Always leave them wanting more. A common show business cliché. It was first attributed to P.T. Barnum in the 19th Century, suggesting that an audience which responds positively to a performance will be more likely to return if it ends before they become completely satisfied.
In other words, don’t exhaust one’s repertoire in one fell swoop.
It’s an expression that has become applicable to a plethora of cinema’s iconic characters. Prominent examples include Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, Michael Keaton’s Betelgeuse (or Beetlejuice, if your prefer) and, of course, a certain Mandalorian bounty hunter, who disappeared into the Pit of Carkoon to be slowly digested by the all-powerful Sarlacc over a thousand years (or was he?)!
More recently, another of film’s great enigma’s left his audience screaming ‘Encore!’. Darth Maul strode menacingly into our collective consciousness in 1999. His distinctive features never left.
Of the host of characters introduced to us throughout the prequel trilogy, Maul must surely take the horned crown for the most visually identifiable, despite his limited screen time.
The greatest frustration of the character was how little we saw and knew of him.
It’s a view many share. Indeed, responses to the question “What’s the one thing you could change about Star Wars if you could?” are often along the lines of “Have Darth Maul as the villain throughout the prequel trilogy.” Even one Mark Hamill who, more than anybody else, got up close and personal with Maul’s predecessor (or should that be successor?) expressed disbelief whilst speaking at the D23 Expo in July 2017.
“Darth Maul was just the coolest looking,” he said. “I couldn’t believe they disposed of him so quickly. I thought he would last through all three movies!”
The demand for more was so vociferous that some have subsequently taken it upon themselves to delve into what makes up the character, beyond his striking appearance. ‘Darth Maul: Apprentice’, a fan-made production exploring the completion of his training in the days leading up to the events of The Phantom Menace, has racked up over 15million view on YouTube.
“Darth Maul, for me, is the pure embodiment of the Sith within the Star Wars films. That moment when he appears the first time as a hologram as Palpatine explains “Not for a Sith…”, with those mystic whispers in the background. Goosebumps!” explains the project’s Writer and Director, Shawn Bu. “But ‘unused potential’ comes to mind too; I always felt that we didn’t get enough of him in the film.”
“When I saw Ben Schamma performing in cosplay as Darth Maul, I couldn’t believe my eyes! He was so close to the original thing! I instantly thought it would be a crime not to make a film with Ben as Darth Maul. So, I felt that was a perfect way to give Darth Maul more screen time, to give him a film of his own and give fans of the character a film they deserved.” If actions speak louder than words, Ray Park’s embodiment of the character – skilfully recreated by Ben – was screaming from the rooftops. Brought up on a diet of wushu and taekwondo, Park brought an all-out viciousness, an instinctive brutality to the party that had never been seen in Star Wars before. There are many who still rate The Phantom Menace’s crescendo, his fateful duel with Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, as the best technical lightsaber fight in Star Wars movie history.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Darth Maul,” said Park at Star Wars Celebration 2015. “It was the best feeling in the world to get to play this character.”
After initially struggling to find the aesthetic of his latest villain, George Lucas instructed designer Ian McKaig to “Draw your worst nightmare”. The result of that brief was so terrifying that he was forced to settle for his second worst, but Darth Maul had been conceived.
Peter Serafinowicz’s honeyed tones brought further demeanour to a Dathomirian Zabrak of few words (34, to be precise). He would later reveal that his brief from Lucas was simply “Just make him sound evil”.
The final flourish, the cherry on a delightfully malevolent cake, was Park’s infamous ear stud, unintentionally left in place during the first take and subsequently embraced by Lucas. The audience responded positively to the finished jigsaw. Maul, coldly staring down his enemies (from my point of view, and all that) at the entrance to a hangar bay on Naboo before dramatically igniting his trademark weapon, remains one of Star Wars’ seminal, most bone-chilling images.
But surely there was more to come than one fell swoop of Qui-Gon’s lightsaber in the hands of a young Kenobi and an untimely, not entirely in one piece, tumble deep into that infamous reactor shaft.
“Maul was always a very mysterious character. I liked that about him and didn’t want to change that too much,” Shawn continues. “But I wanted to explore a bit more of this character. To hint at things beneath the cold surface that we didn’t know might be there, that Maul himself maybe didn’t know existed. Showing that he was more than just a monster.”
“I was constantly asking myself what Maul’s motivation and ultimate goal was, what plans his master would have laid out for him and how Maul would react to any sudden interruptions to his training. Based on what I knew from The Phantom Menace, I pictured Maul as fighter who never got the chance to fight real, living enemies; only machines and drones. He had a thirst for a real fight.”
In many ways, the simplicity of Darth Maul being and out-and-out ‘bad guy’ made the character all the more intriguing. His goals and his motivation were clear. He wanted to destroy the Jedi. He wanted revenge. His arc, throughout The Phantom Menace at least, was as clear cut as that.
The marketing and merchandise around The Phantom Menace wisely made the character its focal point. Promotions, packaging and posters carried his distinctive image in equal measure; the longevity of his popularity suggests it was a good decision. However recognisable Maul continues to be as a singularity of popular culture, piecing him together was truly a team effort, on and off screen.
One of the complexities of 21st century cinema, and Star Wars in particular, is its audience’s lust for character arcs, backstories and motivations – every player, however black and white their allegiances, must maintain at least some aspect of roundedness, of relatability. How else should we be expected to identify with them as a protagonist or, in the case of Maul, antagonist?
“I know a lot of people would have preferred him being the main villain in all Prequel films,” adds Shawn. “Although having a main villain across the whole trilogy is similar to the original films, it would have been nice to reference him somehow in Episodes II or III to give him more meaning. Maybe we could have connected with more Sith backstory and lore that some characters talk about. I would have liked that.”
Lucasfilm must have felt the same; Maul came back from the dead, first in Dave Filoni’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars and latterly Star Wars: Rebels as well as in print, most recently within the pages of five-part Marvel Comics mini-series, Star Wars: Darth Maul, and as a playable character in the wellreceived Battlefront II.
In each incarnation, the answers that were so craved have delivered. When Maul’s timeline reached its conclusion, poetically via the hand of Kenobi, he had completed one of the most multifaceted story arcs of the entire Star Wars saga.
His ‘revival’ cemented the interest in the character, and perhaps acknowledged that he had left a galaxy far, far away far, far too soon.