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‘Andor’ Ushers in a Grittier, More Grounded ‘Star Wars’ Era

Tony Gilroy’s ‘Rogue One’ prequel has the potential to be the most mature ‘Star Wars’ ever seen on screen, rekindling a 45-year debate about the franchise’s target audience

Disney+/Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration

Cassian Andor is a good guy, but he’s not a good guy. Shortly after we meet him in Rogue One, he not only kills a couple of stormtroopers, but he blasts the informant who’d told him about the Death Star, shooting the man in the back to safeguard the knowledge that the Rebel Alliance had learned of the superweapon’s existence. Later, he shoots one of Saw Gerrera’s insurgents—and seals the fate of a few more—to protect Jyn Erso, who must survive for his mission to succeed. These victims aren’t his enemies. They’re more or less on his side, as is Jyn’s father, Galen Erso, whom Cassian spends much of the movie secretly plotting to kill. “He has the face of a friend,” Baze Malbus says of Diego Luna’s character—the spy, saboteur, and assassin—but as Andor admits, he’s “done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion.”

Most of those terrible things are still ahead of Cassian when his spinoff prequel series starts—but it doesn’t take long for him to start walking away from things he’ll want to forget. Between Cassian’s ethically compromised actions and the writing and showrunning of Rogue One cowriter Tony Gilroy, who’s known for morally complex thrillers such as Michael Clayton and the first four Bourne movies, Andor (which debuts Wednesday on Disney+) has the potential to be the most mature, gritty, and grounded Star Wars ever seen on screen. As such, it’s set to provide fresh fodder for a 45-year debate about the target audience for the franchise.

George Lucas has long insisted that Star Wars, like Trix, is for kids, and that those who find fault with its more juvenile elements are making the same mistake as the Trix rabbit. In 1999, Lucas defended himself from accusations of Jar Jar Binks being a racist stereotype on the grounds that some Star Wars fans are predisposed to disparage comic sidekicks. “They want the films to be tough like Terminator, and they get very upset and opinionated about anything that has anything to do with being childlike,” he said. “The movies are for children but they don’t want to admit that. In the first film they absolutely hated R2 and C-3PO. In the second film they didn’t like Yoda and in the third one they hated the Ewoks ... and now Jar Jar is getting accused of the same thing.”

In 2017, Lucas reiterated his stance when speaking about the original Star Wars. “It’s hard for people to realize, and I’m not supposed to say this, and I wasn’t supposed to say it then, but it’s a film for 12-year-olds.” He went on to explain:

It was designed to be a film, like mythology, of “This is what we stand for, you’re about to enter the real world, you’re 12 years old, you’re gonna go on into the big world, you’re moving away from your parents being the center focus, you’re probably scared, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and here’s a little idea of some of the things you should pay attention to.” Friendships, honesty, and trust, and doing the right thing, living on the light side, avoiding the dark side, those are things that it was meant to do.

In 1977, when the movie was still in theaters, Lucas told Rolling Stone that “it’s not a silly child’s film.” That’s not inconsistent with what he would say 40 years later; there’s a world of difference between a child’s film and a silly child’s film, and his 2017 articulation of the ethos of Star Wars wasn’t far removed from the following ’77 mission statement: “It’s not playing down to people, but it is still an entertaining movie and doesn’t have a lot of violence and sex and hip new stuff. … It still has a vision to it, a sort of wholesome, honest vision about the way you want the world to be.”

Whatever else Jar Jar Binks may be, though, it’s difficult to dispute that he isn’t silly. It’s also hard to argue that Lucas didn’t shift the franchise in a more sanitized direction after The Empire Strikes Back—and even Star Wars, with its images of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru fried to crisps by stormtroopers, Obi-Wan slicing off Ponda Baba’s arm, Princess Leia being menaced by a torture droid, and Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and Han Solo almost meeting their ends in a dianoga-infested trash compactor.

