clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jon Favreau Is the Exact Person You Want Helming ‘The Mandalorian’

The actor and ‘Iron Man’ director is lending his talents to the first live-action ‘Star Wars’ TV show—and we should be excited he’s exploring the freakier, darker side of the franchise

Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration

We can agree, at least, that the best character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Harold “Happy” Hogan: the flustered everyman, the consummate professional, the loyal doofus, the true superhero. His jovial rapport with Iron Man. (“Is this Forehead of Security?”) His fumbling (and successful!) flirtations with Aunt May. His shield-throwing ability. That time Black Widow beat him up; that time he helped out Black Widow by beating up one guy. That time he pulled off this haircut. Graceful bathroom lurker. Downton Abbey superfan. Golf-cart-born menacer of paparazzi. (That’s a deleted Infinity War scene; I cannot countenance the deletion of any Happy Hogan scenes.) Climactically, the guy who made you weep at the end of Endgame with the line “I’m gonna get you all the cheeseburgers you want.”

He’s the best. Give Happy his own giant hammer, give Happy his own movie, give Happy his own gala streaming platform. Just make sure you let the guy who plays Happy write the script and maybe direct, too. For nearly a quarter-century now, both in front of the camera and at various spots behind it, via both sneak-attack indie sensations and gargantuan Disney blockbusters, Jon Favreau has happily served us all the delicious cheeseburgers we want, and quite a few we didn’t know we needed. His first non-voice-acting foray into the Star Wars universe arrives Tuesday. No clue how that universe ever survived without him.

Favreau has previously lent his voice, if not quite his vision, to the greater Jedi diaspora via his voice role as the evil Pre Vizsla in the long-running animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. (“This lightsaber was stolen from your Jedi temple by my ancestors during the fall of the Old Republic,” he sneered in a 2010 episode. “Since then many Jedi have died upon its blade. Prepare yourself to join them.” Pre Vizsla’s the best, too.) But he’s bringing far more of his myriad gifts to bear as the creator and primary screenwriter of The Mandalorian, the eight-episode Disney+ series that on Tuesday will formally launch the long-threatened (and/or long-awaited) streaming service. It looks rad; moreover, and more importantly given the rockiness that has accompanied most efforts to expand the Star Wars universe beyond the trilogies themselves, it looks reliable.

Favreau’s stated goal is to push this universe forward by reaching as far backward as possible. “I’m trying to evoke the aesthetics of not just the original trilogy, but the first film,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in August. “Not just the first film but the first act of the first film. What was it like on Tatooine? What was going on in that cantina? That has fascinated me since I was a child, and I love the idea of the darker, freakier side of Star Wars, the Mad Max aspect of Star Wars.” That darkness and freakiness and Mad Max–ness will be relative, of course: Even the nervier and more ambitious corners of this megafranchise are committed to staying kid-friendly. But this is the guy you want pushing boundaries, smuggling in family-friendly innovations, slapping a fresh coat of paint on that ol’ X-34 Landspeeder. Even his comfort food, historically, has a gently defiant kick to it.

And everyone’s ordering it. Put it this way: Our guy starred in the highest-grossing film of 2019 (that’s Avengers: Endgame, and while starred is pushing it, Happy really ought to have made the poster) and directed the runner-up. (That’s The Lion King, the second of his deeply unnecessary and yet outlandishly lucrative live-action Disney remakes, after 2016’s The Jungle Book.) Favreau is one of Hollywood’s most affable multihyphenate titans, a delightful human and a masterful steward for many of our finest world-threatening entertainment monoliths. He’s a bigger Disney icon than Mickey Mouse at this point. Which you would not have guessed, necessarily, back in 1996, whilst watching him fight an answering machine, and lose.

With apologies to his crucial role in 1993’s Rudy (Who’s the wild man now?!), Favreau broke out as the screenwriter and star of 1996’s magnificent Swingers, a bawdy and scrappy buddy comedy that climaxes with a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy song and nonetheless has not aged one day in nearly 25 years. It gets the big, endlessly quotable stuff right—“You’re like a big bear with claws and with fangs, man,” my friends yelled at me for years afterward—and it gets the little stuff even righter. (I will never forget the way our hero hangs up on the lousy ex-girlfriend he’s finally gotten over while she’s midway through saying I love you.)

As game-changing ’90s indie blockbusters go, Swingers is on the same god tier as Pulp Fiction or Clerks or The Blair Witch Project: It was something absolutely new that took shocked and grateful audiences to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience, to paraphrase, uh, Martin Scorsese last week talking about, uh, never mind. On screen, Favreau had the wounded Queens charisma—and the mountain-range jawline—of a potential long-term leading man, a role his Swingers costar Vince Vaughn proved better suited for. But somehow even greater things lay in store for our guy, usually (but not entirely!) off screen.

