This post contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.
I had a feeling Darth Maul would make an appearance in Solo from the moment someone uttered the word “syndicate.” True, the Star Wars baddie was killed off at the end of The Phantom Menace when Obi-Wan Kenobi cut him in half with a lightsaber, but he had since long returned to the franchise, becoming a powerful crime lord in his quest for revenge on the animated prequel-era series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Apparently, though, another fan in my screening didn’t get the memo about the character’s return, since his response to Maul’s cameo was to shout “What?!” aloud in the theater. And based on the spike in Google searches and the number of explanatory pieces about how Maul survived—including my own—that cropped up over the weekend, he wasn’t the only one.
Maul’s reappearance in a live-action Star Wars movie will surely drum up renewed interest in The Clone Wars, which aired from 2008 to 2013 on Cartoon Network and is currently available on Netflix. That’s great news, because while Clone Wars should theoretically be a must-watch for any Star Wars lover, it and the other animated TV series of the franchise have been snubbed by even some of the most devoted fans I know. Maybe that’s precisely because they’re animated, and thus seen as being “just for kids,” a phenomenon that isn’t limited to TV. After all, critics similarly seem to forget about another Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the 2008 animated movie that is routinely left out of rankings of Star Wars movies, even though it had a wide theatrical release and is officially considered part of the canon.
The film, set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, might be another reason the animated series has gone underrated for so long, since it was not well received, to say the least: USA Today called the movie’s dialogue “stilted and overblown,” while the highest praise the New York Times could muster up was “it isn’t the most painful movie of the year.” Roger Ebert even bemoaned the decline of the entire franchise in his review, asking, “Has it come to this? Has the magical impact of George Lucas’ original vision of Star Wars been reduced to the level of Saturday morning animation?”
I’m not here to defend the Clone Wars movie, because all of those gripes are more or less fair: The animation, while deliberately stylized, does have a certain low-budget video game quality to it, the dialogue is strained even by Star Wars standards, and the plot, which involves the kidnapping of Jabba the Hutt’s infant son—who looks like this—is, frankly, a little silly. However, despite its flaws, The Clone Wars turned out not to be the death rattle of the Star Wars franchise, but the shaky first step into a rich new era of Lucasfilm’s storytelling, because it set up the television show of the same name.
The first season of The Clone Wars, which is set during the civil war introduced at the end of Attack of the Clones, is full of goofy droid humor and Jar Jar Binks-ian antics in line with the movie that preceded it. But over the course of its six seasons, The Clone Wars grew up, maturing into a surprisingly complex drama that explored the ramifications of an entire galaxy in conflict—not to mention it started killing off its characters in any number of gruesome (if usually bloodless) ways, including being set on fire, choked, impaled, suffocated, gunned down, electrocuted, eaten alive, and decapitated.
That said, the show’s quality really doesn’t depend on how “dark” it is, but on the way that it adds some much-needed depth to the prequel trilogy as a whole, filling in the lingering plot holes in the Skywalker saga while fleshing out the rest of the galaxy with side stories about other characters. At the heart of Clone Wars is a familiar (if now animated) face: Anakin Skywalker, voiced by Matt Lanter, who definitely benefits from a more gradual transition from hero to villain than we see in the movies, where he goes far too quickly from “whiny teen” to “baddest villain in the galaxy.” But there are also entire episodes in which Anakin is nowhere to be found. Clone Wars took a radically populist approach to Star Wars long before The Last Jedi, focusing in on individuals besides the Chosen One, from clone soldiers grappling with their role in the war to bounty hunters for whom business is booming.
While some of these are crossover characters from the live-action movies, like Maul, Boba Fett, and Rogue One’s Saw Gerrera, it’s the original characters who really shine, like separatist assassin-turned-reluctant antihero Asajj Ventress—just one of the series’ many standout female characters, back when the movies were still averaging one per trilogy. None of these is more important than Ashley Eckstein’s Ahsoka Tano, first introduced in the Clone Wars movie as a bratty whippersnapper assigned to be Anakin’s apprentice. (As for why anyone would entrust a kid’s welfare to Anakin “Murdered the Sand People” Skywalker, well, let’s just say Yoda’s teaching methods have always been unorthodox.) While Star Wars doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to kids, Ahsoka’s growth over time and her relationship with Anakin eventually made her a fan favorite, and her fate is one of Clone Wars’ central mysteries: What happens to her to justify her complete absence from Revenge of the Sith?
It’s because Ahsoka and others are so vital to the series’ worldbuilding that I don’t recommend starting your Clone Wars journey by leaping ahead to the Maul episodes, even though they are among the best in the series. What makes them so great to begin with is the way that Maul’s rise in Season 5 brings together so many of Clone Wars’s disparate storylines, building on groundwork laid over almost four seasons before he’s even re-introduced as a character. That’s not to say that every episode of the show is essential viewing; in fact, the entire first season is mostly skippable, though there are a handful of standout episodes, like “Cloak of Darkness” or the clone-centric “Rookies” and “Innocents of Ryloth,” that are worth checking out if you’re so inclined.
Otherwise, go ahead and start in Season 2 with “Landing at Point Rain,” the first in a four-episode arc that captures precisely what Clone Wars does best. Each episode in that arc—which, taken together, form a kind of self-contained anthology movie—revolves around Geonosis, the same planet where the final battle of Attack of the Clones takes place. “Landing at Point Rain,” which sees the Republic trying to recapture the planet, is light on plot but manages to squeeze a relentless, full-fledged war film into just 23 minutes, pushing the limits of cartoon violence in the process. “Weapons Factory” offers a closer look at the relationship between Anakin and Ahsoka and contrasts Anakin’s style of mentorship with that of a much more traditionally minded Jedi. “Legacy of Terror” is a fun little zombie flick that finds a way to make the insectoid Geonosians far more interesting as villains, while “Brain Invaders” nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as Alien and other space horror movies.
It’s OK if you’re only watching Clone Wars to see how Darth Maul made his comeback in Solo, but trust me when I say that the payoff will be so much sweeter if you pick it up well before that horned mafioso skitters in on his mechanical spider-legs. The versatility of the Geonosis arc sets the tone for the rest of the series, which used the freedom afforded it to play with genre, at times mimicking monster movies and political thrillers, at others paying episode-long homages to The Cube, Seven Samurai, and, on more than one occasion, the works of Alfred Hitchcock, all with a Star Wars flair. Come for the disgraced Sith lord, but do yourself a favor and stay for what turned out to be some of the smartest, most vibrant storytelling in the entire Star Wars universe. Not bad for a show that’s “just for kids.”