Duel of the Fates blares with aplomb from all the Dolby Digital speakers under the twin-suns (“Khara Matha Khara Rath Amah”), the blast doors open, a cloaked figure stands affront Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gonn Jinn.
As the figure lifts his hood to reveal the blood-red and black tattoos, the deep Sith-hatred in his eyes and a grimace straight from the fiery depths of hell itself, the hairs on the back of the neck become pricked.
Just when things can’t get any more intense, a graceful spin of the wrist reveals the lightsaber…that extends with a fizz into a dual-banded, fearsome death-dealer. This entity is not here for diplomacy; he is here to destroy the compassion, and soul, of the Jedi.
His name is Darth Maul, and he is a Sith Lord.
Of course, about ten minutes later (albeit after the most spectacular and fluid combat in any of the Star Wars films) Maul lays dead at the bottom of some inconceivable exhaust port or other. Obi-Wan Kenobi has managed to ‘use the force’ to cut him in half, presumably because his Sith mentality meant he was absent of the portent sensitivity that the Jedi possess (probably, yawn). The fact remains that the best thing – some would say the only redeeming feature – of Episode I (and the initial re-launch of Star Wars as a cultural force back in ’99) had ‘had it’ after an all-to-brief screen time.
It remains no surprise that Maul has appeared in various incarnations since; from toys, to games, to comics and novels within the expanded universe. Rather than lament his loss further, it’s interesting to see how his inclusion in parts II & III would have enriched the Star Wars prequels immeasurably. This, as it stands, is the lasting legacy…
Tone and Critical / Public Reception
In 1977 Star Wars, like Episode I, was shot independently of its eventual sequels (in the sense of the “green light” studio tradition of commissioning the remaining parts of a planned series after an initial experimentation). Yes, Lucas always had a trilogy in mind, but Episode I was created in a bubble – partly because it was the last Star Wars to be shot on film stock. Could that hesitation be the reason Maul was so quickly dispatched? Was he a gap-filler, or was it severe short-mindedness?
Star Wars exploded in the wider arena, widely because of the mysterious, and darkly charismatic, Darth Vader. Audiences wanted to find out more about this mesmerising presence; at the time these were not ‘fan boys’, they were just pedestrian people who had gone to see a film called Star Wars. Everyone had been seduced by the Dark Side of The Force.
Darth Maul infected the public’s general consciousness in an almost identical fashion, only to be snuffed out in a massive lack of foresight on Lucas’ behalf. His appearance was immediately jarring, injecting life into Episode I (an otherwise very boring, diplomatic narrative trudge) in a very adult sense. Maul provided the adrenaline shot that the older fans brought up with Star Wars so wished for, and the villainous terror – the threat – that the children seeing Episode I for the first time would later remember in their adult lives.
Imagine an Episode I starting from those blast doors opening. The majority of the film up to that stage could have quite easily been encompassed in the opening scrawls, leaving a good two hours of screen time to explore Maul’s relationship with the Emperor (more to follow) and his burning hatred towards Anakin Skywalker (admittedly not even hinted at in Episode I) that would have surely been present once all parties had acknowledged his ‘chosen one’ status. The Jedi would have been fleshed out in their reactions to this force of nature, and first Sith presence for thousands of years (according to the Episode I narrative).
It could have been a rip-roarer of a pursuit movie – in the vein of The Terminator series – with the Jedi hunting Maul across the galaxy, as he leads them on a wild goose chase in order to distract from the plotting of the titular ‘Phantom Menace’ (Sidious/Palpatine) back on the governing planet Coruscant. A fast-paced, ever moving narrative; with plenty of pitched space, and lightsaber, battles over a plethora of locales in which Ray Park could showcase his martial arts expertise as Maul. Hyperbolic high-drama indeed, and what Episode I seems to be trying so hard to achieve, but fails miserably in its portrayal of the mind numbingly boring politics of a trade dispute.
Verdict: Critics would have raved about the revisionist ‘darker, vitriolic’ approach to Star Wars, a new type of sinister melodrama and the intriguing prospect of a villain to rival Darth Vader in cultural, as well as within narrative, terms. More patrons flock to see this ‘badass’ character and the way in which the Jedi order seems immediately fallible in a high-stakes game of intergalactic significance, boosting the Lucasfilm coffers through positive, global word of mouth in the process.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and increased gravitas
Presumably Qui-Gonn would have still met his death at the hands of the seething Darth Maul. Following some kind of elaborate escape Obi-Wan would have to carry the burden of blaming himself for his beloved Master’s death (having been trapped behind some kind of practically useless energy field when Maul ran Qui-Gonn through).