Favreau’s directorial debut was 2001’s Swingers quasi-sequel Made, which he also wrote and starred in with Vaughn, a genial mob comedy that turned out to be, alongside the 2005 sci-fi romp Zathura: A Space Adventure, just about the closest a Jon Favreau movie has ever come to not making money. In between came 2003’s mighty Elf, which is the best Christmas movie of the 21st century to date, and given its cable ubiquity during the holidays, probably the 21st century’s most rewatched movie. This is due in large part to your director’s wise decision to just let Will Ferrell cook, of course, but any concerns anyone might’ve had about Favreau handling a big action sequence were immediately dispelled by the snowball fight. It would take five years for another crowd-pleasing moment of multiplex slapstick that broad and that pure to emerge, and it arrived, of course, via 2008’s Iron Man, immediately following the words “Kill power.”

There is an alternate universe where Favreau botches his gig directing (and costarring in!) the first movie in the MCU so thoroughly that the MCU never gets off the ground at all, which means no Endgame, no endless Scorsese vs. Marvel news cycle, no charismatically hostile takeover of global cinema as we know it. Favreau did not botch Iron Man, nor even 2010’s far less beloved but certainly survivable Iron Man 2: Instead, alongside Robert Downey Jr., he set the witty, snappy, ungodly enormous but somehow still profoundly human-feeling template for the 20-plus blockbusters that followed.

Even a latter-day MCU favorite like Taika Waititi’s 2017 goof Thor: Ragnarok owes a great deal to Favreau laying the groundwork for both the action and the comedy, the individual pathos and the intergalactic charm. Happy Hogan will hopefully be a Marvel luminary for decades hence—during the brief Disney vs. Sony brawl that almost ejected Spider-Man from the MCU, my biggest concern was that he’d no longer get to flirt with Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May—but even if Favreau never directs one of these movies again, you’ll still feel his steadying presence, dependable but just surprising enough not to be stultifying.

One way to qualify Favreau’s range and adaptability and longevity and relentless likability is that as an actor alone, he showed up on Friends, Seinfeld, and The Sopranos, as hallowed a TV holy trinity as you can imagine. Another way to say it is that even his smaller passion projects—see 2014’s writer-director-star-vehicle Chef, a very, very casual food-truck comedy in which his character mostly just roams America cooking/eating delicious food and bouncing romantically between Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara—somehow don’t feel self-indulgent. Or rather, Chef is self-indulgent in a wildly appealing way: It’s worth watching him grill Cuban sandwiches and woo ladies 20,000 leagues out of his league for 90 minutes just for the quiet grace of an early scene in which he gawks mutely at a skeleton puppet lip-syncing to Al Green. There is a genial Iron Man swagger to everything he does, even if he’s working at nowhere near Iron Man’s scale.

The Mandalorian, in addition to being a mysterious and intriguing bounty-hunter character study, looks to lean into the inherent space Western aspect of the Star Wars experience, and as such the most relevant item on Favreau’s directorial résumé is 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens, the closest thing he’s ever had to a bomb. (It just barely made money.) That movie had five screenwriters (including Damon Lindelof!) and a rather frantic hurry-up-and-wait sense of constantly stalled momentum, and yet it’s spiked with striking and pleasantly goofy imagery. Olivia Wilde walking out of the fire. A surprisingly gross alien menacing a cute, knife-wielding kid. A pack of UFOs more or less bombing a pack of horses. It’s a mess, but an energetic one, and watching Daniel Craig kick ass by channeling Clint Eastwood and Han Solo in equal measure (right in Harrison Ford’s face) is never a poor use of your time, or for that matter Favreau’s.

That the stakes are much higher for The Mandalorian—it’s the Star Wars galaxy’s first live-action TV show and the tentpole of a wildly ambitious new streaming service—is probably a blessing. Favreau somehow works best under immense corporate pressure. His bizarre and money-printing detour into Disney remakes at least proves that he’s the shrewdest sort of company man: The Lion King is both a technical marvel and a shameless cash grab, and it’s to his infinite credit that the latter doesn’t overwhelm the former. It’s got personality; it’s got a tiny but still quite impressive amount of soul given the inherent soulness of the whole idea.

What little we know about The Mandalorian, right up until the moment it airs, is that it’s both a rad-looking space Western and a calculated expansion of a near-priceless bit of intellectual property. Which is meant, in turn, to shore up the nascent streaming service of an entertainment giant so gigantic it has nearly swallowed the American theater industry whole, and wants to do the same to TV. That this series will probably also be unexpected and winsome and bold and volatile is all down to Favreau, who can turn modest ideas into industry Goliaths, but just as crucially can help industry Goliaths create even the facade of homespun modesty. He’s not quite the ghost in the machine—just the human. No single Mandalorian special effect or plot twist will be more surprising, or more delightful, than watching our guy once again turn a massive Disney cruise ship like it’s a limber speedboat. He is forever your friendly neighborhood media titan, the corporate overlord you’re looking for.