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Darth Maul really got a pretty raw deal.
I know, I’m hardly the first person to say this, but it bears repeating nonetheless. Consider the marketing that lead up to the release of this film. Darth Maul was freaking everywhere, glowering down at filmgoers in a grim promise of how uncompromisingly awesome he was going to be. The guy had a cadre of devoted fans before the movie even opened.
Given how it turned out, I sometimes have to wonder if perhaps they went so far overboard with the marketing as an apology to Ray Park for how little screen time he actually ended up getting.
Unfortunately, I can also see why it happened. Darth Maul’s not actually the villain of the film. Palpatine is. Darth Maul’s just an enforcer. And he actually fills that role pretty well. Audiences don’t expect the two hundred pound gorilla who serves as a bouncer/bodyguard for the mob boss to be a richly developed character. But, like Boba Fett before him, Darth Maul looked really cool. Thus everyone really, really wanted him to be more awesome than he actually was.
So how do you fix this? Basically, you do it by almost completely cutting Palpatine out of the film. Which you may be surprised to hear I almost hate saying.
Now, I am a big fan of Rod Hilton’s machete order for viewing the Star Wars films. If you haven’t read the original article yet, go there now. It’s worth a look, and is an excellent demonstration of how making relatively minor changes to the plot structure of the story as a whole can actually improve both trilogies. And one of the things that he highlights in it that makes the whole concept work is the fact that Palpatine is actually a really freaking scary villain in the prequels.
Think about it: the guy not only managed to engineer a war, he managed to engineer it in such a way that he was actually leading both sides. In addition to that he managed to get the Jedi to break their long-standing prohibition against getting actively involved in military conflicts, leading to the corruption and ultimate destruction of the entire order save for a few stragglers who went into seclusion, and he did it all without ever being so much as suspected of being a Sith. Even at the end when he was revealed it was because he flat out admitted it to a Jedi. This is the villain we really wanted. But sadly many people rejected him because, well, he was an old guy in a robe. He didn’t look cool, and no amount of awesome evil voice work was going to sway people’s minds in that regard.
By letting Darth Maul have Palpatine’s (or more accurately Darth Sideous’s) scenes and lines though we achieve two goals. The first is that we are no longer disappointing fans looking for a scary and awesome looking villain. The second is that Darth Maul can now actually be present in person at Naboo, running things directly. Which is greatly preferable to just having Sideous sending instructions via hologram the entire time. There’s a reason Darth Vader always lead from the front, and it has everything to do with how the audience reacts to seeing a menacing super-powered badass ready to step in when the army of useless stormtroopers inevitably fail.
So would this change diminish Palpatine? Well, maybe. Frankly though I think it would be worth it and possibly only serve to make him more threatening in the second and third films if you mostly cut him out of the first simply by letting the threat of him loom a bit. After all most Star Wars fans knew he was the emperor going in. Letting him be there but apparently not doing much would set everyone wondering just what plans he might have in place, or even if he was actually a sith yet. It would also help close the plot hole formed when the captured Trade Federation leaders didn’t immediately turn around and announce that, yes, they were taking instructions from a creepy guy in a cloak who referred to Darth Maul as an apprentice, and could we please not get shot now? In fact you could even capitalize on it by having a scene where the Jedi are questioning them about Maul trying to find if he was the master or the Apprentice. All of them say that he was running the show, except perhaps for one who offers an opinion that he thought Maul might have been getting instructions from somewhere else. Or if that’s too much just give him some last words, perhaps a barely coherent plea to his master for help. In short, give us a little bit of mystery here as to what the balance of power is.
And with that out of the way, that only leaves the side characters… oof.
So first off, R2-D2. In an early draft he was actually supposed to be the POV character, recounting the history of the Skywalker family from his own experiences to an advanced being hundreds if not thousands of years after the battle of Yavin. And, even though that was dropped, he actually fills that role really well. He’s the perfect fly on the wall character – always present yet usually ignored. To paraphrase the awesome HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic, “Droids are like furniture. No one thinks much about them. Which makes it the perfect surprise when the lamp in the corner pulls out a high powered blaster combine and liquidates them.” So how does the quirky little astromech do?
Actually, pretty well. R2-D2 is more or less perfectly handled in The Phantom Menace. This time he’s brand new, and obviously a bit more capable as a result of it, but frankly what else did we expect? I imagine he’s pretty far out of warranty by the time A New Hope rolls around.
And C-3PO. The overly polite slightly prissy protocol droid who really has no business being in a war. In this movie, he’s presented to us as a naked do-it-yourself project in some kid’s bedroom.
And again, I really don’t have a problem with it. I actually think it’s kind of a good twist on the character that 3PO, who always made a point of bragging about the features he had to everyone he met, was actually cobbled together from spare parts and junk. As for the alleged plot hole of why Vader never recognized him… should he? How often did they actually interact in the original trilogy? And, if you think about it, how many identical protocol droids are out there? The fact that C-3PO and R2 were able to pretend to be droids belonging to the Death Star in a New Hope suggests that there were probably quite a few gold-plated protocol droids and blue astromechs on board the station, so seeing a droid that was identical to C-3PO was probably a daily occurrence.
Which leaves… which leaves…
Okay. Well, first off we should be asking a very important question: does he even need to be here?
No, he doesn’t. At no point are his actions vital to the plot. Taking them to the Gungan city? Naboo has been populated for long enough that I’m pretty sure that the humans know the Gungans are there. Leading the Gungan forces? We’ve already got a Gungan officer character who can do that. Comic relief? You do realize you have a naked C-3PO in this movie, right? And a sarcastic snarky Obi-Wan? Enough said.
So yeah, my thoughts (unsurprisingly) is that this is a character that simply does not need to be here. If you really wanted to keep him though, I would actually suggest taking a page from the Clone Wars series currently wrapping up on Cartoon Network. There they make the simple change of having the disaster that follows in his wake due not to him being mind-numbingly stupid and cowardly, but simply profoundly unlucky. In which case you could make his introduction more the result of the Gungans trying to snub Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon by offering them a guide that they feel will be a hindrance. But honestly, the movie would be well served by just getting rid of him completely.