Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Clone Wars: Revenge

In the beginning of “Revenge,” the finale of the fourth season of The Clone Wars, Darth Maul is a cackling lunatic hiding in the cargo hold of Savage’s stolen ship. As the arc’s writer, Katie Lucas was tasked to bring back a much-loved character, and a lot is riding on Maul’s restoration at Mother Talzin’s hands. Unfortunately, this episode didn’t quite make it feel like the old Darth Maul was back. Instead, we get a new one who is a bit less subtle.

“Massacre” hasn’t been forgotten: the battlefields of Dathomir, with their zombie bodies and half-deployed droids, are creepy. Savage finds Mother Talzin, or rather she finds him, appearing out of a line of mystical smoke. She also uses a shiny orb of smoke to entice Maul. She speaks in her usual mystic Transylvanian tone but also with the first motherly words we’ve heard her say. Maul is referred to as “child” and “the lost one” as he emerges from the ship and follows her.

We get a better look at him now than we did in the caves of Lotho Minor. The spidery body still has a lot of attention paid to it, and that’s great. Creative camera angles tracking up the spider legs give them weight and show details of the disturbingly disjointed bits of machinery. This body is less than the sum of its parts. (Oddly enough, Maul still seems to also be sporting the single earring he wore in Episode I.)

It is also clearer in this light that Maul is scarred and leathery-skinned as well as emaciated. The lighting is still dramatically red, though, which gets annoying as it persists throughout the episode. I understand that the episode is supposed to be dark, but it’s not like the Zabrak brothers carry red smog around. A sunny day would have made the planet Maul takes his hostages on even more innocent in contrast to the two brothers.

I’m a bit disappointed that we haven’t learned more about Savage’s motivation. He was a very driven character in last season’s episodes, but that was because he was brainwashed and Count Dooku’s acolyte. Now that Savage is a free agent in opposition to both Asajj and Dooku, I’m not sure what he wants. Does he blame Talzin for Feral’s death? And if not, why not? Their dead third brother has largely dropped off of the face of the universe. We know that Savage is humorless and merciless as well, but I’d like to see some of his attributes that don’t have “-less” at the end.

Mother Talzin takes the two brothers to a low island wreathed with even more smoke and gives him the Nightsister makeover that she treated Savage and Asajj to earlier. I wonder if it’s more similar this time to the technique the Jedi used when they wiped Darth Revan’s memory, although memory is being given instead of taken away. There’s another reference that appears to be to Knights of the Old Republic, as well. Maul says that he survived Naboo because of his hate and rage, and Darth Sion says the same thing about his zombie-like state of existence. With the recent Book of Sith tying together the Mortis arc and Fate of the Jedi, I feel like some sort of unifying theory of the Force is coming up next.

Talzin uses her Zabrak-proof Dathomiri forehead-poke to render Maul prone. There’s a delightfully creepy moment where his spider legs thrash independently of one another while his body lies still, as if the machinery of the legs weren’t affected by Talzin’s nerve pinch.

There’s still no explanation for her all-purpose magic, although this is obviously the same sort of thing that happened to Ventress and Savage. Maul’s horns get shorter the same way Savage’s got longer, presumably so that the viewer recognizes him more easily. I’m not sure what this says about Zabrak physiology: do the horns naturally grow as long as Spider Maul’s and Savage’s? Do other adult Zabraks need to file them? Were Savage’s and Feral’s short horns a sign of their youth, and Mother Talzin’s smoke baptism of Savage a forcibly induced coming-of-age  or rebirth? We can’t be sure.
From "Old Wounds".
Maul’s second-hand legs go through a molten-lava transformation until re-emerging as metal ones nearly exactly the same as those we saw in the Old Wounds comic in 2005. The abdomen section is simplified, and the legs given a short reverse joint, but the idea is the same. The design is also the same, down to the grooves in the metal. The legs look awesome in animation.

Maul seems to remember Savage, although we don’t really know where Savage was when Maul’s mother gave him away, as shown in The Wrath of Darth Maul, or which of the brothers is older. I was watching this episode with friends, one of whom pointed out that this Maul seemed “more human” than the one in the movie, and that it “seems like he had some chance for [normal development] before he was taken by the Sith.” However, according to Wrath he was taken as an infant, which would explain his animalistic, quiet approach in The Phantom Menace. The Maul of The Clone Wars is more calculating and self-aware than the Maul in the movies, which brings us to his next conversation with Savage and some of the biggest problems I have with this episode.  My friends even wondered whether Talzin might even have placed false memories to make this Maul the person she wanted him to be.