This not only incorporates a classic tragedy into Obi-Wan’s character (which would be later mirrored in the original trilogy over his regrets at Anakin’s demise) but puts the supposedly impartial Jedi into a revenge-scenario. How would Obi-Wan cope with his desire for revenge; and could he suppress it? What sort of example would he be setting his new Paduwan, Anakin? What would the impact be on later events should he face a dilemma of the greater good, or a chance to take Maul’s life? There would be plenty of scope for exploration in a character that was largely reduced to a galaxy exploring clothes-horse (bar some powerful emotional beats in the Mustafar sequences) in Episodes II&III.
Failing that (Lucas isn’t exactly known for his emotional depth in scripting) there would be plenty of excuses for McGregor and Ray Park to duke out some more excellently paced and dramatic lightsaber duels.
Verdict: The audience warms to Obi-Wan as an appreciation of his dedication to the Jedi code emerges against our own urges for him to enact his revenge. Human emotion is worked into the character, including a deep self-resentment that manifests itself later in the trilogy upon his self-exile to Tatooine. His redemption between Episodes IV-VI through guiding Luke successfully to Jedi status takes on an acceptable saccharine heft.
Dooku need never have existed
Count Dooku’s introduction surmounted to little more than a one-liner on the opening crawl for Episode II. Personally I do not accept the argument that the character was fleshed out in the Clone Wars cartoon series (or any other spin-off medium); these are feature films that should appeal to the wider – not just the Star Wars – audience.
That aside, Dooku fell incredibly flat as an enemy to the Jedi (he used to be one – oh dear!) in comparison to Maul in the physical sense, the intimidation stakes and the sheer screen presence of Ray Park in the role he was clearly destined to play. Lee, rather than inhabiting a character seems to be a depiction of himself at a Star Wars fancy dress party, in essence not really having a portrayal but merely delivering the clunky dialogue as best he could.
Maul would not have had this problem being a ‘man’ of thousand-yard stares, action and very few words. As the apprentice of Dark Sidious he would be pulling the galactic strings amongst the Trade Federation and Separatists, in the process revealing a further depth to his character and abilities. By extending his screen time there would have been ample opportunity to show Maul’s own scheming (he would no doubt have been secretly plotting to overthrow Palaptine, as the Sith tend to do with their Masters) and could have even courted with the idea of recruiting the young Anakin.
The final duel in which Dooku defeated both Obi-Wan and Anakin would set up a final showdown in Episode III perfectly, especially if Maul were to subsequently fend off the Yoda-on-acid that inexplicably turns up at just the right time to save his Jedi-brothers’ lives.
Verdict: Maul is given further credence as a heavy weight bad-guy as he coordinates the subliminal take over of the galaxy. Further fuel is added to his bitter feud with Obi-Wan as he attempts to corrupt and recruit the impressionable young Anakin, and his battling prowess is extended when he, for the second time in a row, defeats two Jedi in a handicap match.
We gawp as it is revealed his powers are becoming more potent when Yoda tastes a force lightning attack and is left reeling. He becomes an anti-hero to audiences worldwide, as we love to hate him in a similar fashion to Darth Vader in the original trilogy.
Who could ever defeat this behemoth of evil; surely only the ‘most powerful Jedi ever’…
Maul, of course, would have become aware of the potential within Anakin very early into the second Episode. He would have also sensed that the Emperor wished Anakin become his new apprentice and would have therefore launched into a twisted bidding war for Anakin’s tutelage.
An intriguing relationship would have developed amongst the principle Jedi and Sith. A massive power struggle emerges as Obi-Wan invests soul in guiding Anakin, who is himself being courted by both Sidious and Maul, whom Obi-Wan now resents deeply.
Star Wars would find itself in a curious position of sci-fi-gangster fusion without a clear outcome for the balance of power, which would be constantly shifting. There would have been a palpable sense of tension across the running times of both Episodes II&III instead of for the ten-to-fifteen minutes of Episode III in which Anakin suddenly began his turn to the Dark Side of The Force.
This struggle is then inherently playing out aside the curious estranged father-son relationship that would have by now existed between Maul and Sidious. Maul would become wary of his Master’s cod-loyalty but – as a disciplined apprentice – crippled in action until it was certain to him that he would be betrayed. In the meantime his own plans are hatched as he finds himself in the ironic position of needing to seduce his biggest rival – whilst being in the impossible position of orders to kill, or capture, Anakin.
