Despite a less than stellar debut in 2008, the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars went on to become the much-beloved linchpin for the new, Disneyfied-era of Star Wars. Along the way, it redeemed the almost universally maligned prequel movies and welcomed a whole new generation of fans to that galaxy far, far away. It gave us Ahsoka Tano, Cad Bane, and clones we actually gave a shit about. But the series’ greatest accomplishment by far was the transformation of Darth Maul from a cool-looking henchgoon into a complicated villain worthy of Shakespeare.
You’ll be forgiven for forgetting – given the onslaught of merchandise, his prominence in all of the advertising, and good ol’ trauma blackouts – but in 1999’s The Phantom Menace, Maul doesn’t actually do a whole lot. He’s got a few lines about revenge and still probably the best lightsaber duel in live-action Star Wars history, but mostly he’s just Darth Minion. We don’t know anything about him, he does whatever he’s told to by Darth Sidious, and then he dies. The End.
And let’s be clear, that fight scene is 90% Ray Park, 10% character design, and absolutely nothing to do with the script.
The Maul that’s resurrected in The Clone Wars is something else entirely. We’re introduced to him as he’s howling and gibbering in a junk pile, with robotic spider legs he’s fashioned for himself out of trash. This isn’t the same taciturn assassin we once knew. Like Iago and Titus Andronicus’ Aaron before him, this new Maul is obsessed with revenge and more than a little bit crazy. From his introduction to his final battle with Ahsoka to his re-reappearance in Rebels, full-blown madness is always only one lost Amazon package away.
Like every Shakespearean character worth a damn, he’s also prone to monologues. Just, like, always.
His dialogue is basically epic poetry. He’s tormented by visions and constantly arguing with himself, or plotting, scheming to taking over the criminal underworld of the entire galaxy or running long cons against baby Jedi, and telling us all about it in the floweriest words possible. He’s Hamlet, but with a cooler sword.
Maul’s also, much like your relationship with your ex, complicated. While most villains in Star Wars exist solely out of greed or for the fun of being evil, or, increasingly, out of a misguided sense of absolute order, Maul’s a goddamn mess. He’s essentially a Grey Sith – he’ll use the Dark Side, sure, but he’s not in this for your enslavement of the galaxy. And, okay, yes, he did conquer the planet Mandalore, but that was by accident, on the way to stopping a bigger evil: during the final season of The Clone Wars, he’s actually actively working against the rise of the Emperor. He even helps Ahsoka escape from a shipful of murder-soldiers during Order 66.
By the time Maul, fully consumed by his obsession, dies in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arms, he’s practically sympathetic, even after everything he’s done.
Of all the mass murderers the franchise keeps trying to redeem, he’s the closest to actually deserving it.
Maul’s transformation expanded what a villain – what a character – could be in the Star Wars universe. Before him, there were Jedi and there were Sith, smugglers and bounty hunters, but most were pretty firmly on one side of good or evil, or, like Han Solo, were forced to be eventually. Maul was entirely his own person, with his own agenda. He set the stage for not just Grey Jedi Ahsoka but exhausted antihero Mando and the resurrected Boba Fett.
Not bad for a guy who got cut in half after six minutes of screentime.
Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and booger monsters, and recently added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby. He’s also on Twitter a bunch.
Top Image: Lucasfilm