The first conversation between the brothers displays some of the most stilted dialogue in The Clone Wars since, well, Mortis. In dialogue such as “I became a rabid animal, discarded,” Maul explains to us things that we already know. It’s exposition without implication. Maul says, “I have missed so much,” when the viewer already knows that he’s been out of touch for thirteen years. Instead he could have asked about his Master, or even gone the route of time travel tropes and asked what year it was. The dialogue continues to be clumsy and prosaic at the same time as it is too wordy: “My path has been so dark, darker than I ever dreamed it could be.”

My favorite line in the Maul-Savage conversation involves the disturbing prescience Maul shows when Savage mentions the Clone Wars. Maul says, “So it began without me,” and I have to give Sam Witwer credit for not putting much of a question mark on the end of that sentence. (The unnecessary “so” has to be forgiven.) It makes sense that Maul would have known about Sidious’ plans to make war, even if he hadn’t heard the war called by the exact name that Yoda coined for it. There’s no need to assume that Maul would be confused by the war’s name, either, when he can use the Force to feel what Savage is talking about. There’s a lot in those few words, and this is the example that I feel Katie Lucas failed to live up to in the rest of the episode.

I’m going to leave my further discussion of Maul’s personality and how I think this arc missed on it for the end of my review, since maybe some of you are wondering what else happens rather than how much I disagree with the storytellers about the character.

Shorter scenes that break up the brothers’ story offer occasional moments that shine: an alien pronouncing Savage’s name the way it’s spelled, and Asajj slinking out of the dark to claim, unchallenged, the right to the million-credit bounty on the Zabrak. Latts isn’t accompanying her this time. I also couldn’t help but notice that Ventress’ line to the bounty hunters calls attention to her gender: “Don’t even consider it, boys.” Personally I didn’t feel the clarification was necessary, but it does go along with the flirty attitude that she has shown throughout the series.

Savage and Maul go to a planet that exists only to have innocent people for Maul to kill. Maul believes this is the only way to get Obi-Wan’s attention, which seems at odds with his straightforward approach in The Phantom Menace, where he left all the scheming to Darth Sidious. Maul and Savage tag-team Obi-Wan, who, now that he’s over being surprised about Maul’s survival, is back in ‘snark while getting beaten’ mode that he’s been in for most of this season. His “I like your new legs. They make you look taller.” gets points for the reference to Ray Park’s stature as compared to Ewan McGregor or Liam Neeson.

Obi-Wan is captured, and his treatment by the brothers is striking in its oddity: there are thirteen years of me thinking I would never see Maul and Obi-Wan stuck in a room together. Maul’s “You will suffer as I have suffered” offers some truly frightening possibilities: is he going to cut Obi-Wan in half slowly?! Shock value aside, though, I don’t think Maul would want or care for Obi-Wan’s death to be slow. There is no slow in him. I understand that for Maul to be the main villain in the season (which would be awesome) he couldn’t kill Obi-Wan immediately, but it still seemed like he was stalling for time that he shouldn’t know he had.

Asajj Force-leaps into Savage’s ship, where Savage gives her a funny “not again” expression and introduces her to his family instead of immediately trying to stab her. The four of them engage in a fight in which everyone has red lightsabers, something I’m not sure we’ve seen in Star Wars before. It’s certainly interesting to see Obi-Wan with a red blade. It’s a scene filled with characters from all affiliations – Jedi, Sith, something else entirely. Asajj is the only one who really manages to be mysterious. Her disembodied voice is much more frightening than Maul’s careful explanation of his motivations. Asajj lets her evil show. Faced with a large portion of the main cast coming together for the season finale, I had to remind myself that Anakin and Ahsoka are presumably still at a diner.
Maul has another good line with his derisive “And they call you Master,” and then Ventress and Obi-Wan steal the show. I really liked their banter: “When did you become the good guy?” “Don’t insult me.” and other amusing lines establish them as nowhere near friendly, but united against a common enemy that takes itself more seriously than they do.

