Is ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ the Marvel-ification we feared?
Spoiler warning for episodes 1–3 of The Book of Boba Fett, and Seasons 1–2 of The Mandalorian, and generally the Star Wars films.
I should define “Marvel-ification,” especially as someone who doesn’t consume Marvel media these days (full disclosure, I watched The Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man 1–2, and, passively, Thor). This was a critique that emerged around the time when Disney announced the upcoming onslaught of spinoff Star Wars media in 2020: a multi-media franchise reliant on but also subversive of sequels, where each piece of media temporally interlocks among, rather than following, the rest, necessitating the viewer to be engaged with all of it. Matt Singer writes that Season 2 of The Mandalorian already exhibits this characteristic inter-connectivity of ancillary media, with visual and story references to the original films as well as Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
But I think there are some other important aspects of the way Marvel media is actually produced that are unique and relevant. Actors often don’t know what they’re doing, bewilderingly describing only getting parts of scripts and filming in front of green screens at unknown locations for unknown pieces of media. The highly CG-dependent production is so rapid and concurrent, as well as shielded from public view, that the nature of production — and thus editing, blocking, staging — has changed. It is a level of hyper-production that blurs the lines between discrete films or television episodes but makes this franchise incredible amounts of money, every release a cultural moment typically breaking box office and streaming records.
The “Marvel” flavor also relies on the trope of the unending escalation. TV Tropes refers to Serial Escalation, where additional media has to continue to raise the stakes for the heroes. Unlike Plot Leveling, which can be interpreted to rely on a sequel framework, one can imagine Serial Escalation operating across a distributed cinematic universe. You defeat the one big baddie, so where is the money coming from next? This trope is a trap in most serialized storytelling; TV shows like The 100 or the later Moffat years of Doctor Who clearly demonstrate what happens when this escalation runs away from the writers and they have to retroactively sabotage their own world-building in order to achieve the next chill up your spine.
It’s hard to see where this started to become a problem in popular storytelling; within my lifetime, I suspect it started with streaming, although the escalation of awe and the rapid expansion of world-building can even be seen between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the novels). But if you look at popular, fan-serving media, such as superhero comics, or the now-defunct Star Wars Extended Universe (now “Legends”), for decades these stories absolutely had to deal with these ages-old traps of endless escalation. But the curious thing is that they were, and remain, self-policing. Comics often reset, or spun-off into new timelines or universes where new stories and even characterizations of classic heroes could be explored. The Star Wars EU wasn’t internally consistent, especially as Lucasfilm began to release new books and The Clone Wars, both of which were critical to the lore of the Star Wars universe. And these pieces of media also often over-wrote themselves.
While Marvel is starting to do this, it is still maintained via its cinematic universe. One critical component of the Star Wars EU was that you could still walk into any Star Wars film and not have read any of the books or watched the shorts on Cartoon Network. The experience of the core Star Wars material was not reliant on any of the web of media surrounding the films; they were there for fan enjoyment if and when a person was interested. At the end of the day, you could read so much more into Yoda’s mention of the Clone Wars, of the way Ben Kenobi talks about Anakin Skywalker, how Force ghosts are made, of the nature of prophecy and the Force, but these lines and scenes remain the same and stand on their own without that depth from the EU. Lore was discrete from canon.
Further, I think Marvel or Marvel-ized franchises subscribe to a version of Serial Escalation that also relies on consistently escalating fandom content, or accessibility to new generations, in a way that is tied to the escalating stakes of the stories. These pieces of media are, typically, for children, and like the best of children’s media, contain components for everybody. But Disney has increasingly, masterfully tapped into fan-service, aspects of stories or characters (or shipping) that they know market well for fanfic-writers and convention-goers and also bring in new audiences (in a conversation earlier today I pointed out that the recasting of Q as adorkable in the James Bond franchise is a good example of this tactic). This isn’t inherently negative, although certain aspects of it, particularly relating to the final characteristic I describe, are often critiqued. In the case of Star Wars, however, this actually often benefits the culture surrounding certain media, where Star Wars fandom is notoriously unwelcoming.
