Let’s Talk about “You Know Who” In SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Major spoilers. Obviously.

There’s a new normal in Star Wars. With every new installment comes a new controversy that divides fans and comes to dominate the cultural conversation. We’re not done litigating The Last Jedi‘s alleged heresies (and may never be), but Solo: A Star Wars Story is here now and we have something else to fight about. Major spoilers follow, so quit now if you haven’t seen the movie.

Still here?

Good!

Solo packs in a lot of deep cut references and call backs in its two hour running time—everything from obscure legacy EU novels to Teräs Käsi, a martial arts style invented for a terrible legendarily terrible PlayStation 1 fighting game. But no reference or call-back was as big as the late reveal that Darth Maul (a) is not dead, and (b) is the head of a fearsome crime syndicate, Crimson Dawn, that has everyone in Solo running scared.

same tbh

Some of us were more confused by this reveal than others were. For fans of the legacy EU, The Clone Wars, and Rebels, Maul’s been alive for a long time. He was first resurrected in 2001, in Dark Horse Comics’ non-canonical Star Wars Tales series. In “Resurrection,” a dark side cult creates a new Maul to serve as Vader’s replacement (Vader ends up killing him instead, of course). The Maul who appears in Solo, however, has his origins in Dark Horse’s 2005 comic, Star Wars: Visionaries. In the story, “Old Wounds,” an older Maul sporting robotic legs tracks Obi-Wan Kenobi to Tattooine, where they have one final duel.

Sound familiar?

But Visionaries was non-canonical too. It wasn’t until 2012 that Darth Maul was canonically resurrected. In the fourth season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, it’s revealed that Darth Maul somehow survived being cut in half in The Phantom Menace and has been living on a junk planet with some form of amnesia. Maul’s mind is eventually restored, he’s given robotic legs, and he and his brother Savage Opress (sigh) begin building a criminal empire after the initial plan—get revenge on Obi-Wan and rejoin Darth Sidious—fails to pan out. At the end of The Clone Wars, Sidious defeats his old apprentice but leaves him alive for some other purpose.

Maul returned again in Star Wars: Rebels. In the season 2 finale, which aired in March 2016, Maul is living as a hermit on the Sith planet of Malachor. He calls himself “Old Master” and now desires revenge against the Sith. Through a series of machinations, Maul tracks Obi-Wan to Tattooine and, well…

Yeah

Solo is essentially a first step in filling the gap between The Clone Wars and Rebels. Maul is still in the crime game, but has moved up in the galaxy. Whatever happened to send him back into hiding and to refocus his efforts on the Sith, however, has not yet occurred. This makes sense—Solo takes place about ten years after The Clone Wars and five years before Rebels. So fans of those shows are pretty delighted about this. They’re not only accustomed to the idea that Maul is alive, but they’ve got an entire frame of reference for a post-Sith, criminal kingpin Maul. In the Hollywood that Marvel built, it’s just obvious that Lucasfilm would incorporate developments from the TV shows into the movies.

But what if you didn’t watch the shows, or even the old legacy comic books? Well, then you’re just confused about why a one-off Sith villain from twenty years ago is suddenly alive and not a Sith, but a crime boss. If you’d only ever watched the films, Solo‘s Maul reveal is a huge WTF moment and, to be honest, a bit of an FU moment as well. It’s telling general audiences that if they don’t want to be disoriented at future movies, then they need to roll up their sleeves and dive into what used to be ancillary material. The price for coherence has just gone up considerably.

Pictured: artistic integrity

Of course it has.

I have a bigger issue with the Maul reveal, however. And it has very little relation to The Clone Wars, Rebels, or clever/hostile cross-marketing. My issue is with the basic concept of resurrecting Maul to do anything. He should have stayed dead.

Let’s back up a bit to The Phantom Menace. Darth Maul was easily the most striking new character in that film, and it’s no great surprise that writers, artists, and fans have been dreaming about bringing him back since before the end credits even rolled. Maul was everything a great Star Wars villain should be—visually striking, mysterious, and almost elementally sinister. He had that same indefinable “thing” that made Darth Vader and Boba Fett instant classics.

I mean, how do you not love the shit out of this guy?

But Maul was *not* Vader or Fett. His striking design was not the product of simple artistic inspiration. Lucas had envisioned Vader as a Samurai-like figure—it was concept artist Ralph McQuarrie who added the famous mask and helmet. During preproduction on The Empire Strikes Back, concept artist Joe Johnston used some unused McQuarrie-Vader designs for “super troopers,” and that design was eventually applied to Fett. Maul, by contrast, was intentionally designed to trigger certain specific thoughts and feelings. In a 1999 interview with Bill Moyers for Time Magazine, Lucas detailed the method and meaning behind Maul’s design:

MOYERS: The mesmerizing figure in The Phantom Menace to me is Darth Maul. When I saw him, I thought of Lucifer in Paradise Lost or the devil in Dante’s Inferno. He’s the Evil Other—but with powerful human traits.

