Before Disney bought Lucasfilm and started producing yearly movies, a host of comics, books, and other Star Wars stories were still alive and well in the Expanded Universe. After the Disney purchase, however, in order to clean up a complicated continuity to allow for more movies, the Expanded Universe was dubbed 'Legends,' designating all stories therein as non-canon. Since this change, many elements of the Legends continuity have made their way into proper canon, including one of the most popular characters of the Expanded Universe: Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Thrawn is actually becoming a major focus in non-movie Star Wars, serving as the main villain in season 3 of Rebels, becoming a major connection between the Empire and the First Order, and he’s even about to get his own book, written by his original creator and popular Legends author, Timothy Zahn.
With the strong connective tissue in the Star Wars universe, seeing Thrawn pop up in so many places, especially in connection the First Order, raises a lot of questions. Namely: are we going to see a live-action Thrawn? Obviously, anything is possible with Star Wars spin-off movies, like Rogue One, which have the freedom to tell any story, regardless of its connection to the main episodic films, but is there a possibility Thrawn could actually appear in one of the main Star Wars films like the upcoming Episode VIII: The Last Jedi?
To understand the full significance of Thrawn’s potential importance in new Star Wars canon, we must first look at his story in Star Wars Legends. While it’s obviously non-canonical, it’s surprisingly consistent with what’s being done with the character in canon and might help to fill in some gaps with speculation.
Thrawn in Legends
Because of the way recent Star Wars canon has unfolded, Grand Admiral Thrawn’s story from Star Wars Legends can’t exactly be cut and paste, but there’s still a lot about the character that can be learned by reviewing his role in the old Expanded Universe.
Mitth'raw'nuruodo, AKA Thrawn, was a member of the blue-skinned humanoid species known as the Chiss. The Chiss inhabited the planet Csilla in an area of uncharted space referred to as the “Unknown Regions” by the rest of the galaxy. Thrawn was responsible for exploring and patrolling stretches of the frontier within the Unknown Regions when he came into contact with the Empire. Supreme Chancellor (at the time) Palpatine was impressed with the young Thrawn’s keen mind and strategic prowess, envisioning a role for him in his future Empire.
Palpatine informed Thrawn of a threat he suspected from “Far Outsiders” from outside the known galaxy, who (he claimed) were preparing an invasion force. These outsiders ended up being the Yuuzhan Vong, a hyper-advanced biotechnological species of conquerors who would end up invading the galaxy decades after Return of the Jedi in the Legends timeline.
Thrawn eventually joined Palpatine and quickly rose through the ranks to become a Grand Admiral. The Emperor allowed Thrawn to operate with a fair level of autonomy, even providing him a force to take into the Unknown Regions to develop a shadow Empire, called the Empire of the Hand, further preparing for Palpatine’s feared eventuality of a Yuuzhan Vong invasion.
Thrawn was in the Unknown Regions at the time of the Battle of Endor, so he and his shadow Empire survived in secrecy until he emerged a few years after the destruction of the second Death Star and death of Palpatine to challenge a newly formed New Republic.
Thrawn in New Canon
Surprisingly little has been revealed about Thrawn in Star Wars canon, considering he was the main antagonist for all of Star Wars Rebels' third season, but a rough outline of the character’s history has become apparent, and a few excerpts from the upcoming Thrawn novel (which will obviously blow the doors wide open on him) have confirmed that - all things considered - his pre-Return of the Jedi arc is surprisingly similar to his story in Legends.
Canon Thrawn also hails from Csilla in the Unknown Regions. He comes to join Palpatine’s Empire and informs him of potential threats, offering his services to prepare for the eventuality of an extra-galactic invasion. Thrawn was personally tasked with rooting out the Rebels and destroying them in season 3 of Rebels, and while he wasn't entirely successful in ending the Rebellion, he’s still alive and kicking at the end of the season.
