These Star Wars Rebels Primers are designed to dig through the vast history of Star Wars stories – both good and bad – to pick out the pertinent pieces of information for the new TV series. Here there be spoilers.
I have been dreading the appearance of Darth Maul on Star Wars Rebels.
Forget Jar Jar Binks, Darth Maul is the worst character in the Star Wars canon. “But,” I hear you say, “Darth Maul is cool and has a cool lightsaber and has cool face tattoos. How can he be worse than that obnoxious, vaguely racist cartoon rabbit?” To start, let’s talk about how ‘cool’ he is. In The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul is a character utterly devoid of substance or purpose. Character is conveyed through both dialogue and action, but Darth Maul says and does virtually nothing. He has exactly two lines of dialogue in the movie (neither of which tell us anything about who the guy is) and his entire role in the movie amounts to nothing more than showing up at the end to be the final boss. Darth Maul is not a character, he’s a costume, and yet, he is somehow beloved because he looks cool and he was your favorite toy when you were nine. All of that being said, that’s not enough for me to hate the guy; after all, Boba Fett and Captain Phasma have similar issues and they only kind of stink. No, to find out why I hate Darth Maul – and I hate Darth Maul – we have to take a look at The Clone Wars.
Since 1999, it’s been something of a running joke that Darth Maul was featured so prominently in the trailers, marketing, and merchandise for Episode I, only to have two lines of dialogue and then be promptly killed off. Certainly there was so much more they could have done with such a ‘cool’ character if only he’d stuck around for a little bit. Thirteen years later, George Lucas – along with Dave Filoni and the Clone Wars team – gave fans what they had wished for. Darth Maul was brought back to the land of the living and given six full episodes to flesh out his story. Unfortunately, that story is unequivocally awful.
The story in question actually begins not with Maul, but with Maul’s brother Savage Opress (yes, really). During the Clone Wars, Count Dooku took on an apprentice: a witch from the planet Dathomir named Asajj Ventress. As Ventress grew in power, Darth Sidious ordered Dooku to dispose of his former pupil, lest she become a rival to his power. Dooku obeys his master’s command, but Ventress escapes, returning to her mother and the other Nightsisters of Dathomir. Ventress and her coven of space witches plot revenge against Dooku, offering the Count Darth Maul’s brother, Savage Opress, as tribute to the Sith Lord, but not before he is enhanced by the witches’ dark magick. Ventress and Savage team up to fight Dooku, the fight ends in a stalemate, and the Separatists then declare war on the Nightsisters. It’s a whole thing. In the midst of all this, Savage, now directionless after his failure to defeat Count Dooku, returns to the coven where the Night Mother sends him on a quest to find his long lost brother.
Enter Darth Maul. Despite his good luck for being somehow alive having his lower half removed, Maul’s been kind of down in the dumps for past decade. Quite literally, in fact – he’s living amongst the garbage on the galaxy’s waste planet, Lotho Minor. When Savage arrives, he finds his brother driven mad, barely aware of his own identity and consumed with a thirst for revenge against Obi-Wan Kenobi. Savage promptly murder’s Maul’s new best friend – a talking snake named Morley – and drags his brother and his mechanical spider legs back to Dathomir. Once at home, the Night Mother is able to restore Maul’s sanity and give him a spiffy new pair of bipedal robot legs. When he awakens, Maul stays true to literally the only motivation he’s ever been known to have, and wants to take revenge against the Jedi.