Lucas collaborator Gary Kurtz, who produced Star Wars and Empire, split with his longtime partner prior to Return of the Jedi based on what he perceived as excessive catering to kids. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire,” Kurtz said in 2010. “It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business but that’s not the best thing for making quality films. … The first film and Empire were about story and character, but I could see that George’s priorities were changing.” Kurtz went on to lament how Lucas “changed everything” from the original outline for the third film, which had featured Han’s death and an ending that bore little resemblance to the fireworks and dance parties that ultimately concluded the various versions of the film. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant,” Kurtz continued, “[Lucas] wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. … By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”

Of course, Lucas hasn’t had much say in steering Star Wars since he sold it to Disney a decade ago. His influence remains strong—both through the legacy of the Star Wars works he created, and through his link to protégé Dave Filoni, who shares Lucas’s belief that the franchise “should make people feel happy”—and Disney still wants to sell Star Wars toys. But Lucas is no longer grasping the reins. And Andor—not a Jon Favreau and Filoni joint, but a Gilroy creation through and through—seems to understand that Star Wars makes the most enduring impact on its audience when it isn’t afraid to leave it in darkness.

The best movie in the original trilogy is the one in which the Rebel base gets destroyed, Luke experiences a nightmarish vision of himself as Darth Vader—and later loses his hand to the dark lord, whom he then learns is his father—and Han gets tortured and frozen in carbonite. The best movie in the prequel trilogy is the one in which the clones execute Order 66, Anakin kills the younglings, and Padmé Amidala dies along with the Republic. The best movie in the sequel trilogy—please don’t @ me—is the one in which Luke wrestles with his attachment to the Jedi, the Resistance fleet is destroyed, and Luke and Admiral Holdo sacrifice themselves to save a movement that’s been abandoned by its allies. And maybe the best movie of the Disney Star Wars era is Rogue One, in which the heroes are a militant extremist, a petty criminal, and the aforementioned morally compromised Rebel agent—and in which almost every character of consequence dies.

There seems to be a pattern here. Filoni wasn’t wrong when he said Star Wars “should make you feel good” and “should be uplifting,” but that isn’t all it should do. As Dante from Clerks puts it when he argues for Empire over Jedi, “It ends on such a down note. I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.”

Andor is different. “I don’t think it’s a show for 9-year-olds,” Gilroy told Variety last month. 12-year-olds might be pushing it too. The headline of the story in which that quote appeared—“How Andor Became the First Star Wars TV Series for Grown-Ups,” which ran beneath an image from the show of a grim-faced Luna and Stellan Skarsgård—is a little reductive, in that there’s plenty for grown-ups to savor in previous Star Wars series, from Rebels to The Mandalorian. Even some of the series that were pitched more toward kids contained some mature scenes and themes, as evidenced by YouTube’s multiple montages of the non-kiddy content in The Clone Wars. (In fairness to The Flanneled One, even The Phantom Menace, which Lucas labeled “a children’s film,” featured talk of trade routes, senate deliberations, Qui-Gon Jinn getting killed by a Sith Lord, and that same Sith Lord getting cut in half.) But if Andor isn’t really the first Star Wars TV series for grown-ups, it may be the first that’s definitively not for kids.

Naturally, the use of sex and explicit language—Star Wars swear words aside—on Andor isn’t likely to make anyone confuse Disney+ for HBO. And the violence may be no more graphic than, say, Darth Vader massacring civilians on Obi-Wan Kenobi. On Andor, though, the violence may not be as easily condemned when it’s done by villains or justified when it’s done by the protagonists. It may not even be possible to place characters neatly in one category or the other. As Luna told Collider, “Tony is not a writer that lives in the language of right and wrong, or black and white. He spends his time in the complexity of the gray areas and the contradictions of the characters.” And as Gilroy said to The New York Times, “It gets into character, behavior, and plots that are as complicated and as real as anything I’ve ever done.”

Kyle Soller, who plays deputy inspector Syril Karn in Andor, told Variety that the show “was completely different from what I expected the Star Wars scripts to look like. I had to flip back and look at the title: No, this is Star Wars. I just felt like, ‘Wow, this is incredibly grown-up, gritty, messy.’” Luna sounded the same note to Collider: “This is a show about real people. It’s very dark times in the galaxy. … It’s the most grounded kind of Star Wars that you’ll get.” As many a preview piece has noted, the show was shot on location and on constructed sets, rather than on The Volume like The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, to maximize the lived-in verisimilitude.