The final aspect is not something I credit to Marvel, but which I think is characteristic of Marvel: the Girl Power Racism (TM), girl-bosses who gatekeep and gaslight (and whitewash). There are a lot of essays out there on the white feminism of the Marvel franchise and as someone rather external to the fandom I will defer to Google to bring those to your attention.
Lore becoming canon?
And so what of Star Wars now? The Mandalorian has been a cultural moment, offering careful, nuanced, gorgeous storytelling, set design, costumes, effects, and acting that have set it apart — particularly in tone and music — from the main body of Star Wars films. Even as Rogue One and Solo (the latter of which I haven’t watched) have offered the first non-animated “fill-ins” of time gaps in the series, The Mandalorian is not self-contained, and offers us numerous glimpses into what were only shadowy corners in the original or prequel films. It also walks back some of the mistakes of hyper-produced CG in the prequels, as did the new trilogy somewhat, returning good, old-fashioned puppets and real props made from everyday items.
As I’ve enjoyed The Mandalorian, I’ve also watched it with great unease, particularly after December 2020. It is a special piece of media, one that feels so EU in the ways it is not intrinsic to the storytelling of the primary plot of Star Wars, but Disney’s plans to produce even more media filling in gaps in the Star Wars timeline is concerning. I worry that quality will decrease as projects get less time and care, but I also worry about Star Wars losing its essence. We shouldn’t have to watch five shows on a streaming service to contextualize a sixth show.
I also think that a lot of magic resides in the use of in medias res in Star Wars; we are dropped into films, episodes, and books with zero bearing and it facilitates an immersion, a consumption of attention, that simple narrative storytelling doesn’t achieve. And one of the most characteristic aspects of Star Wars is arguing about it for decades — becoming annoyed at how inscrutable it can be and the subsequent debate.
So if these pieces of media not only fill out the timeline but are inherently reliant on each other, what happens when, well, we know all the res?
Meanwhile, Season 2 gives us Boba Fett, tying into, yes, the original films, but also the new series (and arguably Clone Wars, although so far there has been no reference to its Boba Fett arc) — but it also gives us Bo-Katan, a crucial player in multiple seasons of Clone Wars whose storyline regarding Mandalore is directly from the animated series, and Ahsoka Tano, legendary character who absolutely deserves live-action portrayal (in my humble opinion) but whose entire story up until this point has been contained in Clone Wars and Rebels. Conveniently, these other pieces of media are available to stream on Disney+.
Boba Fett has yet to show this same inter-connectivity with other media aside from The Mandalorian, except with the Pyke Syndicate, who are arguably underdeveloped enough as an entity in Clone Wars to get away with it. But the location on Tatooine, and what The Mandalorian has already showed us, as well as the nature of the show as a spin-off, perhaps suggests that more will happen in future.
Girl Power Racism
I think it’s safe to start with the Wookiee — aren’t they all dead, except for Chewie? — who appears in episode 2 and is the nightmare we don’t deserve. Inherently silenced (i.e., without subtitles for his roars, which we know to be speech from other media), the Wookiee has dark fur and visible dreadlocks, the servant of the Hutt twins. His name is literally Black Krrsantan. In episode 3, he is once again not subtitled, only exhibiting raw, animalistic rage as he crushes Boba Fett and then is dropped into a cage. The Hutts suggest selling this person and this is not critiqued or otherwise commented upon (although Morrison delivers his line in an effective way that seems to beg for more from the writing). There is no way to view this character except in comparison to Chewbacca, who, despite appearing menacing at times, isn’t just ironic in looking like a teddy bear; he is intelligent, gentle, loving, and loyal. Meanwhile, the first Black human character of the show appears only in episode 3.
