Features and Columns · TV

How ‘Star Wars: The Force Unleashed’ Sparked Darth Maul’s Redemption

We look back at the video game and consider how voice actor Sam Witwer would eventually redeem The Phantom Menace’s coolest looking character.
Star Wars Sam Witwer Darth Maul
By  · Published on April 22nd, 2022

Star Wars Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Star Wars shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry examines Sam Witwer’s role in resurrecting and revitalizing Darth Maul and why we owe it all to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

Television is not the only realm flooded with Star Wars content. While many are obsessing over what’s streaming next on Disney+, just as many, if not way more, are frothing for the next Star Wars video game. The recent release of Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga has stirred something in the Force. In its wake, numerous other games are in development.

From Zenga (the Farmville folks), there’s the new PvP game Star Wars: Hunters, due on iOS, Android, and Switch later this year. EA may have lost the exclusive Lucasfilm gaming license, but they’re not slowing down. In collaboration with Respawn, we’ll soon receive an untitled first-person shooter, an untitled strategy game, and a sequel to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.

Aspyr has a Knights of the Old Republic remake in the works for the PS5. While they’re already working on a long-delayed Avatar game, Ubisoft Massive also has an open-world Star Wars adventure. The French studio Quantic Dream is developing Star Wars: Eclipse, an action-oriented multiplayer. And finally, Amy Hennig, who worked with Naughty Dog on the Uncharted franchise, is leading the team on the upcoming Skydance Star Wars vehicle, hoping to achieve a cinematic action experience.

If you lean toward nostalgia, and you’re a Star Wars fan, so, of course, you lean toward nostalgia, you might be most excited about Star Wars: The Force Unleashed finally finding its way onto the Nintendo Switch more than a decade after its initial release. The video game is significant for several reasons, but chief among them is how it introduced actor Sam Witwer to our beloved franchise.

Years before voicing Darth Maul and Emperor Palpatine on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, and beyond (yes, including Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga), the actor gave voice to The Force Unleashed‘s central figure. Galen Marek, aka Starkiller, aka The Apprentice, lost his father to Darth Vader during the Great Jedi Purge. The Dark Lord of the Sith stole the child and raised him in secret.

The Force Unleashed allowed us to play through Marek’s twisty morality tale, and Witwer gave the character an emotional depth often missing from the previous franchise games. Post-Disney acquisition, Lucasfilm eventually rendered the story non-canonical. Yet, they folded Witwer into their troop. When it came time to resurrect another mad apprentice, one who took a mutilated tumble during The Phantom Menace‘s climax, they asked Witwer to lend his voice once again. The decision helped mend a great failing from the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Darth Maul looks rad. And Ray Park, in live-action, undoubtedly injected the character with skill and a menacing swagger. However, besides his design and badass fighting abilities, director George Lucas delivered very little with Maul. He was a bad guy sidekick deemed disposable with one slash from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber.

I remember leaving the theater in 1999 thinking, “Is that it? We’re not going to get any more from the coolest looking dude in the whole film?” I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, but Lucas’ casual Maul dismissal would kickstart one of the franchise’s most tragic and deliciously pathetic storylines. Maul would go from Palpatine’s Dark Sidekick to a deadly Shakespearan weasel. The transformation was completed by Sam Witwer.

Maul reappeared in The Clone Wars episode, “Brothers.” We learned that after his body was scooped and discarded on the junkyard planet Lotho Minor, Maul went mad amongst the scraps. He constructed a spider body below his torso, and when his brother Savage Opress finally discovered him, Maul was a scrambling psychotic. The creature had nothing left but a blood-boiling drive for revenge against the Emperor who discarded him and the Jedi who cut him in two.

Sam Witwer drilled into Maul’s hurt. The quivering rage he gave Maul’s voice would mellow somewhat as the series progressed, and as the character continued his hateful quest into Star Wars: Rebels, but he never totally relinquished Maul’s trembling insanity. Witwer delivers Maul’s venomous whispering lilt with a roar rumbling beneath.

Every word spoken shimmers with rage and jealousy. As villainous and awful as Maul behaves, Witwer pulls us into the killer’s painful plight. Witwer is the reason we often find ourselves rooting for the superpowered gangster, aching for him to overcome Palpatine miraculously. And maybe, just maybe, even get the better of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“Brothers” was the penultimate episode of The Clone Wars season three. While Maul’s narrative was not the main one for the show’s remaining lifespan, it did develop into a catastrophic tale that touched nearly every character going forward. His actions in The Clone Wars and Rebels are felt in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. And if director Bryce Dallas Howard is to be believed regarding the cartoon universe’s impact on the upcoming Ahsoka Tano series, we can assume Maul’s sad saga will continue to reverberate there.

Maul would eventually get his showdown with both the Emperor and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In both cases, he failed. The second confrontation led to his demise in the Rebels masterpiece “Twin Suns.” We don’t expect the former Sith to appear in the ObiWan Kenobi Disney+ series since Anakin Skywalker’s return is that show’s big promise. However, we should prepare for how Maul’s animated machinations continue to reveal troubling consequences in the live-action world.

Maul returned to Star Wars four years after Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Fandom’s fascination with him guaranteed his resurrection, but the Sam Witwer within propelled Maul’s story into an essential mythos ingredient. Witwer got us to care for the character, who was basically a glorified action figure before “Brothers.”

Too often, we zero our focus on the Star Wars movies and television shows. We should pay more attention to the expanded universe. Black Krssantan began in the comics. Cad Bane and Ahsoka Tano came from the cartoons. And while Maul achieved his look in the movies, he found his heart in The Clone Wars, served up on a cracked, silver platter by Sam Witwer.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is now streaming on Disney+.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)