Sunday, March 26, 2017

'Rebels' Season 3 Finale Marks a New Chapter for the Series

Star Wars Rebels capped off its third season yesterday with "Zero Hour," a spectacular two-part episode that saw Grand Admiral Thrawn launch his long-awaited strike against the Rebel Alliance on their secret base on the planet Atollon. Like the incredible Season 2 finale, "Twilight of the Apprentice," "Zero Hour" resulted in a huge loss for the Rebels but still promised that their fight was far from over.
If there was any doubt that Thrawn would be just as great a villain as he is in Timothy Zahn's trilogy of novels, this episode officially squashed it. He spent much of this season patiently, meticulously studying the Ghost crew, and it all paid off. Using his great knowledge of the Rebels' strategies and his own Imperial fleet, Thrawn was able to orchestrate an efficient surprise attack that cost them their base and nearly their lives.
After jamming their communications, blockading the planet, and storming the base, Thrawn – with help from Rogue One's elite Death Troopers, no less – finally had the Rebels right where he wanted them. He was only thwarted by the Bendu, a mysterious Force-neutral being and a recurring character first introduced in the Season 3 premiere. Goaded on by Kanan, Bendu finally showed us his true power as he transformed into a lightning storm, sticking to his neutrality and attacking both the Imperials and the Rebels.
The Rebels used this diversion to escape the planet with help from old friend Sabine and her Mandalorian soldiers, who accepted Ezra's call for help and destroyed the Interdictor cruiser that was blocking them from entering hyperspace. While en route to their new home on Yavin 4, Kanan promised Ezra that this was only a setback for the Rebel Alliance. "There's a future for us. One where we're all free. But it's up to us to make it happen."

Moving to Yavin is the logical direction for the series, bringing it one step closer to Rogue One, in which Hera (now a general) seems to pilot the Ghost alongside the Rebel fleet in the Battle of Scarif. It's promising us that Season 4 will involve not just the Ghost crew and Phoenix Squadron, but the Rebel Alliance that we all know and love (including more guest appearances by Mon Mothma and Saw Gerrera, as confirmed in Rebels Recon).
The Ghost alongside the Rebel fleet in Rogue One
Comparing "Zero Hour" and "Twilight of the Apprentice" isn't an easy task. "Twilight" was immensely popular because it promised and delivered on a reunion/duel between Darth Vader and Ahsoka, a hugely emotional moment for both the characters themselves and any Clone Wars fan. It was an episode full of lightsaber duels and ancient Sith lore, and the ending was devastating on every level. 
"Zero Hour" may not have been as polished, but it deserves great respect for using all of the show's original characters and focusing on the central, Rebels-vs-Empire conflict, rather than relying on legacy characters like Vader, Ahsoka, and Maul to indulge the audience. It proved that the show can have a satisfying season finale without straying from its unique, core elements. 
"Zero Hour" was also a better culmination of the season's sub-plots. Aside from Thrawn's grand plan, the episode made use of slow-brewing storylines such as Sabine's reunion with her powerful family, Bendu's position "in the middle" of the Dark and Light Side, and Agent Kallus' shift from nemesis to secret ally of the Ghost crew. (The odds were against Kallus surviving this episode since Thrawn discovered he was a spy, but he still managed to escape and join the Rebels at the last second.)

Fortunately, we don't have long to wait for Season 4 details. The Star Wars Rebels Celebration Orlando panel on April 15 (from 11 AM to 12:30 PM) is promising "exclusive reveals" and a sneak peek at Season 4.
Official Season 4 concept art
What did you think of "Zero Hour"? What hopes do you have for Season 4 of Star Wars Rebels? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @SithObserver, and may the Force be with you all.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

How Darth Maul Found Redemption in 'Star Wars' Animation

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for the latest Star Wars Rebels episode, "Twin Suns."

