Darth Maul was a thrilling character to debut in 1999 with his appearance in The Phantom Menace. His distinctive features were one of the most heavily used images in the promotion leading up to the film. He was all over, not only the trailer for the movie, but almost every piece of merchandising for the movie as well. By all accounts it was expected for Maul to be the new great villain of the prequel trilogy. His presence at every turn in the leadup to the release of The Phantom Menace made it all the more shocking that he was not only in the movie much less than everyone expected, but that he was defeated and killed by the end of the first movie. While the next two movies would go on to reveal Darth Sidious as the major villain across the prequel trilogy, at the time it was shocking that such a heavily featured character would wind up amounting to so little in the movie itself.
Despite his relatively short amount of screentime in the movie, the character was still highly popular with the fans, leading to him being resurrected in later Star Wars projects, including The Clone Wars and Solo. Fans of Darth Maul will point to many of his later appearances as better examples of what the character is all about, though critics of the character still like to point out that in the one Episode where Maul appears he still is sliced in half by a padawan, making him one of the least powerful Sith Lords to ever be featured in Star Wars. However, if you really look at the circumstances around the character, it’s easy to see how Darth Maul actually won the lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace…at least from a certain point of view.
To understand where this way of thinking is coming from, you have to remember that the main focus of the prequel trilogy is about Anakin Skywalker and the chain of events that would lead to his downfall and the rise of Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker, from the moment he enters the story is presented as an unusual case. He is far older than anyone who would ever be considered for Jedi training, yet has so much potential in the ways of the force that the potential of his training must be considered. Though it takes up a relatively small part of the movie’s runtime, the Jedi Council’s deliberation on Anakin is one of the most important points in the movie. The question of whether or not Anakin is to be trained is a point in which the entire story is balanced on. While the full ramifications of training Anakin aren’t apparent until years later, it’s clear by the end of the deliberation that Anakin’s training has the potential to both save the Jedi order, as well as doom it. It’s also clear that given the special circumstances surrounding Anakin, he will not be able to be trained in the manner that the Jedi Council would prefer.
Enter Qui-Gon Jinn.
Qui-Gon Jinn was a Jedi Knight who was uniquely suited to help Anakin succeed in becoming the great Jedi he could have been. First of all, Qui-Gon was the first person who realized that despite his late start, Anakin still needed to be trained as a Jedi. Qui-Gon was known for his unorthodox approach to being a Jedi. Obi-Wan specifically mentions at one point that Qui-Gon would have had a set on the council had he been able to fall in line with the traditional Jedi way of thinking. But that wasn’t Qui-Gon. While we don’t know all the ways in which Qui-Gon’s outlook on the Force and Jedi Order differed from those in charge, we have enough examples from the expanded universe to know that Qui-Gon’s training of Anakin would have been drastically different.
As much as the bond between Obi-Wan and Anakin was a driving force for both of their relationship’s Obi-Wan was not the right Jedi to train Anakin. Obi-Wan would be the first to say this, having always put the blame of Anakin’s downfall squarely upon himself, usually blaming himself too much instead of the other way around. The problem with Obi-Wan’s training wasn’t so much that he was a bad Jedi Master for Anakin to train under, but rather that Anakin’s unique set of circumstances meant that he needed to walk a very different path than any other Jedi Padawan in order to be successful. Obi-Wan was barely past being a Padawan himself when he began to train Anakin, and frankly the Council should have taken a different approach in making sure that Anakin had the training he needed. However, there was nobody on the council who would have been right for the task. Qui-Gon was the only Jedi Master that we know of who would have been able to handle the situation, and with him gone Obi-Wan was the second best person to take on the job. But it still wasn’t enough.
And that brings us back to Darth Maul.
Remember, every action in the prequel trilogy is about Anakin and him walking the path that will either end in bringing balance to the force or leaving the Jedi in ruin. While on it’s surface, the duel between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is about the siege of Naboo, on a deeper level it’s about Anakin as well. By killing Qui-Gon, Darth Maul made sure the clearest path to Anakin’s success was forever blocked. Even if Maul (temporarily) gave up his life in the process, his victory in the Battle of Naboo was instrumental in bringing down the Jedi order. The Jedi Knights and Sith lord were dueling over the fate of Anakin just as much as the fate of Naboo, and while the Jedi we’re part of the victory of Naboo that day, in the long run, the pieces were moved into place for the rise of Darth Vader and the fall of the Republic, something that had to be viewed as a victory for Darth Maul.