In the opening scenes of The Return of the Jedi, Boba Fett tumbles down a sandy dune, screaming in terror, before being swallowed whole by the maw of the almighty sarlacc. No villain in the Star Wars universe has a more humiliating death. Jabba the Hutt is strangled by the chains of the newly liberated Leia, the Emperor is tossed into a power reactor by a redeemed Anakin, and Darth Vader earns a few tender moments with his prodigal son before succumbing to his wounds. Boba, on the other hand, doesn’t even make it to the second act. He’s lunch for a toothy intergalactic aberration, comic relief at most, simple fodder for our grotesque imagination. George Lucas cuts to a scene of the sarlacc burping after consuming the galaxy’s baddest mercenary, to hammer the point home. There is no preciousness or solemnity, just an inglorious downfall for a background heavy; eternal proof of who really matters on Tatooine.
Boba Fett was never intended to be a tentpole of the Star Wars brand; that much was clear from his four lines of dialogue, and six-and-a-half minutes of screentime, across the entire original trilogy. In fact, the only exposition the audience receives is that the character is allegedly a “bounty hunter,” and that he’s dressed in an olive breastplate and a thick metal helmet that remains firmly on his head at all times.
We were never offered any reason to identify with Boba Fett’s journey. But fandom works in mysterious ways, and sometimes a cult can coalesce around the tertiaries, the hangers-on, or the half-digested carcasses left for dead in the desert.
So, in the first seconds of The Book of Boba Fett, Disney’s latest Star Wars venture and the ultimate celebration of the character’s long, strange trip, the canon attempts to correct itself. We rendezvous with Boba Fett minutes after his alleged demise, rotting away in the stomach acids of the sarlacc, gasping for air. He blasts himself free, punching one fist through the surrounding soil, confirming his long-awaited resurrection.
About 1.7 million households tuned into The Book of Boba Fett’s premiere last December, and a second season seems inevitable. Han Solo might be sabotaging the Death Star, Luke Skywalker might be forging the fate of the Force, but currently, Star Wars fans are far more fascinated with this obscure C+ player in a green visor. Back when I was a preteen Star Wars fan, my friends and I shared an innate understanding that Boba Fett was uncommonly cool, even if we didn’t know much about him. Twenty years later, I’m still trying to figure out why.
James Clarke, 36, is well equipped to answer that question. He’s a longtime editor of the Boba Fett Fan Club, which sports over 14,000 members and is the single most comprehensive repository of Fettian facts, tributes, and theories on the internet. Like me, Clarke fell in love with the bounty hunter as a child, and pursued his fascination to the point of writing reams of Boba-themed fanfiction in middle school. “I probably have 25-year-old stories still on the site somewhere,” says Clarke. (Minutes after our interview, he sent me a photo of himself in full Boba Fett cosplay, a confirmation of his bona fides.)
Clarke believes that a sense of enigma was always crucial to the character’s appeal, explaining that from his very genesis, Boba Fett was presented with a seductive ambiguity. In 1979, when Star Wars mania was at its apex, the Kenner toy company advertised an action figure of a new villain set to appear in the then-forthcoming The Empire Strikes Back. (Boba Fett actually made his official debut in the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, but the less said about that, the better.) Kids were instructed to mail four proof-of-purchase seals of Star Wars dolls to Kenner’s headquarters, so they could be rewarded with an exclusive Boba Fett action figure long before he graced the silver screen. Fans daydreamed about how this bounty hunter would intersect with the foibles of their heroes; they let themselves gestate the fiction that birthed him. Obi-Wan and R2D2 were always available in the toy store aisles, but from the beginning, Boba Fett demanded legwork — a full-throated dedication to the labor of Star Wars fandom, almost like a symbol to delineate the diehards and the casuals.
“For that age group, it really built up Boba Fett before people saw him in the movies,” says Clarke. “Those kids were already obsessed with him.”
The genius of Star Wars is the way it hints at all the dingy corners of the galaxy lurking just below the core drama of the films. Stereogum’s Tom Breihan once wrote about the iconic Mos Eisley cantina scene in A New Hope, where Han Solo bellies up to a bar alongside a wide array of idiosyncratic aliens. “Their presence implies whole other lives lived, whole other worlds to be explored,” noted Breihan. So Boba Fett, who is nearly mute and burdened by no exposition, is perhaps the greatest triumph of Star Wars’ unparalleled ability to bless even its most minor figures with an otherworldly — and highly profitable — mystique.