Since his introduction in The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul has been known as one of the lesser Star Wars villains. Despite an intimidating appearance and cool, double-bladed lightsaber, he lacked the towering authority of Darth Vader, the pure evil of Emperor Palpatine, and even the acting prowess of Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. There was never any doubt that Maul was a real threat capable of dueling multiple Jedi at the same time, but he had very few speaking lines and virtually zero characterization.
However, his bisection at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn't the end of his story. Fueled by pure hatred and a need for revenge, Maul survived, albeit without the lower half of his body. In Season 4 of The Clone Wars, his brother, Savage Opress, found him on the trash world of Lotho Minor, and Dathomir witch Mother Talzin (later revealed to be Maul's birth mother) restored his sanity and gave him a new pair of robotic legs. 
Brilliantly voiced by Sam Witwer (the voice and face of Starkiller in the Force Unleashed video games), Maul finally talked. He gave growling commands and spine-chilling monologues, paired with the same lightsaber expertise that he's always had. With no master to order him around and plenty of schemes of his own, Maul finally came into his own as a unique villain.

Although his first and foremost objective was – understandably – revenge against Kenobi, Maul's ultimate goal was to defeat the Jedi, the "Sith pretender" Count Dooku, and his old master, Darth Sidious. He would then rule the galaxy with Savage as the true Lords of the Sith.
In Season 5 of The Clone Wars, Maul's plan took shape as he formed his Shadow Collective of underworld organizations with help from the Mandalorian Death Watch warriors. He succeeded in taking over Mandalore, violently usurping Pre Vizsla as leader of the Death Watch, and even struck a major blow to Kenobi by killing the woman he loved, Duchess Satine, right in front of his eyes.
However, Maul was soon thwarted by his old master, Darth Sidious, who viewed him as a rival and used Count Dooku and his droid armies to crush the Shadow Collective. Barely escaping with his life, Maul would find his way back to Mandalore, where he would be overthrown by the likes of Ahsoka Tano and Captain Rex in "The Siege of Mandalore," the never-seen (yet canonical) Clone Wars series finale.

An older Maul returned once again in the Rebels Season 2 finale, having been stranded on the Sith world of Malachor after crashing his ship there many years ago. He was planning to find a new apprentice in Ezra Bridger and take control of the planet's ancient superweapon, and when that failed, he reverted back to his decades-old focus: finding and killing Obi-Wan.
It's at this point that you can really sympathize with Maul. He was ripped from his home as a child and trained in the Dark Side by one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy, and he was promised a place by his side in the next galactic order. If a measly Jedi padawan took that all away from you, you'd probably be just as revenge-obsessed as him.

In Season 3, Maul and a reluctant Ezra combined Jedi and Sith holocrons and later used Nightsister magic to gain the knowledge that Maul sought the most: the status and whereabouts of Kenobi. After all this time, after so many failed plots, this was his sole motivation. The only thing on his mind. The only thing he still had to live for.
In last night's excellent Rebels episode, "Twin Suns," Maul manipulated Ezra once again into leading him straight to Obi-Wan – or rather, old Ben – on the deserts of Tatooine, where they first informally met many years ago. He confronted his longtime nemesis, goading him into a fight by threatening to go after Luke. Despite years of mental preparation for this moment, Maul was slain after only a few lightsaber strokes.
As he died in Kenobi's arms, he asked if Luke was the Chosen One, and when Obi-Wan confirmed it, Maul made a surprising declaration: "He will avenge us." Because it was the Sith who filled Maul with such hatred, who killed Maul's brother and mother, who used him for their own purposes and then discarded him when they were done. And it was the Sith who turned Obi-Wan's best friend against him, who slaughtered so many of his Jedi friends and forced him into isolation for nearly 20 years.
At the end of the day, Maul and Kenobi's relationship was so much more complex than it seemed. They tried to kill each other over and over again, but the Sith were their real enemy. What would Maul have gained if he had won their last duel? Would he have finally felt satisfied, or – more likely – would he have instantly become depressed and even killed himself because he no longer had a purpose? 
The fact that we're asking questions like these just shows how much Star Wars animation expanded upon Maul. The fierce, one-note assassin in The Phantom Menace is utterly unrecognizable from the tortured soul who died beside the man he (supposedly) hated. 