The fight in the ship reminded me very much of the desert fight in Episode I. Without a lot of space neither Maul or Obi-Wan are allowed to stretch out and show off, either literally or metaphorically. There was some great use of people crashing into boxes, but it was a teaser for battles to come. We do get the immense, ‘of course this has to happen eventually’ satisfaction of cyber-Maul kicking Obi-Wan in the face.

Obi-Wan and Ventress escape, leaving Maul and Savage to brood in their ship. The last moment of the episode shows Savage looking to his brother for their next move. Maul says that he can be patient. He has waited so long to kill Obi-Wan, so he can wait a little more.

I have a problem with that. In Episode I we saw a Maul who was quietly restrained, but only held back by his loyalty to and fear of Darth Sidious. There could be plenty of other ways to make it impossible for Maul to get to Obi-Wan within the span of this episode besides setting his all-important need for revenge aside. Letting Maul, not to mention one who was recently insane and spider-shaped, have self control is undermining both his characterization and the power Sidious had over him.
Katie Lucas seems to understand Ventress, but the writing suggests she has not thought beyond the surface of Maul’s character. It is that surface that he explains to us through lines in which he self-identifies as menacing and confused.

There were some funny, affectionate lines in here that shows she obviously knows how to write some things well. But there are a couple facts we learned about Maul in Episode I:

1.) He’s quiet.

2.) He’s obsessed with revenge.

We don’t get enough screen time to see him concerning himself with anything else, but that’s because George Lucas didn’t think we needed to. Maul’s purpose is to kill Jedi, and he drops his speederbike off a cliff to go after Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon on Tatooine instead of thinking up a plan to get the queen, the actual target he was assigned to, into his sights. He drove full-speed across a desert while wearing black clothing instead of, say, planning anything and taking hostages. I saw Maul in Episode I as someone very attuned to the Force to the extent that people who don’t have it don’t count as people to him. In the novel Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, he largely ignores civilians and calls them “pitiful.” Maul is inexorably pulled by the Force and driven by Darth Sidious’ plans. He is a character with a singular purpose, and Katie Lucas tried to get that across. She had Maul say the word “singular” to describe himself.

So why is Maul saying what I think he would say such a problem?

Because Maul wouldn’t say it. Having him understand his own thought processes immediately doubles that all-important singularity. There’s a moment in “Revenge” when Maul asked Obi-Wan how the Jedi felt when his Master was killed, and while this has potential to be illuminating in terms of Obi-Wan’s character, it also assumes that Maul cares about other people’s feelings. This is the same mistake that Katie Lucas made when she had Ventress loudly declare how silent she was.

Of course, The Phantom Menace isn’t the only source material we have. Maul is a bit more conversant in Shadow Hunter, but in an early scene he chooses not to kill a civilian because it would involve too much investigation by the authorities and because neither the Force nor Darth Sidious told him he should. Maul is not dramatic in his cruelty, unless it directly forwards his goal. It is someone like Anakin, a conflicted but fundamentally good man, who hesitates at killing children. Darth Maul is supposed to be a purely evil character. We get a bit of that implied in this episode: there are no survivors when Obi-Wan arrives at the hostage planet. Maybe Maul got bored. The killing is done off-screen for the sake of ratings, time limits, and so that dialogue doesn’t get in the way.

Last week’s episode got my hopes up, but I’m actually disappointed with “Revenge.” This episode was exciting, but mostly it cruised by on the strength of an established character without either bringing anything new to him or keeping with what little other information we have about him. I’m pretty much forced (pun intended) to give “Revenge” a 5/10. It’s half the show it used to be. It just didn’t live up to its potential.

1 comment:

  1. This is quite disappointing, eh, Nem? Especially since Maul is a very important character in this episode - and he wasn't portrayed as well as he could have been. I agree with your comments about characterisation and the flaws in this episode, but it is good to hear that SOME things were done right. :P

    As always, I love your funny comments that just make your reviews so enjoyable and your in-depth thoughts on how things were done and even what could have been done.

    I really hope that Maul's character is portrayed better in future episodes, so we get the awesome Maul we know and love from Episode I. Still, the kicking Obi-Wan in the face is priceless. XD

    ReplyDelete