Clarke recalls the bounty hunter’s initial appearance in the movies, where he’s handpicked by Darth Vader to track down the Millennium Falcon. The Dark Lord pauses in front of Boba Fett and reminds him that this time around, he wants his prey alive, “no disintegrations.” Those words hang in the air, tantalizingly out of reach. Kids around the world wanted to soak up every ounce of Star Wars material they could find, so naturally, they created their own elaborate headcanons, fit for their new favorite blank-slate badass.
“As a viewer it’s clear that there’s a shared respect between these two men, and you’re like, ‘Wait, what happened last time? When were there disintegrations?’” explains Clarke. “Boba Fett literally doesn’t even have a name in Empire Strikes Back. Nobody says his name until Return of the Jedi.” Later, he adds, “There was a time when people legitimately thought Boba Fett was a woman, because he only appeared in his helmet. Legitimately, who could prove them wrong? It’s easy as a fan to project yourself, no matter your gender or race, into the character, because they could be anybody.”
Clarke is correct, and I wondered if that was a challenge for the many authors and artists who’ve been tasked with filling in the margins around Boba Fett over the last four decades. The character remained mystifyingly popular long after fans witnessed the defeat of the Sith in 1983, and his story continued through countless books, comics, and video games as Star Wars remained an omnicultural sensation. That’s why I tracked down Elizabeth Hand, a renowned author best known for her crime novels.
In 2003, Hand was conscripted to write a quartet of Boba Fett books targeted at young boys — the sort of fiction that’s ubiquitous at grade-school book fairs across the nation. Was it difficult to breathe life into an elementally unknowable character? No, says Hand. She had a blast. Boba Fett can be anything to anyone, even those who are writing his story.
“I had totally free range. … In one of them my bosses wanted me to invent my own planet and put it in the book. I based it on a planet I had in one of my own novels, with a huge domed city, and gave it a different name,” she says. “Nobody knew or cared. It was a lot of fun. I could do whatever I want. The kids liked them, though I don’t think I ever got fan mail from a girl.”
(This thought is echoed by Terry Bisson, another sci-fi author who was contracted to write a few Boba Fett books in the early 2000s. “I just made it up,” he said, when I asked about crafting a backstory for the character. “That’s all I can tell you.”)
Hand agrees with Clarke that Boba Fett is a cipher. “He’s a man behind a mask,” she says. “And you don’t see anything behind the mask.” But she also latches onto another crucial element of Boba Fett’s charm that often gets overlooked. Star Wars is, at its core, a love story. Luke Skywalker is betrothed to his adopted family, Vader has a weakness for his children, and Han Solo — the archetypical devil-may-care rogue — can’t get Leia out of his head. But Boba Fett is unencumbered. He is given no sentimental motivation, and possesses no tragedy to avenge. All Boba wants is to fire his blasters in deep space, and prepubescent Star Wars fans are uniquely capable of relating with those inclinations.
“Boba Fett doesn’t have any romantic baggage. No girls he has to worry about. You get to wear cool clothes and have cool weapons,” says Hand. “Young boys want to be out playing paintball. That’s what I think Boba was doing. Just blowing shit up.”
This is the paradox of The Book of Boba Fett. For the first time in the character’s history, the full force of the Star Wars machine is behind our erstwhile bounty hunter, attempting to ground him as a man of flesh and blood, with wants and needs, rather than a menacing silhouette strapped to a jetpack. Disney has yet to humble Boba Fett with grief or love — through five episodes, the show is much more Deadwood than it is And Just Like That — but still, Boba Fett (now played by Temuera Morrison) spends much of the series outside of his iconic armor and visor. Instead, he is an old man on a distant plain, indulging in some very un-bounty hunter qualities; empathy, charity, justice. In an early sequence, Boba Fett unites with a band of Tatooine’s aboriginal Tusken Raiders and heroically derails a train filled with encroaching settlers. Fans have waited years to pry their champion from the sarlacc, but what we learn about him might be at odds with the version of Boba Fett imprinted in our imagination.
Clarke doesn’t seem worried about that possibility. After all, his side won. Boba Fett was destined for the scrap heap if not for the unwavering belligerence of his stans, leaning on the scale, ensuring that those six minutes of screentime were a beginning, not an end. “It’s incredibly satisfying,” he says. “For 10 years after Disney bought the Star Wars rights I told everyone I knew that Boba Fett is alive, and that he will be back. You see that he’s out, that he made it. It feels like picking a winning racehorse and sitting on it for multiple decades.”
Boba Fett is finally getting his close-up; now we all get to see who’s really behind the mask.