Verdict: Lightsaber duels between Maul and Skywalker take on an ethereal level of tension and the behind-the-action drama dictates a hesitation to deliver a killer blow. Star Wars develops further into an overlapping parallel with the power struggles seen in the Gangster sub-genre, lending immense tension and suspense to the glorious galactic fantasy setting.
Expanding on the power-struggle theme is the more intriguing relationship between Maul and Sidious. Maul would take on an almost sympathetic, at the very least tragic, persona as soon as the audience became complicit in the betrayal Sidious would have begun orchestrating.
Their bond could be considered that of an exploitative and abusive father to his only son. The son is dedicated to the father without thought, but is deeply resentful of the exploitation and disrespect that is occurring. The internal paradox in Maul becomes a major plot point; will it tip towards role-reversal, or will he relentlessly attempt to gain the affections of his dysfunctional ‘father’?
Verdict: Like all great villains Maul inherits an internal conflict that goes some way to explain his ‘evil’ actions.
The Ultimate betrayal
Count Dooku looked on towards the Emperor/Senator shortly before losing his head in Episode III as if to say, “Why?” We all understood, but nobody actually cared because there was no real sense of the supposed Sith plotting and camaraderie they were complicit within. If it were not for the expanded universe it is very doubtful that cinema goers not familiar with Star Wars mythology would have understood this beat at all.
By installing Maul as the centrepiece villain alongside Sidous throughout the prequels, this moment would have held massive significance. We would have learned – over four-and-half-hours of Star Wars space-opera – that Maul was something very special, potentially as special as Anakin Skywalker himself.
That massive investment in two principle characters would have reached the pay-off-point, a point loaded with as much drama, feeling, suspicion and foreboding as the now legendary Episode V Darth ‘Father’ revelation.
Hearts beating heavily in their chests Anakin and Maul turn towards the Sith Lord, the father figure they have both lacked in their lives, and await his dark judgement. There is a moment of unbearable pain; a pin can be heard dropping in cinemas across the globe…then a gasp as Sidious’ command effectively executes his own ‘son’ by decapitation on the fizz of a blue ‘saber.
Verdict: Star Wars meets it’s nadir in a truly horrific moment that has been two-and-a-half films of twists and turns in the making. Disbelief at Maul’s exit is met with utter disgust that Anakin is capable of such self-serving violence, and a new more sinister threat becomes apparent as it is immediately significant just how much a master manipulator Darth Sidious has become.
A knowing look from Maul to Anakin would have been an explosive dramatic seed for the cyclical tragedy that would later destroy Anakin Skywalker.
For Anakin to finally defeat a character so heavily loaded in physicality, psychological intimidation and military practicality speaks for itself. In the ultimate duel with Maul, Anakin would have finally developed the skills in combat to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Sith warrior. It is blatantly apparent through that Anakin lacks the understanding of his felled enemy…and will inevitably become the next victim of Darth Sidious.
Verdict: Maul’s demise serves as not only a method of emphasis to Anakin Skywalker’s status as ‘chosen one’, but also a tragic portent to the narrative thread and journey of Darth Vader, the iconic fable of the saga.
Jar Jar Binks horrifically killed?
It is not insensible to suggest that Sidious would have tasked Maul with assassinating Jar Jar in order to garner intergalactic power (instead of Binks merely suggesting the senate vote for it to happen) amidst a frenetic panic and culture of fear across the allied star-systems.
Verdict: Wishful thinking, yes. We get to see Binks beg for his life before seeing it rapidly snuffed from the face of the universe. There would have been scope for a protracted torture scene in the 18-rated special edition home video release. Probably.
Whether or not Maul’s Episode I survival would have had the fantastical effects discussed is, of course, complete conjecture. Lucas visual bombast is predominantly peppered with terrible scripting and plotting.
Episodes II & III do function well as a two-part movie, but the ghost of Maul cannot help but overshadow events, lending multiple moments a ‘this would have been so much better with Maul’ moribund.
Maul did at least – for a few precious moments – enrich the prequels and show the potential that may still be yet to come after Lucas hands in his reigns (he has stated he will not be returning to the filmic arm of the franchise ever again). I for one hope that somewhere the Star Wars saga exists in this make believe form…maybe a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…it did.