The Clone Wars and Rebels essentially revived Maul's character, improved upon it 10 times over, and then brought satisfying, well-deserved closure to his story. If you ever needed a reason why these series are so relevant and necessary to the Star Wars universe, look no further.
What's your favorite Darth Maul moment? What did you think of the conclusion to his story in "Twin Suns"? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @SithObserver, and may the Force be with you all.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Top 10 Female 'Star Wars' Characters

Star Wars, like most science fiction, has always been considered something more for boys than for girls. Laser guns, lightsaber fights, and war and violence in general is inherently thought of as more masculine than feminine. When you think of the average Star Wars fan, you're probably thinking of a man, even though the franchise obviously has a very large and devoted female fanbase.
And while it's true that most Star Wars stories have had male-centric plots, the franchise deserves praise for consistently featuring female characters that defy the typical roles of love interests or damsels. Even before Rey and Jyn were taking the lead in cinematic installments, we had heroines like Leia and Padmé speaking their minds and calmly wielding blaster rifles alongside their male companions. The women of Star Wars have been relatively few in number, but just as persistent and complex as the men.

In honor of International Women's Day, we're taking a look at the 10 best female characters in Star Wars, including the cinematic universe, The Clone Wars, and Rebels.

10. Captain Phasma

Yes, Phasma was (arguably) the most disappointing character in The Force Awakens, albeit the coolest-looking one. However, the fact that she's the first major female villain in a Star Wars movie and a woman defined by her authority, rather than her gender, earns her a spot on this list. As the commander of the First Order stormtroopers, she proves that the regime might be fascist, but they're not necessarily sexist. 
While Leia and Padmé are known for their elaborate hairstyles and gowns (they are royalty, after all), Phasma demonstrates her status with a practical, unisex set of chrome armor. There are definitely high expectations for her to prove herself as a formidable villain in The Last Jedi, and we can only hope that Gwendoline Christie – who put great thought into her portrayal of Captain Phasma – will get the larger role that she deserves.  

9. Jyn Erso

What makes Jyn unique is that the marketing for Rogue One made it very clear that the main character of the movie, the person leading the Rebel charge, would be a woman. And though it's great for a Star Wars movie to have a female lead who (unlike Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens) also gets top billing and the largest paycheck, this might also be why Jyn falls flat as a character.
Sure, she kicks ass and fires blasters and has plenty of emotional moments, but she just can't compare to lovable supporting characters like K-2SO and Chirrut Îmwe. We don't get the three-dimensional, universally relatable female lead that we were promised. Whether it's the script, the reshoots, or the performance by Felicity Jones, Jyn never really clicks in the way that Rey does.

Still, no one can deny her instrumental role in the Star Wars saga. Jyn singlehandedly inspires the mission on Scarif that results in the first major Rebel victory, and her successful theft of the Death Star plans will lead to an even greater one in A New Hope. The fact that she receives virtually zero recognition for her accomplishment makes her an even more sympathetic hero. 

8. Satine Kryze

Obi-Wan and Anakin must have similar tastes in women. Duchess Satine of Mandalore shares Padmé's penchant for fancy gowns and headdresses, as well as her firm beliefs in liberty and democracy. She's introduced in Season 2 of The Clone Wars as an old flame of Obi-Wan's and a strict pacifist who nevertheless partners with him in multiple dangerous situations, complementing him as an intellectual equal. 
Modeled after Cate Blanchett, Satine just wants to lead her people away from their violent, infamous past and to a bright, prosperous future. Her efforts are ultimately futile, as Darth Maul kills her to get revenge on Obi-Wan and Mandalore descends into utter chaos, but her adherence to her principles and firm neutrality in a time of great war are admirable.

