One minute after midnight on May 3, 1999, a branch of Toys R Us in Brandon, Florida became a hive of activity. Having queued patiently in the dark for hours, scores of shoppers – most of them full-grown men – funnelled through the doors. Some of them stacked merchandise up in their cradled arms, while others heaped toys up in their baskets and trolleys.
It was all part of the Star Wars fever that had begun in October 1993, when George Lucas first told Variety about his plans to make three prequel movies, and continued to grow over the next six years. Lucasfilm cannily fanned the flames of anticipation, with the Special Edition re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy. Suddenly, the franchise seemed new again, and audiences were clamoring for a new trio of adventures.
By the spring of 1999, the anticipation had reached its zenith, and became a frequent source of news stories in the media. There were the fans who’d rushed to screenings of The Siege just so they could be the first to see The Phantom Menace‘s trailer. There were the fans who’d camped outside cinemas for one month before The Phantom Menace‘s release because 20th Century Fox wouldn’t sell advance tickets.
Then there were the fans rushing into Toys R Us to buy Phantom Menace toys. When asked, most of those fans were after one toy in particular: Darth Maul.
Darth Maul’s immediately recognizable, faintly satanic red and black face was a major part of Lucasfilm’s marketing push for The Phantom Menace. Of the numerous Phantom Menace posters, for example, Darth Maul featured in just about all of them. Lucasfilm clearly knew that it had a strong image in Darth Maul, and fans sensed that he would be a powerful presence in the movies, too: although he only makes a handful of appearances in The Phantom Menace‘s two-minute trailer, every shot counts.
“At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi,” seethes Darth Maul (played by actor and stuntman Ray Park, and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz). “At last we will have revenge.”
Just from this brief glimpse of The Phantom Menace, the setup was clear: Darth Maul would be the loyal and physically imposing apprentice to Darth Sidious, reprising the Vader-Palpatine dynamic in the original Star Wars trilogy. As Yoda tells us, “Always two there are.”
Perhaps inevitably, The Phantom Menace didn’t live up to the weight of expectation. On its release in 1999, audiences and critics alike seemed divided as to why the film didn’t quite work. A vocal percentage of internet commenters laid the blame squarely at Jar-Jar Binks’ webbed feet. Rolling Stone magazine described Jar-Jar Binks as a “scene stealer,” and ranked The Phantom Menace above Return of the Jedi in terms of quality. Many complained about the seemingly endless discussions about trade agreements, while the late Roger Ebert praised the film as an “astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking.”
Exactly where George Lucas did or did not go wrong with The Phantom Menace has been discussed repeatedly and at length, but there’s surely one aspect of the film that pretty much everyone could agree on: Darth Maul was a magnificent villain. In many ways, he was just as we were promised in that 1998 trailer: he appeared only sparingly, but cast a long shadow over the film. Intimidating yet utterly mesmerizing, thanks to his black finery, red-and-black flesh, and crown of horns, this new Lord of the Sith was arguably as fearsome a screen presence as Darth Vader.
He brought agility to the Star Wars franchise, too. Even as the plot heaved through a sequence of Trade Federation blockades and Jedi Council meetings, the fleet-footed Darth Maul – along with his double-bladed lightsaber – thrilled in every scene in which he appeared. Thanks in no small part to Ray Park’s skills as a martial artist, the combat scenes between he and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) were arguably the best in the entire Prequel Trilogy.
And then George Lucas killed him.
For the legion of fans who’d rushed out to buy Darth Maul toys and merchandise, and had perhaps even assumed that Maul would provide the villainous face for the whole trilogy – which wouldn’t be a strange assumption, given his prominence in the advertising – the character’s death was a disappointing moment, to say the least.
In an otherwise superb fight sequence, in which Qui-Gon falls to Maul’s crimson blade, the villain’s abruptly sliced in two by Ewan McGregor’s young Obi-Wan Kenobi. A split-second later, Darth Maul, the face that sold a legion action figures, is plummeting down the shaft of a melting pit and out of the trilogy for good. For this writer, Darth Maul’s exit was the biggest mistake George Lucas made in any of the prequels.
