One of the best things about Solo: A Star Wars Story is how different it feels. Many of the characters are the same—Han Solo himself, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian—but the movie doesn’t deal directly with the Empire, any Death Star–like battle stations that can wipe out planets, or lightsaber-wielding characters attuned to the Force. It’s a film that exists in the Star Wars universe, and explores new corners of it—compared with the weighty, galaxy-shifting stakes of other Star Wars movies, centering Solo on a heist of coaxium (which is basically expensive starship fuel) and the completion of the Kessel Run is downright quaint.
However, there are moments of Solo—which takes place between Revenge of the Sith and the last spinoff film, Rogue One—that serve to remind viewers of the bigger picture. There’s an implication that Han handing over the pricey, stolen coaxium to space pirates is a stepping stone to the formation and financing of the Rebel Alliance. And most strikingly, one shocking cameo near the end of Solo puts the film within the context of the franchise’s larger scope, eliciting reactions that are one part “That was awesome!” and one part “Wait, how the hell is this character alive?!” Let’s talk about Darth Maul.
Yes, that Darth Maul, last seen on the big screen getting sliced in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of The Phantom Menace. That Maul’s reappearance feels baffling is understandable, especially for casual fans who stick to solely the Star Wars movies, but it is explainable. After The Phantom Menace, Maul reemerged in both the Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels animated series—two of the few non-movie properties that Disney maintained as canon after it acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. Clone Wars explained how Maul survived the ordeal on Naboo—long story short: He clung onto life; got some robot legs; teamed up with his brother, the hilariously named Savage Opress; and became a crime lord—and his attempts to seek vengeance on Obi-Wan and Darth Sidious, who moved on to other Sith apprentices in Count Dooku and then Anakin Skywalker. The story is a bit melodramatic and far-fetched, but Maul was criminally underused in The Phantom Menace and looked like Satan going through a punk-rock phase, so why nitpick?
You can read up on Maul’s extensive post–Phantom Menace exploits on his Wookieepedia page—Clone Wars and Rebels are rich texts—but in short: Maul being alive during the events of Solo checks out. In Star Wars lore, he doesn’t meet his end until—Star Wars Rebels spoiler alert!—confronting Peak Sand Hermit Obi-Wan on Tatooine and losing the ensuing lightsaber duel. In Solo, it turns out that Crimson Dawn, the crime syndicate led by Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, serves Darth Maul, who presumably operates several crime syndicates across the galaxy. His outfit is probably similar to the Shadow Collective, a group of syndicates he formed in Clone Wars. And because Vos is killed at the end of the film and Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra supplants him, that means she’ll directly report to Maul moving forward.
On a deeper level, Maul’s cameo is the kind of footnote that teeters between somewhat unnecessary Star Wars fan service—like Darth Vader callously slicing through Rebels at the end of the Rogue One just so we could see Darth Vader callously slicing through Rebels—and something more enticing. As Star Wars becomes increasingly Marvelized, Maul’s reemergence could be a bridge to more Star Wars movies set prior to the events of Rogue One. Even if you know how Maul’s story ends on Tatooine, that doesn’t eliminate the thrill of the possibility of Star Wars’ most aesthetically freaky villain possibly getting a more detailed treatment, beyond a few throwaway lines of dialogue. (Sorry, The Phantom Menace still irritates me.)
It’s not just wishful thinking; it could be Lucasfilm’s endgame for Solo. Alden Ehrenreich has all but confirmed that he’s signed on for three total films. If Solo is the beginning of a new Han Solo–led trilogy, it’d make sense for Maul’s new criminal alliance to be roped into the narrative as a continuing villainous presence, if only because of Han’s lingering feelings for his childhood love Qi’Ra.
If the Star Wars anthology films were to go down this path, there would surely be dissent from a faction of fans who wish for the spinoffs to be more bottled and idiosyncratic, completely untethered to the saga’s main mythology. Solo is not a groundbreaking film; it is, however, a competent and breezy action-adventure romp that isn’t mired in the more self-serious Jedi-Sith, Light-vs.-Dark rhetoric that carries the other films. To those aforementioned fans, that will be a relief, but for perhaps many others, that rhetoric is essential to Star Wars. A dynamic featuring Mafia Boss Darth Maul, then, would be something inherently more interesting than seeing how Han Solo completed the Kessel Run. While Solo could’ve existed without giving us a glimpse of Darth Maul, choosing to do so opened up the possibilities for a much more interesting sequel, even if it’s a retread of familiar Sith territory.
As Lucasfilm continues to clear the air about the future of its anthology films—a Boba Fett movie from Logan director James Mangold is reportedly on the way, and Obi-Wan: A Star Wars Story could also be on the horizon—we should learn more about the direction of Young Han Solo, Young Lando, and Washed Darth Maul. But by giving us a taste of Maul at the end of Solo, Lucasfilm has opened a Pandora’s box. The least interesting thing it could do now is close it, and pretend as if Maul’s cameo doesn’t come with wide-ranging possibilities.