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‘Star Wars’ faces a new challenge: Assigning homework to the casual viewer

As the flagship universe of Disney+ expands and intertwines with more animated content, keeping track of every character and storyline has become a daunting task

Rosario Dawson in the trailer for 'Ahsoka'.
Eneko Ruiz Jiménez

Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen has enjoyed a solid career (mostly working in Europe), standing out in productions like Borgen, The Killing, Sherlock, House of Cards, Ride Upon the Storm or The Kingdom. However, something entirely different had driven the crowd that expected him in London on Saturday, April 8, at the Star Wars Celebration. As soon as he peeked out of the curtain to greet the 5,000 Star Wars fans that had spent their morning crossing their fingers, hoping the rumors were true, the audience went wild. Mikkelsen was revisiting the role of a villain he had played in an animated series five years ago: Grand Admiral Thrawn, such a celebrated work of voice acting that the room full of adoring fans welcomed him as if they were witnessing the umpteenth coming of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or Princess Leia.

This is the challenge that the new Disney+ Star Wars series face: trying to get the audience to do homework and devote some time to the animated series of the past as well as the new live-action shows, as both will be expressly connected. Perhaps no series is a better example of this as Ahsoka, starring Rosario Dawson, which Disney+ will premiere in August 2023 and which was the highlight of the Star Wars Celebration. The title character, presented in its animated form in The Clone Wars (2008) as Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice, is a fan favorite. Throughout the corridors, dozens of women had painted themselves orange and donned cranial appendages of their own creation to emulate and honor her. The trick now will be catching the interest of the casual viewer, even if they have not seen anything of her previous evolution in four different animated series, as well as in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett.

Lars Mikkelsen is received with an ovation at the ‘Ahsoka’ panel of the Star Wars Celebration.
Lars Mikkelsen is received with an ovation at the ‘Ahsoka’ panel of the Star Wars Celebration.Kate Green (Getty Images for Disney)

After watching the trailer for the new Disney+ show, one question hovered in the viewers’ heads: “Am I going to have to watch Rebels to understand Ahsoka?” This case is key, as not only does the protagonist stem from a Star Wars sub-universe of which the general public probably knows nothing, but she is bringing with her a sizeable part of the cast of the animated series Star Wars: Rebels (with 75 episodes), one of the most personal projects of Dave Filoni, beloved architect of the saga on television for 15 years and creator of The Mandalorian. The writer and director says that it can be enjoyed independently, without being familiar with its background, but so far it has mostly been promoted as a new part of something that has already been said.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Fargo) will play Hera, the pilot and motherly figure who led the rebels in their battle against the empire, and Natasha Liu Bordizzo will play the renegade Mandalorian Sabine Wren, who inherited the darksaber, which is key mythology in The Mandalorian. The main villain will be Lars Mikkelsen’s bluish Thrawn, who also has a long history in the books of the franchise; in addition, references to his character can also be found in The Mandalorian.

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The Mandalorian has also made the warrior Bo Katan (Katee Sackhoff) a protagonist, a character inherited from The Clone Wars (a show that even has several guides online, and on Disney+ itself, to follow specific characters or avoid unimportant episodes), even relegating Pedro Pascal to the background. The series, which remains the platform’s biggest flagship content, has also introduced cameos by other animated characters. Still, its following has dropped — at least if the few figures that get published are to be trusted.

According to the audience monitoring company SambaTV, the first episode of its latest season accumulated 23% fewer viewers in its first five days than the previous season, and it was also a lower number than the premiere of Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Book of Boba Fett. In the latter, by the way, part of the plot of The Mandalorian was advanced between seasons, placing in the spin-off the narrative arc where the protagonist and Baby Yoda meet after being separated at the end of the second one. Something that, once again, managed to confuse the lesser-versed fans that follow the adventures of the main character but have no time to get into every single secondary series. Disney+ gave no explanation for this shift in the plot.

In the weekly data from Nielsen, which analyzes the hours of streaming consumed in the U.S., the new season is still among the top positions, although generating less euphoria than the previous ones. While it has higher rankings than Andor, the Star Wars series that has been best received by critics (and which will possibly receive multiple Emmy nominations), it has aroused the least interest from the general public.

The ‘Star Wars: Rebels’ mural at the Star Wars Celebration.
The ‘Star Wars: Rebels’ mural at the Star Wars Celebration.

One of the most photographed spots at the Star Wars Celebration was a rock-shaped mural depicting the characters from the animated series Rebels, who also materialized in every corner of the convention, brought to life through the costumes of the fans who plunge themselves into a world in which they also have found a community. And the animated universe is nowhere near its end: The Bad Batch, which follows a group of rebel clone soldiers, has just finished its second season and a third has been commissioned, and Star Wars: Visions, where studios from all over the world present personal chapters of that universe, premieres on May 4th.

In addition, Dave Filoni has just announced that the anthology Tales of the Jedi will also return for a second season. But things don’t stop there: Filoni will direct a live-action film that will connect the entire universe of his series in a great cinematic battle made for the truest fans. Now the challenge is that this expanded universe does not become a prerequisite to watch the other films and series of the brand. Otherwise, Star Wars could end up becoming more of a niche universe, not for everyone, as happened with its cousin, Star Trek. To some, it might just not be worth the time.

A poster for ‘Ahsoka.’
A poster for ‘Ahsoka.’Lucasfilm Ltd. (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

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