Major spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story below.
While Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace is often reviled in the cultural consciousness, there is one piece of the film that gets a universal pass: the “Duel of the Fates” fight, a beautifully choreographed three-combatant lightsaber melee in the film’s final act. The success of that fight can be largely attributed to the silent prowess of its villain: Darth Maul, apprentice to Darth Sidious, Dark Lord of the Sith, played in body by stuntman Ray Park and in voice by actor Peter Serafinowicz. From the moment that Maul stepped out of the shadows and into the mythos of that galaxy far, far away, fans have been mesmerized by him. His brutal dispatch — severed in half, poor guy — at the hands of a grieving Obi-Wan Kenobi only served to heighten fandom’s fascination with the character, his tenure all too short.
So, for a certain breed of Star Wars viewer, one of the final scenes of this weekend’s Solo: A Star Wars Story will act as a moment of profound surprise and delight. Throughout the film, characters occasionally mention that crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) has a dangerous boss in the Crimson Dawn outlaw outfit. After Vos is offed, his lieutenant (and erstwhile lover of Han Solo), Qi’ra, makes contact with the Crimson Dawn’s grand poobah … and it turns out to be Darth Maul, somehow assembled back into one piece and growling his way through life again. The average viewer will either have no idea who this red-and-black-skinned fellow is, or recognize him from The Phantom Menace and wonder how in the world he’s canonically kicking.
But Maul’s return to Star Wars on the big screen likely won’t come as a surprise to the fans who have followed the animated arm of the universe. The Clone Wars — a six-season series that filled in the gaps between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — was the ground of Darth Maul’s first big comeback, detailing his impressive backstory and reviving his neatly divided corpse. We’re happy to inform you just how he got from point A to point B. Just a warning: The story that follows is very, very Star Wars, so prepare for ridiculous terminology and somewhat byzantine plots.
Maul’s return was carefully seeded, starting with the introduction of the planet Dathomir and its ruling class, known as the Nightsisters. Powerful Force-wielding witches led by Clan Mother Talzin, the Nightsisters counted their male cohorts, the Nightbrothers, as a subservient class that they used to further their own galactic plans. One of those Nightbrothers was Savage Opress (yes, that’s his birth name) — Darth Maul’s brother.
The tale begins in fourth-season episodes “Brothers” and “Revenge,” aired in 2012, just a few months before Lucasfilm was sold to Disney. Mother Talzin gave a talisman to Savage that led him to Lotho Minor, a landfill planet where the rest of the galaxy dumped its refuse. It was revealed that Maul survived his bisection on Naboo and wound up there, spending over a decade descending into madness, a nightmare-worthy figure who had patched his body up with a set of insectoid mechanical legs. Savage brought his brother back to Dathomir, where Talzin used her Force magic to heal his mind and rebuild his body with a new pair of droid legs. Gifted with a loquaciousness that Episode I never gave him, Maul found renewed purpose. He was furious at being cast aside by his master, and angrier still at Obi-Wan Kenobi for cutting his path to glory woefully (and literally) short.
The trio of episodes “Eminence,” “Shades of Reason,” and “The Lawless” closed out Darth Maul’s role in the The Clone Wars. Maul and Savage were eventually discovered by the Mandalorian (that’s the group that Boba Fett’s a part of) warrior splinter sect known as Death Watch, and form an alliance. Death Watch was interested in taking over their homeworld of Mandalore, which had recently been transformed by a pacifist government at the hands of Duchess Satine Kryze, a former flame of Master Kenobi. Maul convinced the group to help him “recruit” (through intimidation and murder) the criminal syndicate Black Sun and the Grand Hutt Council. With the might of the galactic criminal underworld at his disposal, Darth Maul christened this group the Shadow Collective.
