Solo: A Star Wars Story is chock-full of deep cut references to all corners of Star Wars canon, the Expanded Universe and lore from all kinds of sources. None, though, is bigger, more shocking and more thrilling than the reveal (in true Star Wars hooded-in-a-hologram style) of the head of Crimson Dawn, boss of Dryden Vos and Qi’ra.
——Major spoilers beneath the cut——
Yes, Maul – the crime lord formerly known as Darth – is back. He has the metal legs given to him by Death Watch, the lightsaber he wields in Rebels, and even mentions Dathomir for the first time in a Star Wars film. The response I have seen on social media has been a mix of barely contained glee from hardcore fans, and bemusement among the casuals. There is also a sense that Lucasfilm are now following the Marvel model: introducing in cameo a character who will link several apparently-unrelated films into a cohesive whole, building to some kind of Avengers-style “coming together” event.
This isn’t quite the same, though. Maul’s appearance has other implications for the Star Wars storytelling universe, the extent to which the films are able to “stand alone” apart from additional material like animated series and novels, and Lucasfilm’s boldness in referring directly to that extra material.
It’s all connected
The two anthology films, far more than the sequel trilogy, have relished the opportunity to bring material from the animated series, canon books and comics, and the old Expanded Universe to the big screen. Rogue One gave us kyber crystals, the Whills and Saw Gerrera, while Solo brought to life Mimban, the Maw and the Pyke Syndicate. None of these would for a moment confuse a casual audience member who was only familiar with the films. Even Saw is a complete character within Rogue One, his backstory in The Clone Wars irrelevant to the telling of that story. They are nice easter eggs for fans, but to the casual viewer, just the usual kind of Star Wars world-building.
It was a reasonable assumption that the films would be made to stand alone, or at least to exist in a continuity that does not rely on extra material. That although TCW and all other works since 2014 are “canon,” the fact that the films have a far larger audience meant that they would need to be consistent within themselves, and not refer to important story points from material that the vast majority of the audience would be unfamiliar with.
Maul’s appearance has torn that assumption to shreds. He is the iconic figure of The Phantom Menace – at least from a marketing perspective – and his death was particularly memorable, even for casual viewers. His resurrection in TCW, on the instructions of George Lucas himself, would have gone unnoticed by the vast majority of Star Wars’ potential audience. Yet here he is again in Solo, in an entirely different role and with all that visual continuity carried directly over from the animated series, and with no on-screen explanation for his survival.
This is not an appearance designed to raise mysteries about “how he survived,” to be answered later, because all the answers are already out there. This is a bold move: pointing an audience in the direction of an animated television series if they want the full explanation for a plot point. It goes against every assumption about the accessibility of these movies. The reaction I have seen on Twitter from the uninitiated has been less “how did Darth Maul survive?” and more “they’ve messed up the timeline, because this clearly means the film is set before TPM but the Empire is around/Han is too old.”
Clearly there is great risk to this approach. Each story needs to make sense and be accessible in and of itself, and getting tangled up in continuity and self-referencing has been the death of many a science fiction series. Yet it also shows ambition, and true dedication to live up to the statement that everything in the Star Wars canon is connected, and all part of one universe. And for us fans, it opens up some exciting avenues for the future.
So what now?
Perhaps this really is an attempt to follow the Marvel route, and link several spinoffs through the character of Maul in a loose “series.” A Boba Fett movie could easily feature him: perhaps Maul recruits Fett to go after Han and Chewie, or Jabba recruits Fett on a mission against Crimson Dawn. And there is nothing in “Twin Suns” that states that Obi-Wan and Maul hadn’t seen each other since the Siege of Mandalore: as long as they meet somewhere other than Tatooine, there would be no inconsistency. Someone, after all, needs to bring Maul’s criminal empire down and leave him scrounging around in the Sith temple on Malachor, and the most likely candidate is surely Obi-Wan, or possibly Sidious or Vader. “The Sith took everything from me.”
It is certainly an opportunity to build on the excellent work the two animated series have done in developing Maul’s character. It is a common argument that Maul was poorly served by TPM and deserved another shot, though he serves his shadowy purpose in that film perfectly. It is also hard to imagine him playing the Dooku role of respected and charismatic galactic statesman in Lucas’s conception of the Clone Wars. Bringing Maul back in TCW has allowed for his development into a fascinating and complicated villain in his own right – indoctrinated since birth to submit to his rage, losing his destiny as the Emperor’s right-hand to a quirk of fate and seeking to carve out his own place in the galaxy. His ongoing animus with Obi-Wan – the light and dark apprentices whose fates took unexpected turns following that duel on Naboo – has been a means of shining light on both characters, contrasting Obi-Wan’s selfless enlightenment with Maul’s hate-filled stagnation.
It was particularly pleasing to hear Sam Witwer voicing Maul in Solo, following his extraordinary work in TCW and Rebels. He is the voice of Darth Maul, and though we might feel some sympathy for Peter Serafinowicz, when you’ve spent the best part of twenty years slamming your Star Wars movie, you’re probably not going to be asked to come back. Ray Park, on the other hand, has been an ongoing source of enthusiasm, and his convention appearances, particularly with children, make this a well-deserved reappearance. There is the opportunity here to make Maul not just a great villain in the wider material, but a great and iconic Star Wars villain on the big screen.
Taking a wider view, the doors are now open for even greater connectivity between the films and the animated series. A live-action appearance by Ahsoka Tano suddenly does not feel so outlandish. Need a Rebel agent for a film set between Episodes III and IV? Or a mysterious traveler in Jon Favreau’s post-Return of the Jedi series? Or even, following Carrie Fisher’s passing and Leia’s expected absence, a woman with a long history with a Rebellion and knowledge of the Force to help Rey along in Episode IX? Sounds unlikely, I know. But a few weeks ago, Darth Maul showing up in Solo would have seemed a bit absurd, too, wouldn’t it?