7. Hera Syndulla

The captain of the Ghost crew on Star Wars Rebels is a force to be reckoned with. The daughter of freedom fighter Cham Syndulla, Hera is one of the few truly extraordinary female pilots in Star Wars as well as a capable warrior in general, shooting TIE fighters in the skies and stormtroopers on the ground. 
Perhaps Hera's most endearing quality is her warmth to the other members of her team, something that fellow Rebel heroines like Leia and Jyn never really had the patience for. She finds the good in them and helps them to believe in both themselves and their cause. As she tells young Jedi padawan Ezra, "We have hope. Hope that things will get better. And they will."

6. Mon Mothma

Not all heroes carry weapons, and not all leaders are on the front lines. Mon Mothma has had a rather peculiar role in the Star Wars lore, clearly playing a role in important efforts such as Padmé's attempts to peacefully end the Clone Wars and the Rebellion's assault on the Death Star II ("Many Bothans died to bring us this information," Mothma famously said), but never taking the spotlight. It's only with her recent, significant part in Rogue One that she's begun to attract attention once again.
Last week's Star Wars Rebels episode, "Secret Cargo," shows us just how instrumental Mothma is in the formation of the Rebel Alliance. After publicly denouncing the Emperor as a "lying executioner" – an awesome feat by itself – she resigns from the Senate and flees the wrath of the Empire. The episode ends with her giving a rallying speech broadcasted across the galaxy that inspires the first meeting of all the various Rebel cells. "This, my friends," she declares to the Ghost crew, "this is our Rebellion."
As if playing such a key role in this incredibly momentous Star Wars moment isn't enough, Mon Mothma also becomes the First Chancellor of the New Republic after Return of the Jedi. And frankly, there's no better choice. With decades of political experience and a levelheaded demeanor that can withstand the tediousness of the Senate, it's fitting that this highly underrated character finally gets the chance to shine, even if it's behind the scenes. After all, that seems to be where she works best.

5. Asajj Ventress

Ventress is one of the most complex and fascinating characters in all of Star Wars, with an unbelievably tragic backstory that led to her recurring role as Count Dooku's personal assassin in The Clone Wars. As a villain, she's playful, merciless, and capable of dueling both Anakin and Obi-Wan at the same time.
In Season 3 of the series, Ventress is betrayed by Dooku and thus becomes a truly likable and sympathetic character. With the same wicked cruelty and combat expertise that attracted fans in the past, she becomes a bounty hunter and a bonafide antihero, lending a hand to heroes like Obi-Wan and Ahsoka.
More so than any other woman on this list, Ventress is a survivor. The repeated deaths and abandonments of her paternal figures certainly give her a grim outlook on the galaxy, and yet there's no doubt that there's good within her. At the very least, she's one of the most proficient Force-sensitive warriors in the franchise and an incredibly dynamic, unique character, with signature red lightsabers and a twisted sense of humor that just don't quit.

4. Rey

The marketing for The Force Awakens roughly equated Rey and Finn as the two new stars of the Sequel Trilogy. However, the film carefully sidesteps any clichéd romantic subplot between the two, with Rey proving herself to be fiercely independent ("I know how to run without you holding my hand!") and a superior pilot and mechanic.
Despite what the trailer indicated, it's Rey who learns of her natural connection to the Force and duels Kylo Ren in the film's climax, not Finn. By the last scene, when she's desperately presenting Luke Skywalker with his long-lost lightsaber, it's clear that this was Rey's story all along.
For Star Wars' third trilogy, the young, powerful protagonist at the center of the story will be a woman. And that's just a great indicator of how the classic franchise has adapted to the ways that our society has changed, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future. Finally, the live-action side of the Star Wars universe has a major female Jedi. It only took 40 years.

