Star Wars is back, and while much of the attention is unsurprisingly on the movies (Rogue One is clearing up at the box office and The Force Awakens just scooped an unexpected achievement), there is plenty more going on in that galaxy far, far away. Since taking over Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney’s been hard at work expanding the universe with new material in comics, games, novels and more. The peak of that is Star Wars Rebels, the Disney XD show that fleshes out the timeline between the prequels and originals. It’s proven a bigger hit than even predecessor The Clone Wars; at Star Wars Celebration 2016, the Rebels panel (which aired two new episodes and confirmed the return of fan-favourite Thrawn) was received with a level of enthusiasm that matched, if not exceeded that of Rogue One's.
If mass praise, James Earl Jones returning as Vader and the canonizing of Thrawn (played by Mads Mikkelsen’s brother, Lars Mikkelsen, no less) hasn’t convinced you to tune in, then perhaps the trailer for season 3’s second half may finally win you over. There’s a lot of cool stuff in there – the Empire’s robotic Death Troopers appear to be coming over from Dark Forces – but nothing quite matches the final few seconds, which shows Darth Maul and Obi-Wan gearing up for a rematch battle on Tatooine.
Maul (he shed the Darth title with his legs) was first resurrected in The Clone Wars, where he and his brother, Savage Opress, hunted down Obi-Wan (and later took on the Emperor), then returned as a more maniacal antagonist in season 2 of Rebels - corrupting budding Jedi Ezra. The last time he appeared, Maul was seen jetting off to find nemesis Obi-Wan, who he discovered had survived Order 66 from a holocron, which the trailer gives a brief glimpse of.
Exciting as it may be, the pair duking it out in the deserts of Tatooine isn’t something new to Star Wars fiction. Back in 2005, Dark Horse Comics published an anthology series titled Visionaries, where concept artists from the prequels wrote a selection of high-concept stories. They ranged from simple in-universe pieces of Imperial propaganda to a detailed account of General Grievous’ origins, but the most captivating was the first – Old Wounds by Aaron McBride (an ILM artist).
In it, we see Owen and Luke at the Lars homestead, watching the twin sunset, when a mysterious figure begins approaching the farm. The intruder leaps over Owen’s gunfire and incapacitates him, calling out to Obi-Wan and revealing he’s been hunting him for decades. Kenobi emerges and the assailant is finally shown to be Darth Maul, resurrected with robotic legs. They fight, trashing the Lars landspeeder in the process, but when Obi-Wan finally bests his foe, he finds it impossible to kill Maul – the thought of all the death and suffering experienced since their Naboo duel is too strong. As he hesitates, Owen takes the fatal shot, killing Maul, but as a result of the incident forbidding Obi-Wan from ever returning.
It’s a great little graphic story, and one that takes care to contextualize what could have been a simple fan-baity moment within the Star Wars world. Maul talks of visiting Kamino, Geonosis, Mustafar (complete with charred Anakin) and Polis Massa on his travels and alludes to having killed Watto to get to his prey. It also masquerades as a vague explanation for why Owen mistrusted Ben so much and accelerates Kenobi’s development to hermit.
That said, the story was always stated as non-canon even by the old Expanded Universe’s shaky continuity standards. There was a passing mention of it in an online article expanding on Grievous’ past – post Revenge of the Sith everyone was obsessed with Sir Coughs-a-lot – but that was more honouring the stories coming from the same anthology than anything else. Despite that, it managed to capture fan’s imaginations. Darth Maul coming back into the movies had been mooted ever since his untimely demise in Episode I – 2001 Star Wars Tales comic Resurrection had him brought back by the Emperor and used as a test for Darth Vader, while theories for both subsequent sequels hoped he’d make an appearance – but this really catalysed the notion of his resurrection and an older Kenobi having one final showdown.
It was so enticing that the design of cyborg Maul actually wound up influencing the version seen in The Clone Wars, and subsequently Rebels (hardly surprising given how much of a super-fan showrunner Dave Filoni is). It’s unlikely much more will be taken from the tale beyond the concept of the fight though; the Maul in the series is much more calculating than the anger-fuelled monster of Old Wounds, and an Uncle Owen and teenage Luke Skywalker appearance would be one cameo too many, breaking logic in what Lucasfilm are hoping to be a consistently cohesive continuity. Old Wounds is set only three years after Sith, so there was no way Luke would remember an intense lightsaber duel, whereas Rebels is just a few years before the original film.
In fact, outside of Kenobi coming out victorious ("Help me Maul, you're my only hope" doesn't quite have the same ring to it), there's not much to speculate on with Rebels' fight, although there are some continuity issues it raises. Up until now, the prospect of Obi-Wan duelling Maul was an otherworld-style tale, but now it’s baggage that Alec Guinness’ portrayal is retroactively carrying. As such, there’s some things that need to be honored – Maul can’t call his adversary "Obi-Wan" if it’s still going to be a name he’s “not heard in a long time”, and the bigger intrigue is how Ben will fit into the wider Rebels story yet manage to keep his seclusion a secret. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that with so much weight being it this is a lightsaber duel that could rival last season finale's showdown between Darth Vader and former apprentice Ashoka Tano.
Over a decade after it was first told, we’re finally going to get to see the Maul/Kenobi grudge match, something that was up until a year or so ago a scant impossibility. And that’s the real power of Rebels and Disney's new canon; it doesn’t just bring back Legends elements we all loved, but realises the things thought too crazy to be real.