‘Andor’ Shows Us Star Wars Without Heroes
It pains me to say this, but Andor, the latest addition to the Star Wars Cinematic Universe now streaming on Disney+, is very good. Why the pain? Call it pettiness, but for the last two decades, I’ve been rooting against the franchise set in a galaxy far, far away.
As a geriatric millennial, I thrilled to the original trilogy as a child, renting the VHS tapes from the library every month or so. (Yes, Return of the Jedi was my favorite. Yes, I liked the Ewoks. Sue me, I was a kid.) When I was a teenager, The Phantom Menace premiered. I eagerly went to the sole theater in my hometown on opening weekend, but the movie left me feeling—how to say it—underwhelmed. The disappointment was so pronounced that it retroactively soured my enjoyment of the originals. Sure, some of the subsequent prequels and sequels and laterals were better. But the damage was done. I nursed a bitter grudge against Jedi and Sith alike.
So when the first episodes of Andor started appearing online, I was skeptical. Star Wars is good again, you say? A likely story. But my curiosity—as well as my interest in potential schadenfreude—was piqued. There was no way this show could be anywhere near as good as fans claimed, and I would enjoy a self-satisfied chuckle once I was proven right. In this mindset I watched the first episode, and then the next. Then I watched the one after that. By the point the rebels were planning their heist on the Imperial vault, I had to admit it: Star Wars was back, baby. It was good again.
Andor is excellent in two specific ways. The first is notable, but the second is almost miraculous.
First, the show is well made from top to bottom. It’s created by Tony Gilroy, a talented writer and director perhaps best known for Michael Clayton, a thrilling corporate drama starring George Clooney as a “fixer” for high-profile clients. The powers that be at Disney appear to have given Gilroy free rein, letting him tell a story of shadowy revolutions and moral ambiguity as he sees fit. (Gilroy told the Hollywood Reporter that not being a Star Wars fan helped him to bring an unsentimental, nostalgia-free sensibility to directing the series.) The writing is sharp, the acting strong, the production design sumptuous. Gilroy makes the most of the piles of Disney cash he was given to create the show, shooting at actual locations instead of relying on green screens and creating intricately detailed, lived-in sets.
But it’s that second aspect that truly comes out of left field. Yes, Andor is good. But it’s also relevant. It has something to offer to the moment—to the real world on the other side of the screen. I’d honestly thought this was essentially a creative impossibility for new extensions of the series. After all, Star Wars is a massive, billion-dollar piece of intellectual property. When franchises get that big, the executives holding the copyright usually churn out story-pellets that refer only to their proprietary universes without even glancing at the real world. (In my best Yoda voice: Success leads to complacency, and complacency leads to the Dark Side of IP solipsism.) But Andor, under Gilroy’s guiding hand, tells a real story—one in which a society’s leaders are worthless and the future is an endless series of disappointments. Sound familiar?
To briefly situate Andor in the larger Star Wars universe, the show is a prequel to Rogue One, which is itself a prequel to the original Star Wars. Rogue One tells the story of how the rebels got hold of the plans for the Death Star, which Luke Skywalker and friends would use to blow the thing up in 1977’s A New Hope. Cassian Andor was a supporting character in Rogue One, a brave and sometimes merciless rebel fighter willing to do anything for the Alliance. Andor tells the story of how he came to join the rebellion in the first place.
If you’re starting to itch the way one does when a friend starts explaining, say, the reason everyone else in the theater shouted for joy when a Marvel character said something completely unremarkable, don’t worry: Andor keeps the fan service and easter eggs to a minimum. (This has upset a vocal minority of nerdy fans, who increasingly appear to expect such things as a kind of tribute.) A viewer who’s never seen a single Star Wars movie could find their footing here without much trouble.
The plot moves briskly along, never stopping in one place for too long, and featuring numerous characters who unceremoniously fall off the board the moment they become inessential to the games of power being played. (Gilroy’s lack of sentimentality about this universe is perhaps clearest here: Characters who may have become familiar supporting figures frequently die in an offhanded instant, without follow-on shots to emphasize their terrible fate—a sort of dramaturgical Realpolitik in the manner of John le Carré.) After he inadvertently kills two security officers working for an Empire-backed corporation, Cassian Andor becomes the subject of a manhunt. He escapes with the help of Luthen Rael, a revolutionary working behind the scenes to fight the Empire’s tyranny.
At first, Andor has no interest in standing up to the Empire. He is, to use a contemporary term, apolitical, and he accepts Luthen’s initial offer only because he stands to earn a lot of money. But when, after his windfall, Andor is arbitrarily thrown in an Imperial prison, he sees the Empire’s tyranny up close. He and his fellow prisoners are forced to work daily 12-hour shifts to produce widgets of uncertain use; the least-productive work groups are tortured at the end of each workday. Imprisonment, as it often does, radicalizes Andor, and he eventually emerges committed to the cause he once spurned.