I think this character is the culmination of what’s gone wrong in the post-Disney acquisition Star Wars universe. We’ve been promised so much diversity, so many challenges to the problematic of the original canon, only, typically, to have it taken away or subverted by something else. In The Force Awakens, we get Rey and Finn, the latter of whom has one of the most — if not the most — emotionally compelling backstories of any main character in Star Wars. But Finn’s heroics stop there; he takes a backseat to Rey, going on farcical quests that only earned John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran absurd levels of internet hatred in the aftermath (not to blame the racism of the internet on merely the writing). We’re given more time with Lando but only in a comical sense; the other new Black character is, of course, revealed to be related to him, the first Black woman who plays a human with lines in one of the primary films, for no plot purpose at all.
(By the way, no portrayal of women of color with dialogue in Star Wars films pre-TLJ is human; Star Wars: Rebels was the first piece of visual media to give us a woman of color with lines who is a human; there are no Force-wielding, human women of color in any Star Wars visual media except for Depa Bilaba who is a background character in just two of the prequel films. It took twelve years, 126 episodes, and a revival of The Clone Wars before we saw human women of color with dialogue — after Rebels, which is its sequel, had concluded. Most of the WOC-coded or -portrayed characters have ethnic names, however, but that’s a different essay.)
But Kathleen Kennedy, I mean, uh, the brunette, so to speak, is usually vindicated — not just in Rey, but also in knockoff Mon Mothma, Amilyn Holdo (played by Laura Dern), who gives us a full-screen, high-resolution slap of Oscar Isaac — whose role is also significantly diminished from TFA into the latter two films of the trilogy, where he, a Latino actor, is in fact shown to be a drug smuggler, and is in the right in this entire film — in such a display of condescension that we know is being played as feminist empowerment. Rogue One gave us one of the most diverse casts in any Star Wars media at the time (including brunette Jyn Erso — her name literally means “woman”…) and then kills all of them. Cara Dune represents a potentially nuanced and compelling aspect of the now-retired Resistance in The Mandalorian, given that we’ve largely only seen men in the original trilogy, but her depth ends at a casual mention that she’s from Alderaan and the occasional sad expression about this (thankfully, she’s been written out of the show, given the actress’s public persona). Bo-Katan’s henchmen of color are cheesy, overly-aggressive caricatures (the show is about Mandalorians??) in contrast to her coolness.
Most of these characters have earned Star Wars incredible criticism, but not for the brand of neoliberal white feminism that relies on the tokenization of and typically violence upon characters of color, but for their inclusion in the first place, which begs the question: if you’re going to be critiqued anyway, why don’t you just go all-in on diversity? Why play it safe?
Boba Fett is expanding on the development of the Tuskens as the indigenous people of Tatooine in what I think are the most compelling scenes so far of the series. I’m hoping that we move away from the constant violence suffered by Temuera Morrison’s character (reminiscent, to me, of Beckett) and towards a more cogent vision of what this means, particularly in a cinematic universe built on tired or only lazily-subverted stereotypes and terra nullius logics. (There is something also to be said that many of the background human characters so far are…white brunettes.)
And Boba Fett gives us baby Jyn Erso a.k.a. Drash, the brunette leader of the cyborg teens who are obvious stand-ins for zillennials. But what is unclear is what the writers actually think of these kids, and whether this falls under Serial Escalation in terms of bringing in new audiences. The teens are framed as a Rebel Without a Cause reference, which is a potentially clever since that film sought to highlight the experiences of teens post-war. The Mandalorian world sits five years after the fall of the Empire and focuses on the Outer Rim, the canonically serially neglected yet exploited sector of the Republic/Empire, an interesting analogy to the post-WWII world. Their speeders are painted in juvenile candy colors, like the hot rods of the 60s, their clothes a mish-mash of times. But the comparison ends there; the acting, staging/blocking, writing, directing of these scenes is incredibly underwhelming. There’s an unbelievably slow chase scene through Mos Espa that is just filler, and not even the speeders give us creative tech that we’re used to from spaceships in this universe. Instead, we get Inspector Gadget prosthetics that are overly CG-ed in a way alien to The Mandalorian.