Maul used the Collective to overtake Mandalore, reinstating the former Prime Minister as his puppet. Knowing about the history between Obi-Wan and Duchess Satine, Maul assumed that the Jedi would come to her rescue. He reliably appeared, and Maul took that opportunity to exact his revenge: He murdered Satine in front of Obi-Wan. The Jedi Master still escaped with the help of the Duchess’s sister due to the unexpected arrival of Darth Sidious, who decided that it was finally time to put an end to his former apprentice’s coup. Murdering Savage with little difficulty, Sidious captured Maul and tortured him for the insolence of believing that he could ever replace a true Sith Lord.
The Darth Maul — Son of Dathomir comic series provided an end to this arc, as it was adapted from scripts for the seventh season of The Clone Wars (which was canceled after season six). Due to Sidious’s careful planning, Dathomir was attacked by the Separatists, and the Shadow Collective fell. Maul escaped and hid with a few loyal fighters on Mandalore, but the planet was liberated by Anakin Skywalker’s former Padawan Ahsoka Tano near the end of the Clone War, and he was forced to flee.
All of which fits more or less seamlessly with his Solo appearance. The movie picks up about ten years after the events of Son of Dathomir and ten before the action in A New Hope, and it appears that Maul got back into his crime streak, using the lessons of his Shadow Collective career to get back on top of the underworld. People who are only used to seeing him as a Sith in The Phantom Menace may find it surprising to see Maul (who is billed only as “Maul” in the credits, implying that he got rid of the “Darth” at some point) soiling himself in criminality. But it’s a logical extension of character moves that date back to the days when George Lucas was still in charge of Lucasfilm. It appears that his mob career was not to last, however — just a few years later, he was back in the Force stream of things. We know this due to his appearances in The Clone Wars’ follow-up series, Star Wars: Rebels, which recently killed him off again, seemingly for good.
The show covers the five-year period leading up to A New Hope. In the two-part finale of season two, “Twilight of the Apprentice,” Ahsoka Tano, Padawan learner Ezra Bridger, and his master Kanan Jarrus were directed to an ancient Sith stronghold on planet Malachor on the advice of Master Yoda. Once there, Ezra encountered a mysterious figure who insisted on being called “Old Master.” This turned out to be Maul, who crashed on Malachor years prior and wound up stuck there. Working to gain Ezra’s trust, he convinced the boy to retrieve a Sith holocron, a compendium of Dark Side knowledge, but the ensuing battle saw Kanan and Ezra escaping with that prize rather than Maul.
In the episode “Holocrons of Fate,” at the start of Rebels’ third season, Maul kidnapped Kanan and Ezra’s friends, threatening to kill the group if they didn’t bring the Sith holocron back to him — and Kanan’s Jedi holocron as well. While Kanan was busy trying to rescue their crew, Maul convinced Ezra to unlock both holocrons with him, an act that would grant them each an answer to any question. Once opened, the holocrons delivered a startling revelation: Obi-Wan Kenobi was still alive. Ezra was determined to find the Jedi Master before Maul could kill him.
He didn’t have to work hard; in the episode “Twin Suns,” Ezra did finally come face-to-face with Master Kenobi, who quickly sent him on his way — he knew that Maul was hunting him, and he was prepared to settle their differences once and for all. Maul confronted the Jedi soon after, belittling his life in exile. Obi-Wan refused to rise to his bait until Maul deduced the truth: he was protecting someone on the backwater world. Master Kenobi ignited his lightsaber, and a brief but dizzyingly precise battle ensued. Maul was cut down — again — by his old adversary. In his final moments, he asked Obi-Wan if the person he was protecting was the prophesied Chosen One. Obi-Wan answered in the affirmative. Darth Maul’s last thought before dying in arms of his mortal enemy was that this Chosen One would avenge them both. He could finally let go.
The work done by both The Clone Wars and Rebels enriched the Star Wars universe because both shows were able to take time and fully develop underwritten characters like Darth Maul. From a master combatant of few words to a Sith castaway and Dathomir’s prodigal son, his adventures beyond the realm of The Phantom Menace belie potential that the prequels wasted. With his story firmly established elsewhere, folding him back into the Star Wars cinematic pantheon was a necessary step in giving the acrobatic adversary his due.