LUCAS: Yes, I was trying to find somebody who could compete with Darth Vader, who is now one of the most famous evil characters. So we went back into representations of evil. Not only the Christian, but also Hindu and other religious icons, as well as the monsters in Greek mythology.

MOYERS: What did you find in all these representations?

LUCAS: A lot of evil characters have horns. [Laughs.]

MOYERS: And does your use of red suggest the flames of hell?

LUCAS: Yes. It’s a motif that I’ve been using with the Emperor and the Emperor’s minions. I mean, red is an aggressive color. Evil is aggressive.

MOYERS: Is Darth Maul just a composite of what you found in your research, or are we seeing something from your own imagination and experience?

LUCAS: If you’re trying to build an icon of evil, you have to go down into the subconscious of the human race over a period of time and pull out the images that equate to the emotion you are trying to project.

MOYERS: What emotion do you feel when you look at Darth Maul?

LUCAS: Fear. You wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley. But he’s not repulsive. He’s something you should be afraid of, without [his] being a monster whose intestines have been ripped out and thrown all over the screen.

MOYERS: Is the emotion you wanted from him different from the emotion you wanted from Darth Vader?

LUCAS: It’s essentially the same, just in a different kind of way. Darth Vader was half machine, half man, and that’s where he lost a lot of his humanity. He has mechanical legs. He has mechanical arms. He’s hooked up to a breathing machine. This one is all human. I wanted him to be an alien, but I wanted him to be human enough that we could identify with him.

MOYERS: He’s us?

LUCAS: Yes, he’s the evil within us.

In other words, Darth Maul was specifically designed to be less a character than the sheer embodiment of elemental evil. Darth Maul is an avatar for the Dark Side of the Force, terrifying and seductive in equal measure. And as befits a personification of evil, Maul is distinctly lacking in the kinds of things that give other characters emotional verisimilitude. He has no wants, no needs, no goals; no family or friends; and no weaknesses. All there is to him is that Rorschach of hellfire—our own evil, staring back at us.

Maul’s spiritual evil is also reflected in The Phantom Menace‘s soundtrack. Every time he appears on screen, Maul is accompanied by hushed chanting, a tease of “Duel of the Fates,” the film’s most prominent theme. Williams wrote “Duel of the Fates” with these chants and other choral elements because he sensed something ancient and spiritual in the climactic lightsaber fight between Maul and the Jedi. In interviews, he described that scene as almost “ritualistic,” crying out for religious musical context. For lyrical inspiration, Williams turned to Robert Graves’ history of poetic mythology, The White Goddess, and specifically his translation of the medieval Welsh poem Cad Goddeu, or “Battle of the Trees,” in which a wizard animates trees to fight as his army. Graves speculated that “Battle of the Trees” was secretly linked to an ancient pagan religious rite, so Williams lifted the following foreboding stanza:

Under the tongue root
a fight most dread,
and another raging
behind in the head

He then had this except translated into a variety of ancient languages, searching for strong vowel sounds that would play well with a chorus. Eventually, he settled on Sanskrit, a medieval Indian dialect that survives today mostly as the sacred language for Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. So every time Darth Maul appears on screen in The Phantom Menace, he is accompanied by words that (to Williams, at least) fuse ancient Celtic paganism with the sacred tongues of the Indian subcontinent.

But that’s not all—when Maul makes his grand reveal at the climax of The Phantom Menace, those hushed whispers blossom into a full-throated chorus and orchestra that is loaded with symbolism. “Duel of the Fates” is unmistakably styled after “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s monumental Carmina Burana. You know this piece very well:

“Duel of the Fates” and “O Fortuna” are both minor key orchestral pieces. They have similar orchestration and structure. They’re even in the same key! Why did Williams model “Duel of the Fates” on “O Fortuna?” Well, Orff’s 1936 cantata is based on a collection of medieval poems, songs, and dramatic works of the same name. A significant motif in the original Carmina Burana is the Rota Fortunae, or Wheel of Fortune, the concept that both good and ill fortune are transient and outside man’s control. The Rota was a major fixture of the medieval European worldview, and featured prominently in both religious and secular thought. It was a much older concept, however, popularized by a 6th century philosophical treatise, The Consolation of Philosophy, by the early Roman martyr Boethius. So in drawing from Orff’s “O Fortuna,” Williams was deliberately connecting Star Wars and the battle between Anakin’s fates to a centuries-old religious and philosophical movement. Musically, Darth Maul is a manifestation of ill fortune.