Many have criticized George Lucas’ use of prosthetics to signal inhumanity over the years (some of the best criticism I’ve encountered has been through A More Civilized Age); General Grievous and Anakin Skywalker are good examples of this. My ears perked up when the teens were described to have modified their own bodies; I thought that perhaps we were finally getting a subversion of this trope, just as we’ve gotten the subversion of other tropes from the Mandalorian creative team, e.g., with the Tuskens’ sign language. But this diverse group seemingly is just meant to be diverse rather than to offer us diverse stories. If these kids can’t afford water, why can Skad manage to afford these expensive body mods?
Are the kids meant to be a satire of Gen-Z, a critique, a tongue-in-cheek reference (and in what way)? Or are they intended to bring Gen-Z to Star Wars, and if so, why do they rely on a combination of 60s nostalgic aesthetics and post-emo fashion? If the main cast of RWAC represents a generation — gay, immigrant, woman, misfit — abandoned by traumatized adults in a hyper-capitalist post-war society, what is the message?
Season 2 of The Mandalorian already gives us some symptoms of Serial Escalation syndrome in terms of plot, albeit so far in an effective way. We establish Din Djarin as an incredible fighter and killer; this escalates as we encounter Bo-Katan and her crew, as well as Boba Fett and Fennec Strand, who appear unstoppable; then we face the death troopers, seemingly indestructible droids that we know are, in some way, destroyed since they’re not in the new trilogy films; and finally, Luke Skywalker. It’s a classic old-lady-who-swallows-a-horse logic that highlights just how powerful the Jedi are in an artful way, but leaves a lot to be answered for in the next season. (Also, to be clear, the new trilogy absolutely and tragically suffers from Serial Escalation, but there are plenty of other essays out there that criticize this.)
There are a few signs of serial escalation already within the first three episodes of Boba Fett because this order has already been established in The Mandalorian. We’re offered a whole host of antagonists: the Tuskens (at first), the Mayor, the Hutts, the Pykes, the speeder gang, the Pykes again. We are not given reasons to understand the stakes of Fett’s new role on Tatooine, because this hasn’t been overtly established in previous media; we root for him…because he deserves a win. But what’s he winning against? While it’s early in the season, there are only nine episodes, and compared with The Mandalorian’s tight, concise storytelling, I’m not sure what there is to escalate in the first place.
And as a zillenial myself, the shiny has never brought me to Star Wars. As a teen what appealed to me weren’t the chrome starships of Naboo but their contrast to the swamps of the Gungans; the rusted joints of droids, the mildew of Dagobah, droids that are clearly little kids wearing trash cans — the jankiness. Star Wars gives us jankiness that somehow pulls itself together into heroism. I don’t know about younger generations, but the formula doesn’t just work, it’s intrinsic to the storytelling and mythos of the Star Wars universe. Even in The Mandalorian, the impeccable shininess of the death troopers is meant to illustrate the lurking engineering prowess of the space fascists.
The above issues culminate in very messy storytelling. While we get shiny prosthetics and more Hutts that we need in canon, the editing of these episodes is choppy. Oftentimes, the actors are standing in awkward positions; Fennec’s lines are overwrought and groan-worthy (but we stan Ming-Na, to be clear). The scorpion monster in episode 1 is so eerily anti-Star Wars in its muscular, humanoid form, Lucas-esque in the way it’s showing off CG while also lacking the whimsy or grotesqueness of Lucas monsters. There are too many characters that are given weight in-scene that seems not to deliver, perhaps because of the size of the cast and the writers seeking to do too much in 50 minutes. Morrison (whom we also stan) appears to be the only actor completely convinced of his own character, but the scenes don’t respect his incredible gravitas at all.
I struggle to summarize the characters’ motivations or the plots of these episodes. And I would prefer janky, sandy, dusty 30-minute episodes that focused on the Tuskens, really showing us how Boba learns what leadership is after a lifetime of subordination within a larger criticism of American Western mythology, than chase scenes, blurry CG Hutts, and throwaway prosthetic tricks. There is a rich world about the Indigenous and disabled to explore in this story without the flashiness, without the egregious reference to other Star Wars media, already. I just hope they haven’t made this series just for the sake of making it.