaller scale. Let’s go back to TIE fighters. When was the last time you watched a Star Wars action sequence with a TIE fighter? Was it Force Awakens? Was it the Original Trilogy? I’m willing to bet it was the eighth episode of The Mandalorian “Redemption.”
Since this is from the last chapter of The Mandalorian, I feel obligated to put in a spoiler warning, but if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already watched it.
Again, TIE fighters struggle to be exciting, partially because we’re so used to them. The Millenium Falcon has gunned down so many that they all feel the same. So, then, how to make battles with TIE Fighters interesting?
Well, as with the AT-ST, it’s the same solution; Scale down the protagonists and make the goal outsmarting the enemy instead of outgunning them.
Moff Gideon flies toward our main characters in a TIE fighter while they are clearly visible, in the open and exposed. Cara Dune has her Django machine gun, and the Mandalorian has his rifle, but it’s established earlier that neither weapon does anything against Gideon’s TIE Fighter.
The best way for the Mandalorian to fight Gideon is to use his newly-earned Jetpack. He flies up, latches onto Gideon’s TIE fighter, and plants an explosive which takes him down. It’s spectacular, especially when put side by side in the TIE battles from the Sequel Trilogy.
What I mean to say with all this is that the best way to make a conflict that has higher stakes is to put the characters on an uneven playing field, and make intelligence the key to victory. Watching a hero win can be satisfying, but watching them outsmart the enemy is much better. Raising the stakes requires a proportionately large enemy.
AT-STs and TIE Fighters are tried and true staples of Star Wars design. The Mandalorian puts them in a new circumstances which make them feel fresh and dangerous.