It gets better:

Obviously, it was Lucas’ intent that when young Obi-Wan Kenobi vanquishes Maul at the climax of The Phantom Menace, he is literally conquering fear, hate, and evil and becomes, at last, a Jedi Knight. But the way in which Kenobi triumphs is also loaded with symbolism. In that same interview with Bill Moyer, Lucas explained how he saw goodness as the product of symbiosis, and evil as the product of extreme selfishness or individualism, an anti-symbiosis:

MOYERS: What lessons do you think people around the world are taking away from Star Wars?

LUCAS: Star Wars is made up of many themes. It’s not just one little simple parable. One is our relationship to machines, which are fearful, but also benign. Then there is the lesson of friendship and symbiotic relationships, of your obligations to your fellow- man, to other people that are around you. This is a world where evil has run amuck. But you have control over your destiny, you have many paths to walk down, and you can choose which destiny is going to be yours.

One of the themes throughout the films is that the Sith lords, when they started out thousands of years ago, embraced the dark side. They were greedy and self-centered and they all wanted to take over, so they killed each other. Eventually, there was only one left, and that one took on an apprentice. And for thousands of years, the master would teach the apprentice, the master would die, the apprentice would then teach another apprentice, become the master, and so on. But there could never be any more than two of them, because if there were, they would try to get rid of the leader, which is exactly what Vader was trying to do, and that’s exactly what the Emperor was trying to do. The Emperor was trying to get rid of Vader, and Vader was trying to get rid of the Emperor. And that is the antithesis of a symbiotic relationship, in which if you do that, you become cancer, and you eventually kill the host, and everything dies.

So when Maul is literally split in two, with his body flying in two different directions, Lucas is giving us a visual demonstration of that anti-symbiosis. Maul’s evil is so pure that even his body cannot stay intact and must be torn in two.

Pictured: serious art

And so now we come to the root of the problem with Solo‘s cameo: it eviscerates the core dramatic and thematic element of another Star Wars movie, and maybe one of the few elements of the entire prequel trilogy that is well-conceived and well-executed. Even if everything I’ve set out above is new information to you, you no doubt had the exact emotional reaction that Lucas and Williams intended you to have because they were working with visual and oral/musical elements that are so old and “baked-in” to our culture that we understand them intuitively. By canonically resurrecting Maul, giving him robotic legs, and turning him loose on the galaxy, The Clone Wars and Rebels undid some of George Lucas’ and John Williams’ most thoughtful, complex, and effective work for the sake of cheap thrills. By giving Maul a definitive history and relatable wants and needs, and by making him a petty criminal, of all things, they also robbed him of him of his otherworldly menace—elemental evil does not need a backstory or motivation, and certainly shouldn’t be reduced to something so pedestrian as a mob boss. In Star Wars, that’s the province of literal slugs. This lapse of judgment was excusable for so long as it was confined to ancillary material aimed at only children and the most die-hard of fans, but its elevation in Solo takes the transgression to another level entirely, one that’s not so easy to ignore. And the nature of the tease suggests that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and that future Solo sequels or other Star Wars Stories intend to go further down this road.

But maybe there’s a way forward that’s not so disastrous and is in keeping with the Darth Maul that Lucas conceived of. Evil is eternal. It can take many forms. There is a kind of storytelling logic to Maul’s reincarnation as a pettier, more human evil. And certainly there are instances in literature where elemental evil has taken on more pedestrian forms. Look no further than Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men or The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” If Solo and its hypothetical sequels intend to explore more banal kinds of evil in the Star Wars galaxy, recasting Maul in that role could be a fun, clever, and thematically rich way of doing it. We’re just not there yet, and early box office for Solo isn’t inspiring much confidence that we’ll ever get there.

So depending on your (certain?) point of view, Solo and its Darth Maul cameo could be either a promise or a threat. For many fans, none of the above matters because they like The Clone Wars and Rebels, they like Darth Maul, and they don’t much care about whether Star Wars does anything other than deliver soapy, pulpy adventure that they can geek out over. On that front, there’s really no disputing that Solo: A Star Wars Story delivers. But for those of us who have little use for the expanded universe, or who hope for Star Wars to deliver more than a zippy shoot-em-up, it’s hard to know what to think. Is Maul’s big-screen resurrection a harbinger of a more demanding cross-platform narrative? Is it a cheap marketing stunt? Is it mindless vandalism? Or is it a tease of a more thematically interesting story to come? It’s impossible to know. We’ll all just have to wait and see, and live with the circular firing squad of fandom until then.