Disney, Star Wars, and the Preeminence of Iconography
One of the reasons Star Wars has and will continue to dominate entertainment after signing Disney’s treaty is a mutual mastery of iconography. Star Wars has embedded itself in the popular imagination through visual branding as simple and recognizable as a swoosh, a golden arch, or a caffeinated mermaid: Darth Vader’s helmet, Stormtroopers, lightsabers, R2-D2 and C-3PO. And since 2012, that intellectual property has been in the hands of the leviathan bedecked in mouse ears living in a German castle. So the most powerful entertainment conglomerate in the world controls the most important film franchise of all time which built its success on an entire legion of the things that the company is good at selling. Ah. I see. What might Palpatine say?
The promotional material for The Mandalorian (a Star Wars series premiering on Disney+ on November 12), including the most recent trailer, suggests that Disney is continuing to lean into the power of iconography. Never mind that the very first shot of the trailer is a Stormtrooper helmet – the trailer makes much of the titular character, whose helmet and armor looks, of course, like Star Wars icon and fellow Mandalorian Boba Fett. Fett, appearing for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, looked so cool that he sold a galaxy full of merch, got his “father” written into Attack of the Clones, made numerous appearances in video games and other expanded universe content, and inspired the creation of the now iconic Mandalorian sigil, all without, well, actually doing very much in the film and going out like a real punk in Return of the Jedi. Even though The Mandalorian is not the once-rumored Boba Fett film/series, it is capitalizing on the way audiences react to that bounty hunter’s visage.
However, the emphasis on the helmet has come at complete expense of the man behind the mask. The titular Mandalorian is played by Pedro Pascal, but all of the promotional material has avoided showing us his face, and the most recent trailer gave us two words of his dialogue. The first big piece of original content on Disney’s foray into the streaming wars has opted to promote itself with a symbol – a helmet – to the exclusion of the star at the center of it.
And that. Is. Fascinating.
Star Wars has used masks before, of course. In the case of Fett, Stormtroopers, and Vader, it was fundamental to the character. In the case of Darth Revan (in the popular video game Knights of the Old Republic), it facilitated a superb plot twist. And, in The Force Awakens, it was an uncomfortable mix of Kylo Ren’s character development and gimmicky mystery-building as we wondered if the person behind the mask was actually Luke Skywalker or Jar Jar Binks. It is, for the reasons above, perfectly understandable that Disney would use an iconic look to sell a new series, but that could be done without completely concealing the human being inside the suit.
And what a human to conceal. Pedro Pascal is very handsome and very good at acting. He played one of the most charismatic and bad-ass characters in Game of Thrones. He starred in a season of Narcos and was one of the five leads in Triple Frontier. No, he’s not a bona fide movie star, but he should be marketable. What would be lost if there just one shot of him unmasked? Wouldn’t it be a cool trailer moment to see him donning the helmet?
One possible – though I think unlikely – reason for this is racist xenophobia. Pascal is Chilean-American, and maybe seen as less marketable when many Americans hold bigoted opinions about Latin Americans and when some Star Wars fanboys have complained about how many people of color have been featured in the new trilogy. If Chris Evans was playing the Mandalorian, is there any way they would hide him through all the promotional content? If Adam Driver was the transcendent star he is now back when The Force Awakens was released, do you really think they would have bothered with that ridiculous mask? However, I’m hesitant to make this claim as, despite Star Wars’ rocky history with racist tropes and stereotypes, as the recent projects have had relatively diverse casts, and one of the scheduled projects is a series focused on Cassian Andor, played by (also very handsome and talented) Mexican actor Diego Luna. Furthermore, Disney is a global company, and so it would seem Pascal would appeal to some international markets in the way a Chris might not. Perhaps racism and xenophobia play a role in the decision to forego the marketability of this particular person of color, but I don’t believe it’s that simple.
We return, then, to the top – Disney knows how to use icons, and they appear committed to using the embarrassment of visual riches Star Wars has even at the expense of the actors they choose to employ. This aligns with two trends in Hollywood: movie stars have much less power to draw audiences to the theater than they used to, and preexisting intellectual properties are the only surefire box office earners. It follows, then, that Disney would not worry about promoting their actors, and would instead double down on the popular mythology. Heck, I think the trailer for Solo gave more screentime to the name “Solo” in that iconic yellow font than it did to Alden Ehrenreich. Extreme as the commitment to this strategy seems, I’m not going to doubt Disney knows what they’re doing.
I do, however, have some questions going forward. In the specific case of The Mandalorian, how much time is Pascal going to spend behind the mask? Surely the character is going to fit that trope of the cool, mysterious gunslinger, and the Mandalorian helmet plays up that effect, but how much mileage can a series hope to get out of that? How compelling can an armored, shrouded lead character be? I want to see Pascal’s face – yes because he’s handsome – but also because that’s part of the experience in watching actors; I want to see human expression and interaction. Think about what will be lost if there’s a scene between Pascal and Giancarlo Esposito and one of them is wearing a helmet the entire time. I would dare say it will be a mistake if the Mandalorian has his helmet on more often than he doesn’t, even if this is all happening because the original Mandalorian swagged his way through less than ten minutes of screentime, in full regalia all the while.
My other questions concern the big picture of Star Wars, Marvel, and other big entertainment properties, particularly those loaded with iconography. Who will be cast to play these famous characters, and how will they be marketed? Will it matter? Will these properties attract stars, and will they develop stars? Can famous symbols continue to thrive independent of the humans involved?
I won’t even try to answer any of these questions right now, nor will I try to answer what might be the two most important questions which this boils down to. First, will our perception of dramatic human performance change because of this? It’s possible that our consciousness and awareness will change so that the subtleties of acting and the human connection it inspires will be altered or diminished as our attention is constantly focused on symbols and icons. Remember that acting has been around for thousands of years, but once upon a time all the actors wore masks which totally concealed their face. Second, how will this affect the creation of new iconography and visual vocabularies? If Hollywood continues to go back to the same IP wells, will creative minds lose the motivation to create new visually arresting styles and symbols, and, whether they do or don’t, will there be audiences and markets looking for them?
The Mandalorian is going to be the much more lowkey Star Wars release this season in comparison to The Rise of Skywalker, but even so it will provide much reason for discussion and speculation about the future of Star Wars and popular entertainment.
Just like Disney planned it.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
~click the number to return to the text~
1 The Phantom Menace was my introduction to the word treaty. There’s just something about the way Padmé says it. The word association has remained, even as I’ve had to memorize many other versions like Versailles, Ghent, Tordesillas, and Paris.
2 White men really are…we’re the worst.