That’s the top-line plot: a roguish mercenary’s exciting journey from disaffection and fear to commitment and courage—something resembling Han Solo’s arc in A New Hope. But a parallel plot unfolds in the offices of the Imperial agents whose hostile scrutiny Andor works so hard to evade, and this look at the inner workings of the Empire is one of the most engrossing parts of the show. Syril Karn, the off-puttingly ambitious corporate security officer who botched Andor’s capture, loses his job and the jobs of all his colleagues as the Empire shuts down their office and takes over their jurisdiction. (Fortunately, this group firing doesn’t take place until after he’s had a chance to deliver a sublimely banal corporate pep talk, full of cliches about leadership and success, to security goons en route to a doomed raid.) Following these humiliations, he ends up living with his mother and working a dull office job, like a Star Wars George Costanza. As a civilian, Syril becomes obsessed with Dedra Meero, an Imperial intelligence officer who takes over the search for Andor. Dedra locates Andor’s family on his home planet and sets up an interrogation center there reminiscent of a War on Terror blacksite. Andor eventually makes his way back, and his actions (and those of his pursuers from multiple factions) bring about a planet-wide political cataclysm.
If you have even passing familiarity with Star Wars, you’ll notice that Andor leaves out much of what defines the franchise in the public imagination. There is no Luke Skywalker, no Darth Vader, no Yoda. The Jedi are completely absent, with nary a lightsaber in view. The Empire is still there, certainly, but Emperor Palpatine, mercifully, is nowhere to be seen. (I’m looking at you, J.J. Abrams.) This does much to distinguish Andor from other Star Wars stories, as the trope swap-out betokens a change in genre. What was once a space opera is now an espionage thriller with dashes of office comedy. And it’s that transition that enables Andor to speak to the present moment, rather than simply add updates to a hermetically sealed cinematic universe.
If I had to characterize 2022 in a word, it would be exhausted. Everything that was once new is now old, and nothing of equal novelty has come along to replace it. Newness itself feels under threat. The entertainment industry digs through its archives for known properties with a built-in audience, no matter how niche. Political parties engage in decades-old fights against an unaddressed backdrop of rising oceans and fire-scarred mountains. Institutions and their leaders consistently fail to rise to the moment. Elon Musk, for crying out loud. Talk about swapping out genres: Musk fancies himself a world-historical hero, a titan of the twenty-first century, yet has shown himself to be little more than a hapless dad on a TGIF sitcom. “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce,” as Karl Marx said. But these days, our popular culture lacks the seriousness to produce something that rises to the level of tragedy. We are content, instead, with the second part of Marx’s formulation: farce, rebooted endlessly, the copies degrading with each iteration.
Gilroy knows this, and Andor shows it. It’s almost as though the show is itself aware of the heroes that built its universe, but knows better than to invite them, with all their unpleasantness, onto its own plot of creative real estate. The Jedi are bickering elites given to infighting over minutiae, and they certainly aren’t up to the revolutionary task at hand. Those at the top of the Imperial pecking order aren’t of much use, either, presiding over vast spaces with unapproachable gravitas.
The show is given over, instead, to the middle managers of the universe, people who work at desks and give performance reviews. Even though they can’t shoot lightning out of their hands, Imperial functionaries like Dedra—and even Syril, who becomes uniquely relatable in his civilian role for pursuing his online preoccupations on company time—carry out their tasks with greater aplomb than Palpatine could ever manage. They work in offices, not throne rooms, and have no magical powers to expedite their schedules. Middle-class traits like doggedness and stubbornness serve them far better than the aristocracy’s occult rituals, anyway, as they pursue their prey across the galaxy.
This recalibration of dramatic scale enables Andor to subvert the parameters of heroism—and villainy—as they’ve otherwise been portrayed in the franchise. The Force, omnipotent and ubiquitous in both the original movies and those that came later, plays no role here. In this world of low-level intrigue and local corner schemes, it has both too grand of a profile and nothing to offer. Subterfuge and deception are what get the job done in Cassian Andor’s galaxy—grimy human traits that, out of necessity, don’t draw attention to themselves.
It can be salutary, as an aesthetic matter, to forget about saviors, knights, or superheroes. This is what Andor has done, and it enables the audience to more closely examine textures and curiosities that are shared between our world and that of Star Wars. It’s possible to restate the same principle in moral terms: The ordinary heroism of ordinary people is what brings down empires. That’s a good thing to keep in mind for the next time some self-appointed overlord says he’s here to save the world.