Bringing villains back from the dead is an age-old trope. In junk fiction it is the easiest way to write yet another sequel without bothering to come up with a new plot. Sometimes it may be a way to bring back a fan-favourite, a character that was so interesting that the author actually regreted killing them off. Sometimes it may be both at once.
Star Wars has revisited this route a couple of times. It happened already in various old, old Star Wars novels and comics. But on the film screen it actually started only in the new era.
Let us take a look at three notable characters who have returned from the dead: Darth Maul, Boba Fett and, of course, the Emperor. How did the stories of their comeback differ?
The Dead Emperor
Palpatine’s return in The Rise of Skywalker caused mixed reactions. For understandable reasons. Most common criticism was that it was indeed lazy writing. We need a new big bad, who is badder than the Emperor? That is the simplest solution one resorts to when bringing a new, stronger villain would relativise the original villain and bringing a weaker villain would make the story seem uninteresting.
J. J. Abrams defended his decision to bring back Palpatine by pointing out the interconnectedness of the nine-episode-saga. The Rise of Skywalker was supposed to be the culmination of everything starting from The Phantom Menace. If we accept Abrams’s explanation, then yes, Palpatine had the right, even obligation to reappear.
But the way he had done so was not optimal. The problem goes hand in hand with the entire “was it necessary to have the sequels in the first place” question. Let’s not delve too deep into that subject now. The films have their highs and lows, but the problem related to Palpatine is this: the original saga already had an ending that did not seem to have any loose ends. Likewise Palpatine seemed to be dead for good.
Abrams still could have tried to awaken the feeling that an epilogue was needed. But he should have pushed more for it. It would have served the story better had Palpatine appeared already in The Force Awakens, or at least was strongly hinted at. It might have seemed like lazy recycling from the get-go, but at least it would have been more narratively consistent.
That being said, there would have been ways to make the revival interesting. Abrams even could have looked into classical literature for inspiration. The dead Emperor returning is a trope that has existed in literature since antiquity. Having Palpatine’s return prophesised in The Force Awakens together with more focus on seemingly crazed fanatical post-Imperial supporters (with similar mentality like general Pryde from The Rise of Skywalker) would have helped a lot.
The Un-Digested Bounty Hunter
Boba Fett may be somewhat specific case of a character returning from the dead. Mostly because by many he was not believed to be dead in the first place. Such a tough and skilful bounty hunter with heavy armour and armed with all sorts of gadgets – would he really not find his way out of the Sarlacc’s belly? Add to that the fact that Sarlacc digests its prey slowly over a thousand years – plenty of time for Boba to make his escape.
Indeed both Boba’s original actor Jeremy Bulloch and George Lucas were convinced and stated on multiple occasions that Boba did not actually die. Lucas’s original idea even was to show him climbing out of the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi. The reason he decided against it was that the audience would then expect Boba to still make an appearance in the film, which was not intended.
Nevertheless, the idea persisted. Boba appeared in Star Wars novels and multiple video games already in the 1990s. His first appearance was in the 1991 comics series Dark Empire – interestingly, the very same comics dealt heavily with the idea of Palpatine’s resurrection in a cloned body. Boba’s survival was finally solidified through his appearance in The Mandalorian.
Unlike Palpatine’s, Boba’s comeback was expected and easily explained. He was at hand to be “resurrected” when needed. In his case, especially in its newest iteration, we cannot speak of the “lazy trope”, also because he does not return exactly as a villain.
The Sith Chopped In Half
The last notable bad guy to be brought back to the film screen was Maul. Like Boba, he, too, was brought back several times in comics and video games. Chiefly obviously because he was “cool” – with his menacing appearance and double-bladed lightsaber.
These “resurrections” were what eventually brought him back in Solo. But Maul and his story had undergone a long journey to get there. Maul made his first reappearance in the non-canon comics Resurrection in 2001. There, a group of Dark Side Prophets resurrected Maul in an attempt to assassinate Vader who, in their opinion, was not worthy of following the teachings of the ancient Sith.
Another, historically more significant reappearance of Maul came in the comics Old Wounds in 2005. Its plot revolved around Maul coming to Tatooine sometime before Episode IV to seek his revenge on Obi-Wan Kenobi. If this sounds familiar to you, then you are right – the story inspired Twin Suns, a Star Wars Rebels episode that dealt with a similar idea.
In Old Wounds, Maul had robotic legs as replacement for the lower half of his body that had been chopped off by Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace. This characteristic remained with him in all subsequent appearances.
After a couple of appearances like this, it was much easier for The Clone Wars series to pick Maul up, and there he began his path towards his eventual cinema-screen appearance.
Maul’s appearance in Solo was only a cameo, but it was preceded by a long story that transformed him into a very complex character. He had undergone a massive development since The Phantom Menace. Maul’s story is a great example of using a lazy trope to fully realise a character’s potential.