This past weekend my wife and I finished watching The Mandalorian. Overall, my wife really enjoyed it while my own reaction was pretty lukewarm. I enjoyed some parts, was impressed by the quality of the production, and was grateful for a new original story set in the Star Wars universe. But it never grabbed me.
I think one of the reasons is because more and more, I’m seeing writers resort to intertextuality as a tool, and while it can be done well, I find that it kicks me out of the story and annoys me more often than not.
First – I’m using the definition of intertextuality that the Nerdwriter uses in his excellent 2016 video essay on the topic: Objects, people, or situations explicitly meant to trigger an emotional response. Essentially, in this case, it’s using callbacks and references designed to provoke emotional responses.
For the record, I’m not against intertextuality per se. It’s a writing tool that’s been around for a long, long time. As with all tools, it has its place.
But I’ve noticed that as series, reboots, sequels, and the like take up more and more of our movies and shows, intertextuality as a tool has become something of a crutch.
Although I enjoyed The Force Awakens, it’s a movie that relies heavily on intertextuality to create emotions in viewers.
Look, there’s the Millenium Falcon!
Ooh – there’s Han and Chewie! (And R2-D2, and C-3PO, and Luke, and Leia, and Luke’s lightsaber, etc, etc.)
Again – the movie is part of a series, so it’s hard not to reference the other movies. It’s to be expected. But there’s a balance that must be struck between creating new and emotionally powerful story arcs and just relying on our fond memories of the original trilogy. I think J.J. Abrams wrestled with that in The Force Awakens, and how well you think he succeeded is probably a fair barometer of how well you liked the movie.
The Mandalorian suffers from some of the same.
There’s a scene I wanted to call out, a brief moment from the final episode (there’s nothing spoiler-worthy about this scene).
In this scene, two stormtroopers are passing some time, trying to hit a piece of junk with their blasters from pretty close range. They try and they miss, then they try and miss some more. The stormtroopers examine their blasters, shrug, and give up.
Now, I’ll admit, as a Star Wars fan, this made me both laugh and groan. It’s funny because stormtroopers have been known to be less than accurate in previous movies. It’s a bit of an inside joke.
But here’s what bothers me: I’m not sure that someone who isn’t familiar, not just with Star Wars, but the conversation surrounding Star Wars, would find this scene very funny. This is the final episode of the season and the scene probably takes up about two minutes of runtime. It doesn’t stand alone or advance the plot or characters in any meaningful.
And I think this is the danger I see and fear I have. Intertextuality isn’t just in Star Wars – it’s everywhere. The latest Avengers movies essentially required you to have at least a decent grasp of previous movies. Watching Infinity War as your first Marvel movie would almost guarantee confusion. Some intertextuality is good and fun, but when we constantly rely on knowledge of previous works to make new stories work, we’re sacrificing some key elements of good storytelling.
What do you think? Does intertextuality bother you the same way it gets under my skin, or do you find that it deepens the experience as a fan?