[Update: Reposted from April 13th for #StarWarsDay. May the 4th be with you!]
Darth Vader is arguably the most iconic movie villain of all time. From his first appearance on screen, he’s dominating, imposing, and ruthless. He regularly dispatches any underlings that displease him, yet he’s still cold and calculating, both unpredictable and unflappable. Due to this status as one of the baddest of the bad, his journey to redemption through the original Star Wars trilogy is one that places his character arc among the most classic stories in movie history.
When Star Wars fans first glimpsed the design for Darth Maul before the release of The Phantom Menace, there were hopes that he could one day measure up to Vader. His menacing look and athletic portrayal by martial arts expert Ray Park set a high bar. Unfortunately, that’s not how things initially shook out. While Maul is still a fan-favorite element of Episode I, his apparent death at the end of the movie seemingly eliminated a character that many hoped would one day join the pantheon of cinema’s greatest villains.
Nevertheless, a decade after the release of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas revealed in The Clone Wars animated series that Maul was in fact still alive, starting him down a path that would one day result in him becoming a villain with a story even more tragic than Darth Vader’s.
From Antipodal Mothers
Looking at the lives of each character, there are actually a lot of parallels and subversions of similar arcs to be found in the stories of both Anakin Skywalker and Maul. Anakin is born without a father (possibly conceived by midi-chlorians). He’s a slave, but he has a kind and loving mother, the humble and powerless Shmi Skywalker, that teaches him things like “the biggest problem in the universe is that nobody helps each other.”
Maul, on the other hand, is born to Mother Talzin. No father is mentioned in his case either, but it’s never suggested that he’s actually conceived by the Force, Talzin conceiving her own child with the use of Nightsister magick also isn’t likely as that’s something you’d think would have been mentioned, so he probably doesn’t have a supernatural origin. Odds are, Talzin held a tournament amongst the Nightbrothers to locate an acceptable breeding partner. Either way, it’s quite a bit different from the mother Anakin Skywalker grew up with.
We don’t know what Talzin taught Maul, but thanks to Asaaj Ventress’s story in the book Dark Disciple, we have an idea of the teachings of the Nightsisters, and they’re not all that different from the Sith. While the Nightsisters don’t give themselves over to the dark side, letting it consume them, as the Sith do their training still causes them to experience pain and dig into their rage and other dark emotions. It’s about as far from nurturing as you can get.
Chosen by Different Masters
When Anakin was nine years old, Qui-Gon Jinn arrived on Tatooine and, seeing the boy’s potential, took him on as his padawan learner, believing him to be the prophesied Chosen One that would bring balance to the Force. Anakin was given the choice to leave his mother behind to begin his training.
Maul was not given a choice to leave his mother. Darth Sidious originally approached Mother Talzin hoping to expand his own Sith knowledge with an understanding of Nightsister magick, with plans to make Talzin his Sith apprentice. Those plans changed when he saw Maul. He kidnapped the young Zabrak, making him his new apprentice instead, raising him as a key piece of his plans to take over the galaxy.
Both were separated from their mother under similar promises of a grand destiny. Anakin was told he would bring balance, while Maul was told he would dominate. Maul received his training directly from Palpatine, but Anakin trained under Obi-Wan Kenobi as Palpatine merely whispered in his ear, planting seeds of fear and distrust.
More Machine Than Man
Anakin would eventually succumb to the Sith Lord’s seduction, betraying the Jedi and facing his former master, a battle he loses in a way that is eerily similar to Maul’s own duel with Kenobi from years earlier. When Maul possesses the high ground at the end of the duel on Naboo, Obi-Wan vaults over him, cutting him in half. The tables are turned against Anakin on Mustafar when Obi-Wan is the one that possesses the high ground. Anakin tries to vault over him, nearly getting cut in half like Maul, losing both legs and an arm instead.
Both of the Sith apprentices miraculously survive the near-fatal maiming at the hands of Obi-Wan, but while Palpatine leaves Maul to descend into insanity on the junk world of Lotho Minor where Maul goes with Naboo’s trash, the Sith Lord rushes to Anakin’s side, preserving his new apprentice’s life with cybernetic limbs, a respirator, and the iconic black armor.
Maul’s survival comes from his own rage, allowing him to dig deep into the dark side and preserve his life, at the loss of his mind. He also has his own cybernetic limbs, but the arachnid body he fashions for himself from the trash of Lothar is far less elegant than the body Palpatine gives Vader. He remains on the junk world for years until he’s discovered by his brother, Savage Opress, who returns him to his mother on Dathomir where he’s given a proper lower half, fashioned from battle droid scraps through the power of Nightsister magick.
While this could be considered the first act of kindness we’re aware of Maul experiencing, it wasn’t something Savage or Talzin did out of any sense of benevolence of nobility. In fact, Talzin though Maul was alive for over a decade and never went to find him until Savage had a bone to pick with her enemies. Maul has yet to experience true love or companionship in the way Anakin did from his mother, Padme, Obi-Wan, Ahsoka, and others. Maul’s continued path down the dark side makes sense – he’s never known anything else. But Anakin should have known better. He was surrounded by compassionate people, whereas Maul was only ever what Palpatine made him, only now he lacked the grand destiny he was promised.