Let’s talk about lightsaber fights.
One of the big problems with the Star Wars prequels was the lightsaber duels. I’ll be the first to admit that the choreography for those fights was amazingly complex and, most of the time, looked great. However that complexity was a double-edged sword; it was often so complex, and so fast, that it felt like the actors were struggling to keep up with the movements. The lightsabers sometimes barely even made contact before they were rushing into the next movement. Compare that to the final battle between Luke and Darth Vader, where you can feel the anger in Luke’s blows as he just wails on Darth Vader like a maniac.
You could feel the emotion in each blow of Luke’s lightsaber and that’s what helped carry the scene. Revenge of the SIth had a few moments where you could feel the emotion of the battle, such as when Anakin chokes Obi-wan, but for every moment like that you had ten ridiculous moments like this:
Star Wars Rebels helped rehabilitate lightsaber duels, and it did so by working its way through a lot of the bad habits the Prequels set into motion. For instance I hated the Inquisitor’s lightsaber, turning such a cool weapon into a glorified fan blade not only looked ridiculous, but again also robbed fights of their emotional storytelling. The helicopter escapes were especially stupid. However you can also see that the Inquisitor’s lightsaber was just a natural extension of the increasingly gimmicky fights that plagued the Prequel trilogy. To a certain extent even the new trilogy still suffers from this, as demonstrated by Kylo Ren’s bizarre cross guard.
Star Wars Rebels moved past this bad habit of adding more elaborate moves and exotic weapons by remembering that these battles are supposed to tell a story. When they started focusing on that, they perfected the lightsaber duel.
How Star Wars Rebels Perfected the Lightsaber Duel
The lightsaber fights in season 1 of Rebels weren’t bad by any means, but it’s not until the close of season 2 that Star Wars Rebels hits its stride. The ridiculous Inquisitors are dispatched permanently by someone who finally knows how to use a lightsaber properly, and then of course there’s the duel between Ahsoka and Darth Vader. This was the first fight in Rebels that actually gave me goosebumps.
There were a few moments I could have done without, such as Ahsoka turning her back to Vader to block an attack which didn’t seem to be an advantageous move on her part. However, this is the scene where Star Wars Rebels hit a new level of storytelling. Just as Ezra is older when we meet him again in Season 3, so too was the storytelling more mature and nuanced.
The next great lightsaber fight wasn’t even a fight at all, but sparring practice between Kanan and Sabine as he trains her to use the Darksaber. Sabine is holding herself back, and not because she’s afraid of hurting Kanan, but because she’s afraid of confronting the painful emotions she’s kept buried. Those emotions, her fear and anger, are exposed not just through the impassioned monologue she gives but also in how she fights.
Her thrusts are clumsy and savage, allowing Kanan to easily deflect and evade them. Her fear and frustration make her an easy opponent, and Kanan even turns off his lightsaber, simply shoving her away. However as she grows angrier, she becomes more focused, she attacks faster and with purpose. And finally she even manages to gain the upper hand.
This scene is great because it helps tell the story of Sabine, deepening our understanding of her character and propelling her story forward. That’s what a good fight scene does: whether its a full fledged battle, a tiny skirmish, or just a duel between two people, it’s important that it propel the story forward. If all a battle does is look good, then it has failed. Which is why so many prequel fights fell flat, but Star War Rebels has one of the best duels in Star Wars history: the final fight between Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Maul.
The duel between Obi-Wan and Maul is the perfect counter-point to the insane lightsaber ballet between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode 3. This fight lasts less than 30 seconds and yet it’s easily one of the best storytelling moments in the entire Star Wars canon. From the opening standoff to the final moments, everything tells a story.
One of the best parts is at the beginning, in the moment that Obi-wan decides he has to kill Maul: when Maul realizes he’s there to protect someone. Up until that moment, Obi-wan might have tried to reason with Maul or simply disarm him, but that knowledge made Maul too dangerous to allow to live.
Maul killed his master, Qui-gon, and then he killed Countess Setine, the woman he loved. Yet even in the face of all of that, despite having every reason and justification to hate Maul… he doesn’t. He can’t bring himself to hate this man, because standing right in front of him is the evidence of what that hate would bring: nothing but pain and loneliness. He doesn’t hate Maul, he pities him.
“If you define yourself by your power to take life, your desire to dominate, to possess, then you have nothing.” – Obi-wan to Maul
I want to take a moment and praise this smack-talk from Obi-wan here. Notoriously quick with a verbal barb in Star Wars Clone Wars, it was great to see this evolution of his humor and wit, and it meshes perfectly with the kind of dialogue Alec Guinness delivered in A New Hope. It’s a perfect blend of wisdom and cutting insult.
Basically Obi-wan is saying “You’ve dedicated your life to gaining the power to destroy others, but now you’ve come to kill an old hermit…and you’re not even going to be able to do that. You truly have nothing.” It’s no wonder Maul gets so pissed off.
Battles don’t have to be long to be amazing and in fact the brief nature of this fight itself only heightens the emotional impact of the scene. The calm and resolute Obi-Wan versus an angry and broken Maul was brilliant because it juxtaposed their two philosophies so well.
Obi-wan and Maul had a lot in common, they were both old men who had seen their worlds destroyed by the Sith. Maul had been corrupted, used, and then discarded by his Sith masters. Obi-wan watched the Sith turn his best friend into a monster, and then had to watch that monster destroy everyone and everything he loved. Yet they both handled these tragedies differently.
Obi-wan chose a thankless life of loneliness and anonymity, he gave up everything for the slim hope of seeing Luke become a Jedi and redeeming all of them. Maul chose revenge, to destroy everyone and everything that he felt had wronged him, to burn the world down around him if necessary. This is reflected in their fighting style.
Maul launches an angry, reckless attack. He puts all his hate and anger into every blow. But Obi-wan calmly deflects Maul’s attacks, absorbing the blows and letting Maul’s anger burn itself out against his blade. Obi-wan’s patience and deliberate defense allow him to quickly strike a killing blow against Maul after he leaves himself vulnerable.
Obi-wan would have been totally justified letting Maul land face first in the dirt and leaving his body to rot. Yet instead he holds his old nemesis in his arms, and even gives him a measure of peace in the knowledge of Luke’s existence. Maul lived a life of profound loneliness, marred by pain and loss. Thanks to Obi-wan’s compassion though Maul, in his final moments, was no longer alone.
More than anything else that’s why this scene is such a perfect example of a lightsaber duel: it told an emotionally rich story in such a pitch perfect way that, instead of feeling smug satisfaction at this old villains death, I felt a profound fulfillment at the knowledge that Maul found his peace. This less than 5-minute long scene brings closure to the long story of Obi-wan and Maul, it heightens our understanding of both characters, and gave us a profoundly emotional ending to an old saga.
And that’s why this was the perfect duel.