3. Ahsoka Tano

First introduced as Anakin's bratty, annoying padawan, Ahsoka would grow into the single best original character from The Clone Wars. She's not just a fan favorite; she's one of the most popular Star Wars characters ever (despite never appearing on the big screen), with a devoted fanbase and a personal rallying cry of "Ahsoka lives."
Ahsoka is faced with countless challenges over the years – Geonosian brain worms, Trandoshan hunters, Mandalorian warriors, etc. – but her most empowering moment is when she rejects the Jedi Order in the Season 5 finale. She has the courage to abandon her beloved master, friends, and home because she realizes that the High Council doesn't have faith in her, and that the Order itself has become so warlike and ignorant that it's no longer much better than the Sith.
And that's not the end of her story. Many years later, Ahsoka returns in Rebels as an adult, helping the Ghost crew and ultimately facing off with her former master. Her fate at the end of the duel was left unclear, but she will not be forgotten anytime soon. Passionate, optimistic, and adept with a lightsaber, Ahsoka may not be a Jedi anymore, but she's a hero through and through. 

2. Padmé Amidala

Despite an uneven portrayal in the Prequel Trilogy, Padmé is still a determined politician who shares her daughter's optimism and fearlessness. We meet her in The Phantom Menace as a young queen trying to free her people from the Trade Federation. When the Republic Senate won't send aid, she manages to unite the Gungan and Naboo people and personally retakes her home from the invaders.
In Attack of the Clones, Padmé suffers through a tedious romantic subplot with Anakin, but still comes out on top. When she, Anakin, and Obi-Wan are sentenced to death in the Geonosian battle arena, she evades the deadly Nexu and frees herself without the help of her Jedi friends. Later, she picks up a droid blaster and fights alongside the Jedi and clone troopers in the Battle of Geonosis.
Unfortunately, in Revenge of the Sith, Padmé spends most of the movie worried about Anakin and dies of no apparent cause after giving birth to her twin children and naming them Luke and Leia. At worst, she died of grief that Anakin had left her, which would be extremely sexist. At best, the writers just needed a quick way to kill her off after she had fulfilled her purpose and birthed the heroes of the Original Trilogy. Either way, Padmé deserved better.
Thankfully, The Clone Wars features the independent, perseverant Padmé that the Prequels just couldn't commit to. Not only does she handle herself in multiple dangerous situations, but we really get to see Padmé's heroic acts within the walls of the Galactic Senate as she tries to bring an end to the bloodshed.

1. Leia Organa

Tough. Rude. Deadly. These words could all describe Leia Organa, the Princess from Alderaan who set a precedent for all of the other characters on this list. Throughout the Original Trilogy, she insults Darth Vader to his face, singlehandedly slays one of the galaxy's most powerful crime lords, and saves everybody's skin more than once.
Even more impressively, out of the Big Three – Luke, Han, and Leia – she's the only one who remains a member of the Rebellion/Resistance between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. She suffers the same emotional trauma as Luke and Han after her son, Ben Solo, falls to the Dark Side and destroys Luke's Jedi Temple, but while her grieving brother and husband take off, Leia has the fortitude to stick with the Resistance and continue to ensure the galaxy's safety.
Leia speaks her mind. She calls out her male companions like the nerf herders and laser brains they are, and she can aim a blaster just as well as any of them. Thanks to both George Lucas and the late Carrie Fisher, she strikes a near-perfect balance between compassion and ferocity, grace and vulgarity. 

Moreover, Leia is a woman who endures incredible loss over the course of her life, and yet never ceases her fight for justice and trademark wit. In The Force Awakens, we see her despair when she senses that her soulmate has died at the hands of their son, and yet it's clear that this hasn't impeded her efforts. As long as she has a rebellion to lead and a galaxy to save, she'll keep fighting.

Who's your favorite female Star Wars character? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @SithObserver, and may the Force be with you all.