This is ultimately one of the big problems with Maul. As much as they try to flesh out his character, there’s no foundation to build on. Maul is the definition of a one-note character; he loves nothing, cares for no one, and has no concrete desires beyond revenge. What’s worse is that the revenge itself even feels hollow and meaningless. He wants revenge because Obi-Wan chopped his legs off and stole a decade of his life, and okay, fair enough, but what exactly did Maul lose in those years? It sounds silly when you say it out loud, but in the revenge genre, attempted murder is not a good enough motivation to get an audience invested in the character’s thirst for retribution. Take any successful example of the genre, and you’ll see that the person seeking revenge has lost something precious they can never get back. In Kill Bill the Bride wants vengeance for the death of her unborn daughter, in John Wick the titular assassin wants to settle the score with the thugs who killed his puppy, and in Memento Leonard wants to kill the men who raped and murdered his wife. Even in Oldboy, where Oh Dae-su is seeking payback for lost time, we understand who he is as a person and are shown the torment he endured for 15 years. We get none of that with Maul. Not only is he an absolute cipher, but when he’s rescued, Mother Talzin restores both his legs and his sanity, returning everything lost to him over those twelve years except for the years themselves. If, like Oh Dae-su, we knew anything about what Maul had lost in that intervening time, that might mean something, but we don’t. Is he bummed that he didn’t get to participate in Palpatine’s plan to launch the Clone Wars? Not really, it would seem, as he brushes it off as something of an afterthought when it’s brought up. The bottom line is there’s no loss that we as an audience are made to feel, so there’s no way for us to invest in Maul as a person.
But that doesn’t stop Maul for going full steam ahead with his plan for revenge. He and his brother proceed to commit mass murder and generally incite terror, all the while directly challenging Obi-Wan to face them (look, the guy has red-and-black face tattoos and a double-bladed lightsaber; subtlety’s never exactly been his strong suit). Obi-Wan accepts the challenge and teams up with Jedi Master Adi Gallia to confront the duo of Zabrak Sith – themselves having co-opted a group of space pirates who were previously under the command of everyone’s least favorite pirate captain, Hondo Ohnaka. They fight, Savage gores Adi Gallia to death with his horns (because why not? It’s not like this is a kids’ show or anything), and when the combined forces of Obi-Wan and the pirates who remain loyal to Hondo prove too much for the Sith to handle, they turn tail and attempt to flee. The brothers’ escape attempt goes south when the pirates shoot down their ship, and so they board an escape pod and begin drifting aimlessly through the cosmos.
Eventually their escape pod is picked up by Pre Vizsla, leader of the Mandalorian terrorist group known as Death Watch. You might remember Death Watch being mentioned in the Rebels episode ‘The Protector of Concord Dawn,’ and this is who they were talking about. Death Watch is an organization of Mandalorian radicals who oppose their people’s current pacifist regime, and instead seek to bring Mandalore back to its role as a society of the galaxy’s greatest warriors. When a pair of Sith with no allegiance to either the Republic or the Confederacy happen to cross their paths, Death Watch sees it as an opportunity to exploit their powers to achieve their own ends. Maul similarly sees an opportunity to exploit Death Watch’s resources to gain power and finally fulfill his plan for revenge. With Death Watch at his side, Maul begins assembling an army, recruiting members of the major crime syndicates, committing no less than seven on-screen decapitations along the way (with an eighth beheading implied!).
Finally Maul, Death Watch, and their army of low-lifes make a play to seize control of Mandalore itself. Death Watch supplants Duchess Satine’s pacifist rule and Pre Vizsla declares himself the new Prime Minister of Mandalore. With his goals achieved, Vizsla imprisons Maul and his brother, but his rule is short lived as Maul promptly breaks out of his cell and challenges the leader of Death Watch to a fight to the death. Maul wins, ending the fight with yet another on-screen decapitation, and as he sits on the throne of Mandalore, he allows the former Duchess to escape in order to send a message to her secret lover, Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan arrives, Maul runs Kenobi’s coulda-been girlfriend through with a lightsaber, and then makes the very same rookie mistake Vizsla made by sending his enemy off to be imprisoned.