The interesting thing about Thrawn is that he’s not accounted for during the time of the original trilogy. Obviously, not every single character is going to be seen in every story. Grand Admiral Rae Sloane is a good example - she’s also not in the original trilogy, yet she’s prominent in the Aftermath books - but Thrawn seems a little more high profile and he’s not even mentioned in the book Lost Stars, which takes an even closer look at the Empire during that era.
In fact, the only reference to him outside of Rebels (and the unreleased Thrawn novel) comes in a brief aside in Aftermath: Empire’s End, the final book in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy. In that book, it says that Thrawn played a role in helping Palpatine chart a path into the Unknown Regions - a path the Empire uses to flee the galaxy and reform as the First Order after the Battle of Jakku.
This is where we run out of concrete details and have to start relying on some inferences and speculation. With Thrawn’s fate still up in the air, is it possible that he’s still alive at the time of the Battle of Endor? If so, where is he?
Considering his path so far has hewed fairly closely to the Legends version of his character, it’s reasonable to assume that trend continues. The Rebel Alliance's first major victory was the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One, meaning it’s pretty unlikely that Thrawn will get killed off in season 4.
If the Legends inspiration persists, Palpatine would order Thrawn to go to the Unknown Regions himself, where he would begin building a new Empire. Coincidentally, Thrawn did send a ship into the Unknown Regions prior to the Battle of Endor. It was his personal Super Star Destroyer, the Eclipse. The Aftermath trilogy ends with the Imperial leadership arriving in the Unknown Regions and approaching the Eclipse, but it leaves the identity of the ship’s commander a complete mystery. Could it be Thrawn?
Palpatine’s contingency plan following the failure at Endor was something only his most trusted officers were aware of, and Thrawn would be in that category. Also, if Palpatine were to send his personal ship into the Unknown Regions, he would want it under the command of someone well prepared for the journey. Since Thrawn is one of the few people in the entire galaxy to have made that journey before - and already has connections in the Unknown Region - it wouldn’t make sense for Palpatine to send anyone else.
So, the whole question really hinges on whether or not Thrawn lives through Rebels season 4 and the rest of the original trilogy. Not the biggest stretch.
Thrawn in Live-Action?
If it really is Thrawn onboard the Eclipse at the end of Aftermath: Empire's End, that means he would become an instrumental figure in building The First Order, so wouldn’t it make sense for him to show up in a movie eventually? After Saw Gerrera’s inclusion in Rogue One, Star Wars is no stranger to taking animated characters to live-action, and if any character in the history of non-movie Star Wars deserves to make a live-action appearance, it's Thrawn.
If Thrawn is going to appear on the big screen, it would surely have to happen in Episode VIII, unless there’s a stand-alone story he fits into. He could wait until Episode IX, but that seems a little late in the game to introduce him. With The Last Jedi set to explore more of the First Order, that really seems like the best place to introduce him.
That obviously raises a huge question about casting. Who would play Thrawn? How could they have kept his inclusion under wraps for so long? It’s important to point out that we don’t really know much about Episode VIII, including the identity of some new cast members like Benicio del Toro.
It wouldn’t necessarily have to be del Toro (although the image above is definitely made in his likeness), but descriptions of his character have been all over the place. He first claimed he was a villain, then retracted those statements. Making Star Wars suggests he’s sort of a shady character in a similar role to Lando in Empire Strikes Back, but without any official confirmation - or even a trailer - who knows?
Again, it could also be any number of other actors, too, or even a motion capture performance if blue paint and red contact lenses don't look quite right in live-action. It's doubtful that a big name is secretly involved, that can be hard to hide, but Episode VIII has even more spoiler free than The Force Awakens was this far out, and that movie kept a lot under wraps.
Obviously, the theory is way out there, but most of the pieces are already in place, it only depends on the assumption that Thrawn’s story will continue to follow his Legends arc, which would eventually place him in a key position in the First Order and eventually in front of a camera.
What do you think? Do you want to see Thrawn in live action? Do you think Benicio del Toro would make a good Thrawn, or is there someone else you'd like to see play the role? Let us hear about it in the comments!
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017