This essay is from Chris Foxwell
Published on August 26, 2000
Darth Maul: Less is Best
Many critics and viewers of The Phantom Menace believe that Darth Maul represents a weakness in the plot of TPM. Here is this wonderful villain, scary, deadly, and mysterious, with tons of room for character development and fleshing out, and he gets perhaps the least amount of screen time of any major character. Maul utters a scant five lines, shows no hint of character depth, and dies at the end of the movie. Many feel that Lucas fumbled the ball with Darth Maul, wasting the wonderful potential of this villain. Nonsense. I intend to show here that Darth Maul was just as developed as he should have been and that giving him more spoken lines, expanded screen time, and more fleshing-out would have been detrimental to the simple yet vital theme of archetypes utilized by Star Wars. This is not an apology for Maul's shallowness, nor is it an attempt to reconcile a weak character with a good story. This is an explanation of why Darth Maul should not have been "further developed"--indeed, of why that term doesn't apply to him.
Now, don't get me wrong. I would have loved to have seen more of Maul on the screen. He is certainly an awesome character. Please note, however, that there is a substantial difference between the following sentiments: "Man, I would have liked to see more of Darth Maul," and "Man, Lucas messed up by neglecting Maul's development" or "Man, the way Lucas portrayed Maul hurt the film." The former I agree with. The latter two I do not.
Darth Maul is one of the two characters that epitomize Evil in The Phantom Menace. The Neimoidians are evil, as are the battle droids, Sebulba, etc., but they are not Evil. They are not the representations of the galaxy's greatest threat. That distinction belongs to the two Sith, Darths Sidious and Maul. Each of these figures embodies Evil in a different way, however, and this is the key to understanding Darth Maul's role in the story. Darth Sidious occupies one pole of the "Evil spectrum" in TPM, and Darth Maul occupies the opposite pole. Let's take a closer look at these poles.
Darth Sidious is the "thinking" villain in TPM. He is the genius, the mastermind behind the forces of Evil. He is subtle, devious, obscure. The heroes never get a glimpse of Sidious. In fact, they are never even aware of his influence, other than the deduction that he must exist made by Yoda and Mace Windu at the end of the film. Sidious never once enters into combat, never once makes himself known. He appears as a hologram, from afar, when he makes his wishes and instructions known, and those who follow his orders--the Neimoidians--know only that a Sith Lord is commanding them. Even the audience watching the movie, who are treated to scenes and information unavailable to the heroes in the film, see Sidious in the flesh one time only, when he speaks to Maul on the Coruscant balcony. (This, of course, does not count all the times that Senator Palpatine is present.) Sidious's role, therefore, epitomizes intangible, indirect Evil. He never presents a direct threat. Like Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sidious lies like a spider in the middle of a vast web, never seen and never confronted but behind everything. He is deep, he is confusing, he is complex, with many layers to his personality (Senator Palpatine, etc.).
Darth Maul, on the other hand, is the physical villain of TPM. He is the warrior, the one who most directly threatens the heroes. He makes no attempt to hide his intentions or his plans to realize his goals; both times that he is in contact with the Jedi, he attacks them immediately. In contrast to Sidious, Maul's role in the movie is purely physical, and his sphere of influence is that of combat only. His job, both as a Sith Lord and as a character antagonist, is to fight against the Jedi. That's it, no more to the story. Maul is supposed to be shallow--in fact, he is supposed to be as shallow as Sidious is deep. Sidious has hidden agendas, is shadowy, never makes himself seen. Maul has no agenda besides combat, is confrontational, and has no influence outside of his fight scenes. In other words, Maul is the unthinking villain of the film. To have him speak more lines, to have him active in other parts of the movie, to explore his character as a person, would have ruined his role in the movie. It is vital to grasp these character contrasts and archetypes: to have had Maul been more "interesting" would have been like having Sidious be more direct and confrontational. It doesn't fit.