Consider the overall plot of the Prequel Trilogy. Regardless of all the secondary characters, moments of comic relief and other distractions, the plot is essentially a simple one: it’s the story of Anakin Skywalker, and how a once promising Jedi is twisted into becoming the evil Darth Vader. It’s a story pregnant with dramatic opportunities and operatic tragedy, but it’s also one that Star Wars fans knew something about since the Original Trilogy landed in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We knew what would happen. We were watching to see how it would unfold.
It was something we all knew when we went in to see The Phantom Menace for the first time in 1999. What we didn’t know was how Darth Maul would figure in the whole drama. Who was he? What part would he play in Anakin’s path to the Dark Side?
As it turns out, Darth Maul doesn’t have that much to do with it, but at the very least, his sparing use throughout The Phantom Menace merely added to his mystique. His look and presence alone were enough to tell you that he would make a formidable opponent in combat. Had Lucas opted to keep Darth Maul alive rather than kill him off in The Phantom Menace, he could have added additional depth to the character in subsequent films, and given more for Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan to do at the same time.
Imagine, for a moment, that the ending of The Phantom Menace had been slightly different.
Qui-Gon is mortally wounded by Darth Maul, who then makes his escape – perhaps assuming that Obi-Wan, who’d just fallen off a high platform in the Theed Generator Complex, was either dead or severely injured. Qui-Gon’s dying wish is that Obi-Wan takes Anakin under his wing and train him as a Jedi. Obi-Wan agrees, while privately vowing to avenge the death of his master.
In the subsequent films, Darth Maul would continue to serve as Obi-Wan’s nemesis. Obi-Wan aims to teach Anakin the ways of Jedi righteousness, but secretly fights his desire for revenge. It could even be that Obi-Wan’s bitter thoughts might in some way lead Anakin into turning to the Dark Side. At the very least, this plot strand, with Obi-Wan wrestling with the guilt and anger over the death of his master, could make his character something more than merely stoic and well-meaning.
With a little rewriting, Obi-Wan could have fought Darth Maul, and not General Grievous, in the third and final prequel, Revenge of the Sith. This would have solved three problems in one stroke: first, it would have resulted in a physical, Ray Park-led combat sequence rather than one heavily augmented with weightless CGI; two, it would have added an emotional dimension to the scene (finally, Obi-Wan gets to purge himself of his anger); and three, it would have provided an apt connection to the Revenge in the movie’s title.
How much more effective would it have been when, having finally killed Darth Maul in combat, Obi-Wan had recognized the depth of his own bloodlust, and the satisfaction at having killed his enemy? Just as Luke Skywalker looked at his robot hand and saw his own path to the Dark Side in the Original trilogy, Obi-Wan could have recognized the darkness in himself, and realized too late that hatred and a lust for revenge was already turning Anakin into another Lord of the Sith.
If George Lucas didn’t recognize the value in Darth Maul while he was making The Phantom Menace, he certainly did in the years which followed. As many of you reading this will no doubt already know, Obi-Wan never did “kill” Darth Maul at all, at least according to the wider Star Wars canon and the CG animated series, The Clone Wars. Bisected at the waist though he was, Maul survived and spent more than a decade on a planet called Lotho Minor before being found and restored to (relative) normality by his brother Savage Opress.
Maul’s revival in The Clone Wars is a sign of the strength of his character – the strength of his design was such that, even though he fell to what looked like certain death in The Phantom Menace, he was deemed too good to leave out of the Star Wars saga for long.
Darth Maul’s almost demonic hold over The Phantom Menace continued in 2016 when the villain, now known as “Old Master,” made his first appearance on Star Wars Rebels while on a quest to find an ancient Sith holocron. A season later, Maul faced off against Ben Kenobi and finally met his end. Of course, as Maul has already proved, it’s hard to keep a good Sith down…