**WARNING: THIS POST WILL CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BOTH AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR AND SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY**
I recently saw a great new action blockbuster from Disney, which is part of one of the biggest franchises in the world. The plot revolves around an attempt to steal some extremely dangerous glowing objects. It was full of surprises, but the most shocking twist was definitely when a character wearing a hood, who first goes unidentified, dramatically reveals that he is a red-faced man we all immediately recognize. This is a major bombshell because the audience witnessed this character die years earlier in a film that takes place at the earliest point in this franchise’s timeline. Although the character only appeared as the villain of one movie, he is a big fan favorite who was killed off too soon, so it was satisfying to see him finally return. But enough about Avengers: Infinity War. Let’s talk about Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Seriously, though, it’s pretty odd how the return of Darth Maul in Solo happens less than a month after the return of Red Skull in Infinity War. But what’s been striking me is that all three times I saw Infinity War in theaters, Red Skull’s return got an audible reaction out of the audience, especially on opening night. There were gasps and cheers heard all throughout the theater, and in general, everyone was just exactly on the movie’s wavelength. The scene couldn’t possibly have landed harder.
On the other hand, the Maul reveal seemed to land with a thud all three times I saw Solo. The first was at a press screening, and I chalked up the lack of enthusiasm to the fact that this was an 11 a.m. screening occupied by critics. But leading up to the Thursday night premiere, I patiently awaited hearing the guaranteed big reaction Maul’s return would surely get among the hardcore fans on opening night. So I saw the film again during the earliest possible showing, yet Maul’s hood was lowered, and…nothing. You could practically hear a pin drop in the theater.
Finally, I recently saw the movie a third time, and once again, the reaction was barely there. Keep in mind, this showing started with the audience cheering the Lucasfilm logo and ended with applause, so it’s not like the crowd was just generally dead. Obviously, these are just my own subjective experiences, but hearing from other Star Wars fans, it sounds like a somewhat muted reaction to Maul’s return has been fairly common in a lot of different screenings.
So with reveals so similar, why is it that one landed so well and one didn’t?
In both cases, the characters are somewhat obscure, and we haven’t seen them in a long enough time that it’s reasonable to think that a casual viewer may have forgotten about their existence or even not seen the movie they were in at all. But it seems that fewer hardcore Star Wars fans actually turned out for Solo on opening night or even opening weekend than usual, whereas very few hardcore MCU fans missed Infinity War opening weekend; just look at the box office receipts as evidence of that. So maybe it’s just a simple matter of the people who were the target audience of this scene not showing up.
There’s also a bit of a difference in the reveals themselves that could have had an impact, though. For one, Red Skull’s death was always somewhat vague. Although we’re meant to believe he disintegrated when touching the Tesseract in Captain America: The First Avenger, the scene was shot in a way so that one could easily interpret it as just him being beamed into space. Indeed, many fans did interpret it that way, and the “Red Skull is alive” theories were around for years. On the other hand, Darth Maul’s death scene is not ambiguous in the least. He is literally cut in half, and it’s very clear that Obi-Wan killed him, or at least that this was the initial intention until he came back on The Clone Wars.
Therefore, when we see Red Skull again, we don’t have to be confused about whether this is the same guy because many people likely already suspected that he survived. But it takes a bit more convincing to make you believe that Maul could have survived, so the result is that when he returns in Solo, it may take a casual viewer a few minutes — until the lightsaber is ignited — to even realize this is the same character and not just a member of the same species.
Another factor, I would guess, is that Solo is a prequel, and one that does not clearly identify the year it takes place in on screen. If we saw Maul pop up in The Last Jedi, it would be very obvious from context that the twist here is that Maul has somehow returned to life because everyone understands roughly when that movie is set. But because Solo is a prequel set somewhat vaguely in the past, it’s understandable to have the gut reaction that this scene must be before Maul gets killed by Obi-Wan. I’ve personally encountered this reading of the scene several times in the past week.
Granted, if you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that this has to be set after The Phantom Menace since the Empire is a thing and Han isn’t an old man in A New Hope. But even if you realize that after a few minutes, this moment of temporary confusion gets in the way of the pure elation you should feel upon seeing Maul show back up.
Finally, and this might be the biggest factor, the Red Skull reveal does not rely at all on any material outside of the films. On the other hand, Solo makes absolutely no attempt to explain how Maul could have returned; all of that is in a TV show. So while we’re all on the same page with the Red Skull moment, I imagine that the Maul twist actually makes some fans feel left out, knowing that they missed a crucial chunk of this story because they didn’t watch a children’s cartoon.
Basically, then, it seems like in most theaters, a small minority of fans’ jaws drop when Maul returns, but 90 to 95% of viewers are more confused than anything. Hopefully, going forward, Lucasfilm is able to balance a desire to incorporate all of the canon with a desire to include all fans and not allow more casual viewers to feel they’re getting an inferior experience by not reading the novels or watching the shows.
Either way, the Maul reveal certainly worked on me, and I’m still getting over the shock of it. But I sure wish everyone could have felt the same joy that I did.