Another way of approaching the issue is to view Darth Maul as more animal than human (or humanoid). He is an attack dog, owned by Sidious. He doesn't think, he doesn't speak (anything of importance), he has no "personality"; he is simply a combat machine, an animal. This is starkly evident in his fight scenes with the Jedi. Recall the dramatic pause in the duel between Maul, Jinn, and Kenobi, when the three are separated by the energy gates. I have heard several people claim that Lucas should have had Maul exchange words with Jinn, like Vader did with Kenobi or with Luke in the classic trilogy. They say that the latter duels were defined by these words, more than they were by the actual swordplay. This is certainly correct. But what is important to realize is that Maul is not the same type of villain as Vader is. He should not have spoken to Jinn--the very beauty of the duel derives, in part, from the lack of spoken words. This will be highlighted in depth below.
Let's examine parts of the duel that demonstrate this and clue us in to Maul's character. The Jedi and the Queen's bodyguards come across Maul, the Jedi tell the others to stay out of it, and then they fight. The elegance of the silence is what makes the fight scene. No words, no taunts, no banter. Sheer, silent ferocity and intent. The Jedi and the Sith, fighting once more after an entire millennium. The impact is entirely visual and dialogue would have been out of place. Recall Maul's facial expressions during the duel. They are bestial, savage, fierce, befitting his entirely physical role; his face and his body movements communicate all that needs be said. The first telling glimpse of Maul's character is seen when the audience is presented with the left half of Maul's face, as he moves to attack the Jedi (seen here). His intensity, the snarl that tugs at his face, right before he lunges forward--what words could have expressed that? The next facial shot we see is when he backs up towards the door, as he uses the Force to hurl a fallen blaster against the activation panel on the wall. He twirls his saber over his head, exulting in the battle, and the sheer animal glee on his face is apparent. Next is when the Jedi have Maul cornered on the ledge, with his back to the pit. The camera closes in on Maul's face and pauses; he stands there, snarling, daring the Jedi to press him (seen here). I would not have been surprised to see white foam at his mouth. I mean, come on. This character doesn't need words, and they would have spoiled the duel. Then Obi-Wan feints as Qui-Gon strikes at Maul, who then backflips across the pit. When the Jedi leap after him, he blocks both of their blades with a single sweep, and again the action pauses briefly as we see Maul's face highlighted by the crossed sabers. More snarling, more animal rage (seen here). The next scene in which we get a good glimpse of Maul's face is when the energy gates activate and the combatants are stranded from on another. It is interesting, and rewarding, to examine Maul's actions here. He is like a caged animal. As the fields ignite, he glances up and around, searching, his only intent to find a way to continue the battle. He tests the field's integrity with his saber, and after determining that it is inpenetrable, he starts to pace, glaring down at the kneeling Qui-Gon. Again, words are out of place here; Jinn and Maul know that this is a fight to the death, and that nothing need be said. Maul gloats almost, like a predator who knows that the kill is near, and that glare and his pacing say it all, especially the latter. He is an animal behind bars; Maul's pacing is perhaps the most stunningly appropriate body language in the movie. After the fight recommences, we briefly see one or two shots of Maul's face right before he slays Qui-Gon, and there is more of the same bestial ferocity. As he stalks back to Obi-Wan, he begins pacing and gloating again, wanting only to continue the hunt.
Can you see why words are wholly inappropriate to this duel? An animal does not speak to his prey as he hunts it down. There is only the kill. I have tried to emphasize Maul's bestiality, his savage nature; this defines Maul as a character. He is made for this duel; that is his only purpose. Outside of the duel his demeanor is one of restrained tension, annoyance that he hasn't been able to begin the slaying yet. Contrast once again to Sidious: Maul is impatient, unthinking, animal, and is supposed to be as shallow and straightforward as Sidious is enigmatic.