When The Mandalorian’s first trailer came out, I hailed the show as the best chance yet for a high-profile project that would dwell on the seedy side of Star Wars. Favreau had spoken about exposing “the darker, freakier side of Star Wars,” and his series seemed aligned with the spirit of Star Wars: Underworld—a Lucas-era initiative (ironically) described as “Deadwood in space” and “Empire on steroids.” Fifty scripts were written for the planned noirish, “adult” show, which was to be set between the prequel and original trilogies, but the pre-streaming industry didn’t support a small-screen series of its scale. The project was scrapped, as were two highly anticipated video games that trafficked in similarly seamy, mature subject matter, Star Wars: 1313 and Ragtag.

The Mandalorian has certainly explored the criminal underworld that flourished in the aftermath of Jedi—but it’s balanced its more mature-rated inclinations with the unlimited toy-selling power of Baby Yoda. Other Star Wars efforts have brought a darker tone to every imaginable medium: video games, from Dark Forces to Knights of the Old Republic II to Republic Commando to The Force Unleashed II; comics, from Dark Empire to Empire: Betrayal to Legacy to Darth Vader to War of the Bounty Hunters; books, from the New Jedi Order series to Karen Traviss’s clone novels to the Darth Bane and Coruscant Nights trilogies; Shadows of the Empire, which included all of the above media. For a major Lucasfilm release, though, the two-season, 24-episode Andor appears primed to break boundaries in both subject matter and tone.

When Andor begins, about five years before the events of Rogue One and Episode IV, the Empire has consolidated its control of the galaxy. It’s not just a dark time for the Rebellion; it’s a time so dark that there’s barely a Rebellion at all. Cassian has been fighting, running, and suffering from the tumult of a war-torn galaxy his whole life. He has little to lose—and, crucially, Disney has little to lose by letting him behave in questionable ways, because we already know from Rogue One what kind of man he is, and how and when he dies. Andor’s days on screen are numbered, as are (by choice) Gilroy’s as a Star Wars auteur, so the Mouse might as well make the most of them and take what for Disney qualifies as a creative risk.

Granted, Lucasfilm has a history of rethinking creative risks midstream. Rogue One underwent extensive reshoots (spearheaded by Gilroy), and an initial report suggested that “the goal of the reshoots [would] be to lighten the mood, bring some levity into the story, and restore a sense of fun to the adventure.” In the end, though, the movie may have gotten darker, if anything; Gilroy described one of his key contributions as clarifying that Rogue One was “a movie about sacrifice,” because “everyone is going to die.” And die they did.

Because the final cut was a critical and commercial success despite its “down ending,” Gilroy got the opportunity to helm this Star Wars story—though according to Gilroy’s account in The Times, it took two other lackluster attempts at a treatment for Andor for Lucasfilm to come around to the writer’s vision for the series. Maybe Lucasfilm, steeped in both Lucas’s and Disney’s kid-friendly proclivities, had to be dragged toward the darkness, and toward a ground-level, less Skywalker-centric tale. Maybe Gilroy’s pedigree gives him a special dispensation to tell what he terms “absolutely realistic” stories within the “host organism” of Star Wars. But if he succeeds a second time, the door to the darker side of the galaxy—and even the more mundane side—could crack open for less established storytellers. And then, perhaps, the franchise will feel as limitless as the big galaxy that entranced fans from the start. Nothing needs to stop Star Wars from being both for kids and for the adults those kids become.

When director Denis Villeneuve said he wanted Dune to be “the Star Wars movie I never saw … Star Wars for adults,” no one missed his meaning. Almost three years after The Rise of Skywalker, there are still no Star Wars movies scheduled for release, but Andor looks like the Star Wars series we’ve never seen. Fans who’ve feasted on the movies’ main courses but been tantalized by the prospect of a less Lucas-esque or Disney-fied side dish have had those dreams dashed before. But it takes a rebellion to overturn decades of Star Wars precedent—and rebellions are built on hope.