In 2019, Disney released the first season of The Mandalorian, intended to be a fresh start for the franchise after the divisive sequel trilogy and the financial failure of Solo: a Star Wars Story. The Mandalorian features a spiffy new intro, showing a series of helmets and droids flashing in front of the camera. The intro won’t just be on the Mandalorian – Disney uses it for their new Bad Batch series, and presumably for the other dozen-odd Star Wars shows currently in the works. Soon, there will be more Star Wars content with the new helmet intro than with John Williams’ classic theme and the opening crawl.
Here’s the problem: I hate the helmet intro.
I don’t hate the aesthetics – the intro looks really great. The problem is that the ogling over the cool appearance of helmets in the intro is a complete contradiction of the fundamental theme of Star Wars. This may sound dramatic, but let me explain.
At its core, Star Wars is a fantasy story set in a science fiction universe, and it borrows one of the most fundamental fantasy themes – the triumph of mysticism and faith over the mundane. Luke’s journey in the original trilogy is all about discovering and trusting The Force, while setting aside his notions about the material world. Think about how he refuses to believe that he can lift the X-Wing from the swamp in Dagobah, because he says the ship is too big. Or how he only destroys the first Death Star by disregarding his hi-tech targeting computer (which, not coincidentally, covers his face much like a mask) and instead trusting his own instincts.
Star Wars is not just about trusting the immaterial. It also uses what might be the most important theme of all science fiction, that of humanity rediscovering itself. Darth Vader is, as Obi-Wan puts it “more machine than man,” yet over the course of the original trilogy, he rediscovers his own humanity through his love for his son. There’s a reason that Luke taking off his father’s mask is the point where Anakin Skywalker replaces Darth Vader. Vader’s mask represents all the hatred and anger that prevents him from rediscovering his humanity.
The unmasking of Vader is probably the most thematically significant scene in the entire trilogy, since it completes the journey of Luke and Vader, the two most important characters. Similarly, the masking of Vader is the most important scene of the prequels, since it completes Anakin’s journey to the dark side. Even the sequels pay lip service to the idea, as both Kylo Ren and Finn have important moments of rejecting the inhumanity of their helmets.
Star Wars isn’t exactly subtle, and the idea of “face covering = evil” is crystal clear even in the very first scene of the original movie. As the rebels prepare to defend their ship, the camera lingers sympathetically on their faces. The audience sees their fear and determination. Then, as the empire breaks into the ship, we see an army of faceless storm-troopers, led by the masked Vader.
So how did Star Wars move from this clear and simple message to glamorizing robots and helmets in its introduction? Disney-owned Star Wars is more open about producing heroic Star Wars characters with masks. The Clone Wars TV show depicted its protagonists wearing nearly-identical helmets, while the Mandolorian’s protagonist is religiously bound to wear his helmet constantly.
One might read these newer shows as an attempt to problematize the simplistic duality of the franchise’s older installments. And there’s nothing wrong with challenging or adding nuance to a theme. But even these newer installments actually adhere to the old notion that helmets obscure a person’s humanity in a problematic way. The clones in Clone Wars resent being seen as faceless soldiers, and many wear their hair in distinctive ways so as to highlight their individuality. Similarly, the Mandalorian takes his helmet off primarily for the sake of baby Yoda, and in doing so, he shows his love and humanity.
You might be wondering why I’m so annoyed about the intro’s misinterpretation of Star Wars. And I’ll admit, this is pedantry at its finest. But introductions are also important. They highlight the most important theme or motif of the work that follows them. It’s why the Star Trek intro talks about space, the final frontier, rather than showing a sequence of random aliens encountered at various points by the crew of the Enterprise. The original Star Wars introduction worked perfectly. The opening phrase “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” is a gesture to the mythical, fantasy elements of the story, and John Williams’ famous theme invokes ideas of epic adventure and the clash of good and evil. The new intro is the equivalent of replacing John Williams’ intro with the Imperial March.
I’m not saying that audiences shouldn’t enjoy seeing Darth Vader’s mask. It’s an iconic, awesome image that alludes to many cool moments from Star Wars, but it doesn’t summarize Star Wars as a whole. Disney has made the mistake of choosing the coolest, flashiest elements of Star Wars over what the story is actually trying to say.