When Snoke fell in Episode VIII The Last Jedi quite a few fans were in an uproar. Snoke had been underused, they argued, complaining we knew too little of Snoke prior to his demise. A good reason to take a deeper and more general look at the Mystery Box of the unknown villain.
And we are back with a fresh instalment of our Mystery Box series in which we discus elements from Star Wars that fit JJ Abrams concept of the mystery box that a cinematic author can place in a story and deliberately leave unopened.
In the previous post in this series we looked at Boba Fett who, in his special way was a key mystery box of the Original Trilogy. He first appeared on-screen in The Empire Strikes Back as a bounty hunter with a mission. But his tour of duty in the Star Wars universe was already over after the first third of Return of the Jedi when he met his end in the Sarlacc pit. This mysterious and villainous character had great appeal amongst Star Wars fans in 1980-1983 and this spawned not only a vast exploration of Mandalore, Mandalorian culture and bounty hunters in later Star Wars output. But also gave rise to plenty of theories about how Fett actually hadn’t died in the Sarlacc’s belly.
This might remind you of someone! Of course Episode I, The Phantom Menace, also contained a mysterious villain: Darth Maul. When Obi Wan splitt Maul in two at the end of his battle with him in Theed on Naboo quite a few fans had a Fett-reflex and bemoaned another great Star Wars villain killed well before his time.
Maul proved to be such an irresistible mystery box that fans and Star Wars authors would not rest until the box had been opened. That started in the fall of 2012 with season 3 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and out came one of the most intriguing Star Wars characters whose story ends just a few months before the Original Trilogy story-line starts.
When you come to think of it: Star Wars has always introduced unknown villains. Darth Vader himself was introduced in A New Hope without any exposition on his background. Costume and gestures told us all we needed to know when we first saw him in 1977. Of course by the end of The Empire Strikes Back we caught our first glimpse of the entire story that must hide in waiting behind this character’s mask. But only the Prequel Trilogy could actually explore him in depth, so when you watch Star Wars in chronological order now, Darth Vader is no longer a mystery box. When you watch it in the “double flashback order” (VII-IV-V-I-II-III-VI-VIII-IX) however he remains a mystery box the content of which is only revealed as a flashback in Luke’s story, which is a flashback in Rey’s story.
Not just any unknown character
The unknown villain is not just like any other unknown character. Star Wars has many of those, some of which get fleshed out in greater or lesser detail in later stories and material. Well known examples are Jedi Master Quinlan Voss, who turned from a diner-visitor in The Phantom Menace into a mysterious Jedi Master, and Aurra Sing who was also a complete background filler in The Phantom Menace‘s pod-race but became a feared bounty hunter, or even Sifo Dyas, who was mentioned as a character in Attack of the Clones and fleshed out in season 6 of The Clone Wars. However the exploration of these characters and the expansion of their story line is mainly entertaining but not necessarily related to the core themes and story-telling of Star Wars. But for the unknown villain this is different.
Darth Maul’s arc contains an entirely original and fresh take on the classic redemption arc. The expansion of Maul’s story into what it ultimately became added a great variation on Star Wars’ thinking about redemption. When we first met Emperor Palpatine in Empire Strikes Back he too was an unknown villain introduced without much exposition on who he is and why he is the way he is. He basically died after a demonstration of his powers, but otherwise as unbeknownst to us as he first appeared. Needless to say, the Prequel Trilogy also provided a lot of backstory on Palpatine but it did not yet turn Palpatine’s story into something resembling an arc. There surely is a lot of character development, as we discussed elsewhere, but in a way his death in Return of the Jedi does not bring his arc to a true conclusion but merely cuts it off. It looks very much as if JJ Abrams is finally going to open this mystery box entirely in The Rise of Skywalker.
When you think about it: Count Dooku also falls into the category of the unknown villain Mystery Box when we first meet him and he too dies before we really get to know him well. It is The Clone Wars that opens the box on Dooku. The same is true for General Grievous and, like with Dooku and with Maul his is also a variation on a redemption arc. It is beautiful to see that where Maul does get a form of redemption as he dies in Obi Wan’s arms, Grievous harvests the sour grapes of his meddling with his body and Dooku earns the negative sums of his games of betrayal and treachery.
A powerful story-telling tool
The unknown villain is a powerful story-telling tool. Although leaving the box unopened always implies the risk that the villain appears to be evil for evil’s sake, a matte-painting of the dark side of humanity, but it can also trigger readers and viewers to ask more and deeper about the nature of evil and the possibility of paths to redemption. Often these are difficult questions and as a result many different stories are needed to illustrate and exemplify the directions these themes can take.
In the Sequel Trilogy there is no doubt that Kylo Ren is set-up as the main villain on a redemption arc (even though this does not mean redemption is possible or successful!). Kylo is as little a mystery box as Luke or Leia are. But Snoke … of course Snoke is. Snoke didn’t die to early in The last Jedi, rather he died just in time and now the question is placed before us. Are there enough things that puzzle us about Snoke that make us want to open this box? Or are we happy to leave the mystery box Snoke unopened? One thing in Star Wars is a given … if we don’t ask the question, we are not likely to ever hear an answer.