Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Clone Wars: Brothers

Darth Maul died on the big screen for the first time in May 1999. Thirteen years later, he appears again on the small screen. In the galaxy far, far away it’s been almost the same amount of time since nine-year-old Anakin, now in his twenties, encountered the Sith warrior. That’s thirteen years of anticipation in two universes all leading up to one episode of The Clone Wars.
 
“Brothers” treads a narrow line between success and failure. The episode takes its time, beginning with a dialogue between Dooku and Grievous. The attempts to make the scenes atmospheric and creepy are rudimentary; Dooku says that he senses something sinister, and that sentiment is repeated by other characters. The lighting does its part too; throughout the episode we get a variety of half-lit or murky locations. Action is also used to make the episode seem intense. Savage is introduced while threatening a woman in a restaurant, and there’s a nice use of a swinging “camera” to make him seem even scarier than he is. The action is the one tactic that feels sincere.

We get introductory scenes for other characters, too, and presumably these are the people that will appear with Maul in future episodes. Anakin and Ahsoka, Asajj and my favorite Theelin, Latts, and Yoda and Obi-Wan all have their chance to say that they sense something menacing on the horizon. The introduction of Ahsoka and Anakin is a perfect example of how this episode did great things and then made old mistakes in quick succession. Anakin decides to stop at the restaurant just because he’s hungry, which is exactly the sort of thing I would like to see more of from The Clone Wars. Irrelevant to the plot, it just makes the characters seem more human. But before I could take a breath to praise it, the next line of dialogue was a clunky transition to Anakin noticing the plot, and that made it all feel contrived again.

This episode did have a couple of moments of humor that I liked. They lightened the generally heavy attitude of this whole arc. One of my favorites was when the restaurant owner brandished a frying pan at Anakin and a police droid said, “What are you doing, pointing that thing at a Jedi!” Maybe frying pans are the Jedi’s secret weakness.

While Ahsoka and Anakin spend their scene tracking Savage, the Zabrak hijacks a ship and lands on a planet called Lotho Minor. Its name has been mentioned in Darth Maul tie-in material before, but it was cool to actually hear it on the show.

I was watching this episode with friends, and we were practically taking bets on which of Lotho Minor’s bizarre inhabitants would fight Savage and take up most of the episode. I would have been disappointed if the episode had mostly been a filler fight. Instead, we get a solid ten minutes of Savage, and the Lotho Minor creatures are used mostly as set dressing. As such, they’re impressive, especially the fire-breathers that look like a fusion of construction machinery and krayt dragons. The “junkers” are a similarly mechanical creature that reminded me of Sand People. The resemblance seems to be intentional, since they heft what looks like gaffi sticks in similar ways. Lotho Minor is like an even hotter, even more decrepit version of Tatooine.

Savage’s guide there is the snakelike Morley. His identity won’t come as a surprise if you’ve read The Wrath of Darth Maul, and he’s pretty much a plot device. Morley’s wide mouth with small eyes on either side reminded me of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art of the Dagobah dragon-snake, and there my opinion pretty much ends. Savage would likely not have found Maul without him, which makes me wonder whether Talzin thought her magic pendant would work better than it actually did.

But what all of this is leading up to is the return of Darth Maul. I’ve been rooting for Maul to return as a cyborg since I read the comic Old Wounds, and based on previews for the next episode, I thought that was what we would be getting. But something else was waiting at the end of the creepy, claustrophobic yellow-lit hallway.

Sam Witwer’s Darth Maul first appears as a range of noises, from deep-voiced words and growls to high-pitched giggles and animalistic hisses. Witwer wasn’t given a lot to work with when he played the Son, but I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt here. His voice sounds cracked and varied, like its user hasn’t had a conversation in thirteen years, which is great. “The chains are the easy part,” a line Witwer added in reference to the Sith Code, was one of my favorites in the episode. However, it’s hard to reconcile this Maul’s voice with the softer voice of Peter Serafinowicz. The slight Corsucanti accent seems completely gone. Thirteen years of insanity changing a man is a compelling argument, but I hope we see the calmer Maul come back in the next episode.

The other half (pun intended) of the character is the visuals, and I was surprised and disgusted in exactly the way I suspect the designers intended me to be. Old Wounds Maul is cool. Spider Maul is not cool. His skinny, constantly shaking legs are so disturbing that they immediately convey how awful Maul’s existence in the cave has been. I think it’s a great concept that takes the idea of cyborg legs and brings it to an extreme. Close-ups on the legs make Maul seem like an animal, or someone in chains. I did have to wonder why Maul’s body looked almost exactly like a spider’s, and my friend came to the conclusion that it was a sensible shape if you needed to build an engine to power the legs. The association of insects with fear, dirt, and an automatic sort of diligence made me think that perhaps Maul had started building his legs before he regained even what sanity we saw in “Brothers,” and had eventually just forgotten how many he built. I believe that one sign of successful character design is that the viewer gets the sense of the character having lived and changed, and the spider body for Maul definitely achieved that.


“Brothers” displayed some stiff dialogue and some scenes, especially Anakin’s, that seemed constricted by the length of the episode. There were a lot of questions left unanswered, including why Savage’s pendant reacted to dust at the spaceport but not to Maul’s lair on Lotho Minor, and why Savage thought the woman at the restaurant could help him. The all-important question of how Maul survived the fall into the pit in The Phantom Menace is still not entirely resolved.

But the episode successfully kept me invested in the characters and hoping to see Maul interacting with a lot more of them. My feeling at the end of this episode was a deep pity for Maul at the same time as feeling that he was just as deadly now as he was in Episode I, although in different ways. “Brothers” was a creepy setup for Darth Maul, and I feel like he will become one of the most interesting villains in The Clone Wars. A lot of other characters know that and he and Savage are back now, so Katie Lucas has her work cut out for her. I hope to see her coming up with creative ways for Maul to interact with the main characters in the next episode and beyond.

2 comments:

  1. Cue the obligatory "ooooooh!" to start my comment, then move on to more important things. :P

    THE most important thing: Maul. And from what I just read in this review, he was represented well in this episode (despite the lack of accent), and I join you in hoping that Maul is portrayed later as he was in Episode I: the quiet, menacing villain who intimidates with his LACK of taunting and speech. Ooh, I do love Maul. <3

    Also, I agree about needing more of those little things that are irrelevant to the plot to make everyone seem more... real. It's too bad that the moment was kind of ruined with the dialogue that follows. It's Clone Wars, no-one is surprised. :/

    And your comment about frying pans being the Jedi's secret weakness. I do love the balance of Nemhumour and informative review you have in your posts. Overall, this was a very enjoyable read and an interesting addition to Maul's character! I look forward to hearing (or rather, reading) more when the next episode is released. :)

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