Yet another way to contrast the Duel of the Fates with the Jedi duels in the classic trilogy is this: the words spoken between Obi-Wan and Vader and Luke and Vader in their duels are full of import, and are of such dramatic influence that they set the tone of the duels. Why is this? Because each of the combatants in each of the classic trilogy duels is familiar with, and is intimately related to, the other. The words spoken are poignant because they reflect these relationships. In A New Hope, the confrontation between Kenobi and Vader is a confrontation between Master and former Apprentice. As Obi-Wan told Luke (and the audience), Vader was his Apprentice until he turned to evil and left him. Thus their meeting on the Death Star is not just a random fight; it represents the "completion" of the "circle." The words spoken in this duel are thus important because they invoke a relationship, and an important one. In The Empire Strikes Back, the relationship between Luke and Vader is obvious. As Luke (and the audience) believes, Vader killed his father, and represents a vital obstacle (and test) in Luke's training as a Jedi. Also, Vader is intent on capturing Luke and converting him to evil; Luke poses a great danger to the plans of Vader and the Emperor (which the audience also knows). Thus in Luke and Vader's duel, the words spoken and the sentiments felt by the combatants are highly significant because of their relationship, and because of what is at stake in the duel. Finally, in Return of the Jedi, the importance of Vader and Luke's relationship is blatantly obvious, as are the stakes: father and son, good and evil, the fate of the Jedi in the galaxy. The words spoken during this duel set the tone of the duel because they address these issues.
Now contrast these duels to the one in The Phantom Menace. It quickly becomes evident that there is no such relationship or connection between Kenobi, Jinn, and Maul. Maul is unknown to the Jedi, and there is nothing special about Jinn and Kenobi that makes Maul want to fight them in particular (contrary to the nature of the opponents in the classic trilogy duels). In fact, that is an appropriate way to describe the duel in TPM: it is anonymous, impersonal, a duel between forces, not individuals. It is not important that the specific Jedi are Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it is not important that the specific Sith is Darth Maul, totally unlike the duels in the classic trilogy. What matters is that the duel represents the resumption of the essential conflict between Jedi and Sith, Good and Evil. Thus dialogue in the Duel of the Fates is inappropriate, because there is no intimate connection or relationship to be invoked by words. It is this that sets the TPM duel apart from the classic trilogy duels.
I can imagine many readers agreeing with what has been stated thus far, but wondering why having Maul speak or even appear in other scenes would be detrimental to the character role. It isn't so much speaking that is the problem, it is the fact that doing so would indicate influence and thought on Maul's part, attributes that are alien to his role. Now, it is true, as Qui-Gon says, that "the ability to speak does not make you intelligent," and Lucas could conceivably have devised innocuous lines for Maul (more such lines, rather; Maul's five lines are hardly of importance). But more lines, meaning more scenes, would have served to locate Maul's character elsewhere in the film. They would have made him present in other scenes, and would have expanded his role and increased his profile in the film. This does not fit his character. As stated above, Maul's sphere of influence is that of combat only. He does not belong elsewhere, just as Sidious does not belong in combat. Exploring Maul's character, intentions, and personality would have done the same thing as given him more lines: it would have included him elsewhere in the movie, where he does not belong. Outside of the duels he participates in, Maul is only mentioned or shown in scenes that are vital to the plot: introducing him to the Neimoidians (and the audience, in a dramatic fashion), showing his instructions from Sidious on the Coruscant balcony, showing the method in which he reaches Tatooine and locates the Jedi, Jinn's description of him to the Jedi Council (in order to establish the whole Sith mystery theme), and showing his presence and purpose on Naboo. We see no more of him, and rightly so.
To reiterate, I would have loved to have seen more of Darth Maul on the screen, but the accusations that his is a weak, undeveloped character are unfounded. We see as much of him as we should; his character exists only for his duels with the Jedi. Some, I suppose, would take issue with the type of plot that allows such a character to exist. Those people would then be criticizing the entire genre of faerie tales, which hardly needs defending by me or anyone else. In short, within the plot of The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul plays the role of the Physical Evil, and his "lack of development" is as it should be. Changing his character to provide such "development" would have marred the beauty of Darth Maul and compromised the integrity of his role.