A recent article in The Federalist attempted to analyze the portrayal of religion throughout the Star Wars series as a whole and the recent Rogue One in particular. Amidst the predictable punditry were few apolitical observations of interest:
On the one hand, it is established that the Force has two sides, Light and Dark, and that each side is associated with a particular political program. The ‘good guys’ of the Rebellion are aligned with the Light Side, while the ‘bad guys’ in the Empire are aligned with the Dark. Even so, the religion of the Force is dying out, with skepticism about its efficacy running rampant on both sides of the conflict… On the other hand, ‘Rogue One’ portrays the relationship between the rebels and the Force in a manner qualitatively different than that between the Empire and the Force. Put simply, in ‘Rogue One,’ unlike the previous films, the Rebellion is explicitly fighting for religion, while the Empire is coldly dismissive of it.”
Indeed, even as he was contorting this cinematic criticism into conservative messaging, the article’s author nailed precisely the problem the portrayal of religion in the franchise:
Of course, it is noteworthy that the feel-good religion of the Light Side apparently consists in little more than muddleheaded platitudes about hope and change….”
While the political leanings of George Lucas, Chris Weitz, and Gary Whitta are well known and demonstrably evident in their work on Star Wars, despite The Federalist’s claim such have little direct bearing on the grossly generic philosophies of the Jedi and the Sith; the only aspect that faith in the Force shares with Obama’s original campaign slogan is the vague and vapid verbiage of both. But while such makes for stirring-yet-inoffensive political rhetoric, it is for the same reason a poor fit for theologies, even fictitious ones like those of the Jedi and Sith.
The problem in part derives from the fact that Lucas lacked an architectonic blueprint as he set out with his world-building; just as the character of Vader was changed into Luke’s father, and the character of Leia was changed into his sister, so too the character of the Force underwent similarly extensive changes and retcons with each new installment. Another aspect of the problem is that Lucas borrowed too evenly from Western and Eastern thought. Such worked spectacularly for the aesthetics of the film, with cosmic cowboys juxtaposed next to space samurai, but resulted in incoherent ideas about the ultimate nature of reality and its meaning. This applies to both the Jedi and the Sith. To paraphrase the article’s author, “it is noteworthy that the feel-bad religion of the Dark Side apparently consists in little more than muddleheaded platitudes about fear, anger, and hatred.” Such is especially evident in this week’s Darth Maul #1.
Such is due directly to these creative constraints which writer Cullen Bunn inherited in taking on the character of Darth Maul. Bunn has made a career of writing villains and anti-heroes, most notably with his runs on Magneto and Sinestro. As such, Darth Maul is seemingly a perfect fit. He is one of the most iconic villains of the last two decades. Yet Maul is utterly unlike the already well-defined fascists of Genosha and Korugar, respectively, who had hundreds of stories each to explore their motivations and humanize their struggles. Maul is more Vader circa ’77, a broad-brushstroke whose popularity is due entirely to his mystique and cool costume design. In the absence of the same strong backstories as Magneto or Sinestro, Bunn attempts to flesh out the rather generic Darth Maul with the extremely generic ideology of the Sith.
The result is a character that is entirely appetite, for whom evil is not a means to an end but as an end in itself. On screen, this kind of character makes for a fearsome henchman, but works neither as a main antagonist (which Maul wasn’t even in The Phantom Menace) or as the protagonist of a comic. To translate the character between mediums, it would have been necessary for Bunn to go beyond the mere outline which Lucas traced onscreen. Unfortunately, Bunn’s Maul is given an internal monologue devoid of introspection, instead parroting to himself and the reader the familiar incoherent ideology of the Sith. He expresses hatred of the Jedi and a desire for revenge. Stated aloud on film, there presumable exists more beneath the surface. But placed in narration boxes, one is left to wonder what about the Jedi it is that Maul hates, or what wrong was done to him for which he wants revenge – and left to conclude that Maul is nothing more than anger, hatred, and vengeance without reason or purpose. He’s robbed of his mystique when we find there’s nothing hidden beneath the mask.
Beyond the films, there were several sources from which Bunn could have pulled to make his own Maul more three-dimensional. The Clone Wars cartoon recounted Maul’s canonical origins, which the show successfully used to build Maul as among its most interesting characters. Better yet would have been the novel Darth Plagueis, in which Maul was revealed never to have been a true Sith, with Darth Sidious still apprentice to his titular master throughout the entirety of Maul’s life, right up until the end of Episode I. Though that story (arguably the best Star Wars novel, for what that’s worth) is now relegated to the Legends banner, the current cartoon Rebels has recently been making much of the former Expanded Universe into canon once more. Though this first issue doesn’t evidence such, hopefully Bunn will get a dispensation from the story team at Lucasfilm to do the same for his run on Maul.
Darth Maul needed the Darth Vader treatment. Both began as darkly-dressed foreboding henchmen but ultimately little more. Yet through the revelation in The Empire strikes Back, the redemption in Return of the Jedi, and the gripping characterization and deep insight throughout Kieron Gillen’s eponymous series, the character has gained complexity without ever ceasing to be that same familiar fairytale-esq black knight whom audiences first glimpsed but briefly in A New Hope. But as Bunn has written him in this debut issue, Maul is nothing more than a generic Sith who happens to be drawn similarly to the popular villain of The Phantom Menace. All of the characterization work done on Maul throughout this issue amount to little more than taking the generically evil religion of the Dark Side and regurgitating its precepts about the virtues of anger and hatred wholesale.
Maul is a fan-favorite despite his cinematic provenance, Marvel has been doing the Star Wars license proud of late, and Cullen Bunn has proven himself an otherwise excellent writer; this book has the potential to be much better, as I hope future issue will yet prove.