During these first weeks of 2021, I have reflected a lot on what helped me stay sane throughout the utter madness that was 2020. Of course, as the recent stomach-churning display of domestic terrorism at the U.S. Capitol Building has shown, the beginning of a new calendar year is simply an arbitrary way of marking the time that means nothing by way of actually offering a fresh start. It may be a new year, but the crises and injustices facing our world remain unchanging. No flashing ball drop in Times Square or drunken belting of “Auld Lang Syne” will do anything to temper the devastating realities of inequality, racism, and challenges to the soul of democracy that continue to ripple through our country.
I say this not to chastise the celebration of a new year, but rather to temper my own largely frivolous excitements at the new year with a dose of recognition that alongside joy we must also maintain the work. Part of this work, as I see it, also connects to making sure that we take care of ourselves. With that idea in mind, and being someone who turns to pop culture for comfort at times when everything else in the world seems entirely unhinged, these reflections on 2020 have extended into considering what I am looking forward to in 2021 pop culture. I see plenty to get excited about in the upcoming calendar year. Yet one writer, director, producer, and all-around creative force provided the lion’s share of 2020 support to my fracturing sanity and has a slate of projects that suggests the same for 2021. That beautiful human is Dave Filoni.
For the uninitiated, Filoni is synonymous with the post-George-Lucas-controlled era of Star Wars storytelling. He first entered the galaxy far, far, away as the co-creator and director of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) animated movie, a project set in the Star Wars timeline between Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005). The movie was a lead-in to an animated series of the same name set to air on Cartoon Network. The film was poorly received, due to it being a last-second cutting together of the first three episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-2014, 2020), but the show redeemed the project quite quickly. By giving fans a chance to understand the finer points of Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side, fleshing out longtime favorite characters such as Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Maul, and introducing Ahsoka Tano, a new character who has grown to legendary status and is my personal favorite character in all of Star Wars, Filoni quickly established himself as a masterful storyteller. Of course, his bona fides existed before The Clone Wars when he was a part of the original creative team working on Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) as a director and animator. All of this paved the way for him to create and oversee two more beloved animated series, Star Wars: Rebels (2014-2018) and Star Wars: Resistance (2018-).
The Clone Wars works as an effective case study for understanding what makes Filoni such a masterful storyteller whether he is actively writing and directing, or holding the strings from a producer role. Filoni and company achieve a trifecta of overarching narrative feats that drew every particle of Star Wars fan inside me towards the series. First, they masterfully turn the clones into fleshed-out humans with their own personalities and relationships, establishing Captain Rex and Commander Cody as clone figures that are as integral to the plot as any other previously existing figures. The show features the word ‘clone’ in the title, and it honors these figures who are largely consigned to being lightsaber or bullet fodder in every live-action iteration. Second, The Clone Wars salvages much of the maligned storytelling of the prequel films by deepening our understanding of Anakin’s fall to the dark side. We watch as he struggles to balance his personal qualms with the Jedi Order while bravely fighting to maintain the order and morality they broadly stand for. An enormous part of this is Ahsoka’s introduction as his padawan. She begins as a slightly annoying teenager who exists mostly to serve Anakin’s characterization, but over time she evolves into a lead character all her own whose close relationship with her master is the emotional core of the show.
It is the third accomplishment Filoni and his creative teams achieve that now has the most lasting impact on the Star Wars saga, and that is its focus on Mandalore and the Mandalorian people. Before The Clone Wars, fan’s understanding of Mandalorians was limited to brief encounters with Boba Fett in the original films and Jango Fett in the prequels. They were simply cool suits of armor with no real story behind them until Filoni decided it was time to reconsider that. As a result, The Clone Wars positions Mandalore as a key location in the events of the Clone Wars and uses the final season, released in spring 2020, to detail the battle on Mandalore that unfurled at the same time as the events of Revenge of the Sith. The Mandalorians emerge as a people torn between their warrior past, when they did battle with the earliest Jedi, and their leader’s current hope to remain a peaceful planet outside of the battle between the Republic and the Separatists. The events on Mandalore allow us to explore the tender and doomed connection that Obi-Wan shares with the Duchess Satine, the ruler trying desperately to save her people against vicious opposition. They also, most importantly to the Disney + of it all, give us an understanding of Mandalorian life which Filoni fleshes out in Rebels, and leads us directly to the current television juggernaut that is The Mandalorian (2019-).
Part of the genius of The Mandalorian is that it returns to the Akira Kurosawa and ‘Spaghetti Western’ inspired roots of the original Star Wars movies, something that Filoni laced throughout each of his animated shows, but that has generally been lacking in the recent film installments of the saga. From that starting point, Filoni, and co-creator Jon Favreau, combine the ability to look backward stylistically with a modern approach to blockbuster fare. The resulting show is a work of spectacular entertainment that is fervently in debt to all of Filoni’s previous Star Wars contributions. It is his animated shows that lay the groundwork for the exploration of Mandalorian culture that sustains the show, and as we have moved on into season two, the introduction of characters created for the animated shows achieves a canon-unifying balancing act that almost makes me forget about the atrocity that was Rise of Skywalker (2019). Furthermore, with the absence of any widely-available blockbusters in 2020, The Mandalorian season two settled nicely into the space of the cultural monolith most regularly filled by Marvel projects. One of my favorite pop culture moments of the year was seeing Ahsoka Tano introduced in live-action as played by Rosario Dawson in an episode titled “The Jedi.” Filoni wrote and directed that episode, and Ahsoka’s first scene, a mist-covered, lightsaber-wielding sequence of badassery was breathtaking. Filoni showed that he understands what makes Star Wars tick in the best ways, and as a result, injected a dose of adrenaline into the end of 2020 that was sorely needed.
And so, with The Clone Wars, Rebels, and the newest season of The Mandalorian complete, there is a Filoni content desert before us, but one that sports an oasis waiting at the end of 2021. I’ve previously written about the concerning nature of the recent announcement from Warner Bros. and Disney, but the silver lining is that the Disney big-wigs have made one bulletproof decision: giving Filoni plenty of room in the creative sandbox. In fall 2021, we will get The Bad Batch, a Clone Wars spin-off focusing on a small group of clones in the aftermath of Revenge of the Sith, which Filoni will write, produce, and direct. Then, in a release sequence that is still taking shape, Filoni will executive produce, write, and possibly direct The Mandalorian spin-offs The Book of Bobba Fett and Rangers of the New Republic, as well as season three of the flagship show. Most excitingly, though, Filoni will write, showrun, and executive produce Ahsoka, a live-action series dedicated to the character he created for Clone Wars and shepherded into The Mandalorian.
All of this is my long-winded way of saying that Dave Filoni is a masterful creative mind. He seems to have unlocked some secret equation for how to craft entertaining stories that also dig into the classic themes of good versus evil and self-discovery that give the best big-ticket entertainments heart and pathos. Filoni’s involvement in the ever-expanding saga gives me hope that the quality and artistry within Star Wars will maintain a high level as long as he is involved. So thank you, Dave Filoni, and may the force be with you, and all of us.