Imagine Boba Fett with horns. I wonder if you can? And that’s because if Boba Fett had Viking horns coming out of his helmet no one would think he is cool. Luckily he doesn’t and is very cool. But why? And is this new helmeted character in the new Star Wars streaming Disney+ TV show The Mandalorian just a Boba Fett copy-cat? What the hell is “a Mandalorian” anyway? Here’s a very brief history.
No spoilers ahead for The Mandalorian because we don’t know much about it yet.
When Boba Fett was first introduced in The Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978, everybody fell in love with the word Mandalorian, because it was all Boba Fett could say. “Mandalorian this. Mandalorian that.” JUST KIDDING. Including the animated segment of the Star Wars Holiday special which marks Boba Fett’s very first appearance, nobody says the word “Mandalorian” in any Star Wars movie, ever. So where does the word come from? Well, during the development of The Empire Strikes Back, conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and production designer Joe Johnston created an idea for super commandos from the planet Mandalore. Eventually, this morphed into just Boba Fett, and he was turned into a bounty hunter. Though there’s considerable evidence that Lucasfilm was considering expanding Boba Fett’s role significantly in Return of the Jedi, it never really happened and Boba Fett died like a chump in the Sarlacc Pit.
Why, then, did we all know the word “Mandalorian” or that Boba Fett wore “Mandalorian armor” back in the early eighties? The short answer is tie-in media. Nobody says the word “Ewok” in Return of the Jedi (really!) but you all know what an Ewok is, right? Even before the dawn of the internet and people writing handy explainer articles, information about Star Wars canon seeped into the fandom even if characters never said certain words onscreen. Another fun example of this is the phrase “Dark Lord of the Sith,” an honorarium that accompanied photos of Darth Vader in old Star Wars books, but was never, ever mentioned onscreen in the classic trilogy, not once. Nobody says “Sith” in the original films. It’s a dirty word!
So, in a sense, the word “Mandalorian” is kind of like the word “Sith” but slightly more pervasive and confusing. Eighties and Nineties Star Wars Legends canon played fast-and-loose with Boba Fett’s origins and his ties to the Mandalorian culture. Still, in nearly all versions, including real-deal canon, the Mandalorians are warrior culture who fought with the Jedi in the days of the Old Republic. Now, if you were a Star Wars fan in the nineties, this meant that you had a vague belief that maybe the Clone Wars and the wars with the Mandalorians were the same thing. Which, if you squint, is kind of what happened when Attack of the Clones came out and retconned Boba Fett. In the 1996 short story “The Last One Standing: The Tale of Boba Fett”, author Daniel Keys Moran created the first reference to the planet called Concord Dawn, which was where a bunch of Mandalorians lived and where Boba Fett was supposedly born. The notion that Concord Dawn was a Mandalorian planet (read: overrun with people dressed like Boba Fett) is actually still canon to this day, but obviously, because Boba Fett was retroactively revealed to be a clone of Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones, that means Boba Fett isn’t really a Mandalorian. Also, in current canon, Concord Dawn is a planet that renegade Mandalorians live on, but “real” Mandalorians live on Mandalore.
Weirder still, Jango Fett isn’t a Mandalorian either, even though he claims he was born on Concord Dawn, a planet run by the Mandalorian Protectors. In Star Wars: Rebels (which is canon) Concord Dawn’s Mandalorians are conservative extremists who work for the Empire, which horrifies the heroic Sabine Wren because she is 100 percent, a real-deal Mandalorian.
That’s right, the most famous person to wear Mandalorian armor, who actually is from the planet Mandalore is one of the good guys from Rebels. In fact, both The Clone Wars and Rebels did more to establish the history of the Mandalorians than any other aspect of Star Wars canon. In The Clone Wars, it was established that though the Mandalorians were a war-like culture, a huge pacifist movement created a huge peaceful period on the planet. It was during this time that Obi-Wan Kenobi fell in love with Duchess Satine Kryze, the leader of the Mandalorians, who was tragically killed by Darth Maul, while he was briefly the ruler of Mandalore. (Yeah, um, Darth Maul was obviously not from Mandalore, but he was in charge of them for a short period.)
Anyway, in both The Clone Wars and Rebels wearing Mandalorian armor takes on a somewhat heroic visage, which is decidedly different from the kind of Dirty Harry gunslinger feeling of Jango and Boba Fett. This is something to keep in mind when we think about the description for the upcoming show The Mandalorian, which, according to Lucasfilm is:
After the stories of Jango and Boba Fett, another warrior emerges in the Star Wars universe. The Mandalorian is set after the fall of the Empire and before the emergence of the First Order. We follow the travails of a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy far from the authority of the New Republic.
So, right now its unclear if titular Mandalorian of The Mandalorian is a “real” Mandalorian or only wears the Mandalorian armor. It’s also doubly unclear what this person is trying to say by wearing on the armor. The show’s synopsis seems to imply that putting on this armor is meant to send the message that: “Hey, I’m a murdering baddass gun for hire.” But, if you consider that the Mandolorians were also an honorable culture of warriors — and their fashion sense just kind of got co-opted by Boba Fett and his dad — then wearing the armor could send a different message. And that message could be: “This is the armor of a really strong culture, and one person who used to rule the planet Mandalore was Obi-Wan’s girlfriend and a founding member of the Rebellion, Sabine Wren, was also a Mandalorian, so don’t mess with me!”
So what does it mean to be a Mandalorian? It sort of depends on who is wearing the armor.
Star Wars: The Mandalorian debuts on Disney+ on November 12, 2019.