This plot to take over Mandalore plays out in a three-episode story arc, and this particular arc is widely regarded to be among The Clone Wars’ best, but I hate it. It’s deliberately designed to appeal to the worst element of fandom by being self-serious, needlessly violent, and superficially grim-n-gritty in order to masquerade as something mature. The truth, however, is that it couldn’t be more juvenile. It’s specifically the kind of juvenility that allows Marilyn Manson to hock his phony-baloney drek to 15-year-olds who believe they’re listening to something edgy and dangerous just because it pisses off mom and dad. It’s catering to the kind of fan who is either approaching or has recently reached adulthood and is wildly self-conscious about the fact that they’re still really into this thing that was designed for children. What you find out as you get older, though, is that filling something up with excessive violence or making it superficially ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ doesn’t actually make it mature. In fact, the most mature way to approach something you love is to love it precisely for what it is.
Like it or not, Star Wars was always for children. Oh sure, it’s a story about adults, made by adults, and millions upon millions of adults have adored it for nearly four decades now, but it was always a story intended to be embraced by children. Lucas set out to create a story that instilled in children the same kind of creative and adventurous spark that captured his own imagination as a child. As much as anything else, Star Wars is a fairy tale. It’s a fun, lighthearted, swashbuckling adventure, and when it does go to dark places, it’s totally earned on both a narrative and thematic level. Star Wars is never posturing – it wears its heart on its sleeve and never feels the need to try to be something it’s not. And this, more than anything else is why I despise Darth Maul. Darth Maul is nothing but posturing. ‘Cool’ is a quality that has no substance – it exists entirely on the surface – and Darth Maul’s entire reason for being is to be ‘cool.’ He’s dark and violent and angry, but there’s no significance to any of it. It’s hollow and empty, and in turn, that’s the quality the episodes that focus on him bring to Star Wars. As irritating as other characters may be, none of them are as absolute a betrayal to the entire point of Star Wars.
This is why I’m absolutely dreading his appearance in Star Wars Rebels. For my money, Rebels understands Star Wars more than anything else since Return of the Jedi. Hell, I’d argue that Rebels ‘gets’ Star Wars better even than the new Star Wars film (and I like The Force Awakens a lot!). But Darth Maul is anti-Star Wars. He’s the antithesis of everything that has ever been good or worthwhile about this series, and I am loath to see him come anywhere near this show that I love so dearly.
As for what role he’s going to play, that seems fairly obvious at this point. After executing the Duchess and imprisoning Obi-Wan, Darth Maul is confronted by his former Master, looking to stamp out this potential rival once and for all. Sidious kills Savage Opress, but when he has Maul at his mercy, he chooses not to kill him, but instead uses Maul’s connection to Mother Talzin to draw out the witch and destroy an even greater threat to his power. With Mother Talzin slain, Maul escapes Sidious’ custody and retreats back into the criminal cooperative he helped establish. So now, fifteen years later, what is Maul’s plan? Well, I’m sure it’s the same as it’s ever been – the only motivation he’s ever had or is ever likely to have: revenge. Though this time I imagine it won’t be directed at Obi-Wan. No, Maul likely assumes that Kenobi was killed along with the rest of the Jedi following the Clone Wars. Instead, Maul’s going to want revenge against his former master, and there’s nothing about that thought that appeals to me in any way whatsoever. I don’t give a damn about Maul, I don’t give a damn about his perpetual need for empty vengeance, I don’t give a damn about the Sith’s stupid rule of two, and I damn well don’t want to see Ezra and the Ghost crew get caught up in all this nonsense.
As I’ve said time and time again, Star Wars Rebels should be the story of the Lothal rebels, and no one else’s. This is their show, their story, and taking time away from them to tie-up completely unrelated loose-ends from The Clone Wars does the show a massive disservice. I see no way in which the continuation of Darth Maul’s story could possibly have any real significance to the story of the Ghost crew. Instead Ezra will become an insufferable prick for a few episodes as Darth Maul tries to turn him to the Dark Side, and the number of on-screen decapitations will increase exponentially. After all, what good is a kids’ cartoon if it’s not pandering to insecure adult fans with gratuitous violence?