One of the things I’ve found disappointing in so many recent scifi/fantasy/superhero/action whatever films is that the main conflict of the film so routinely is resolved by people hitting each other really hard. Maybe they hit with fists, or with bullets, or laser beams, or laser swords, but one way other another it’s going to be some form of violent, kinetic conflict resolution.
Part of what makes the original Star Wars trilogy such an enduring classic is that it avoids this simplest form of conflict and resolution. Specifically, in none of the original trilogy lightsaber duels do we ever have two sides both trying to kill the other. In every one of them, the parties involved have some sort of asymmetric objective. There are times when its two sides trying to kill each other, but the lightsaber duels avoids this simplicity.
A New Hope: Vader is trying to kill Obi-Wan. But, Obi-Wan isn’t particularly interested in defeating Vader, and he sure does give up the fight too quickly for that to be his objective. Instead, he begins the duel mostly just to confront Vader and (it seems) to find out what has become of his old friend since last he saw him. Obi-Wan went there for closure. Later into the duel of course, his purpose becomes to distract the Imperials so that Luke and the gang can escape to the Falcon.
Empire Strikes Back: Luke enters his fight against Vader with killing on the mind. But, Vader is not at all interested in killing Luke. Instead, Vader begins the duel hoping only to capture Luke to bring him to the Emperor to be turned to the Dark Side. Upon seeing how strong Luke is though, Vader gains a new objective, which is to persuade Luke into joining him in overthrowing the Emperor and ruling the galaxy together. At no point in the film’s climactic battle is Vader ever trying to kill Luke.
Return of the Jedi: Now we have three people involved, Luke, Vader, and Palpatine, and weirdly enough the only people here trying to kill each other are Vader and Palpatine. Both want to convert Luke to their side and use him to destroy the other Sith. And Luke is having none of it. His goal is only to redeem Vader. You won’t notice it if you’re too busy putting popcorn down as fast as possible at the end of the movie, but we have a lightsaber duel where neither combatant is trying to kill the other. I can’t recall any other action movie having that sort of anomalous dynamic to its big action climax.
And then there’s the prequels. This won’t turn into generalized prequel hatred, and I know plenty of people like the dazzling action (and music!) of the prequel lightsaber battles, but to me they always just feel the same. And it’s probably because when it comes to their central dynamics, they are largely the same.
Phantom Menace: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are trying to kill Maul; Maul is trying to kill Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.
Attack of the Clones: Obi-Wan and Anakin are trying to kill Dooku; Dooku is trying to kill Obi-Wan and Anakin. Dooku is trying to kill Yoda; Yoda is trying to kill Dooku.
Revenge of the Sith: Obi-Wan and Anakin are trying to kill Dooku; Dooku is trying to kill Obi-Wan and Anakin. Obi-Wan is trying to kill Grievous; Grievous is trying to kill Obi-Wan. Mace and crew are trying to kill the Senate; the Senate is trying to kill Mace and crew (only at the end of this, once the lightsaber fighting is over, does Palpatine gain a new goal of converting Anakin in the process of killing Mace). Yoda is trying to kill Palpatine; Palpatine is trying to kill Yoda. And finally, Anakin is trying to kill Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan reluctantly is trying to kill Anakin, though he settles for cutting him into bits, letting him burn, and leaving him for dead. Obi started hoping to save Ani, but by the end, it’s two dudes trying to punch the other to death with a laser sword.
Using this lens of looking at lightsaber duels to see if both sides are trying to kill another, I realized why my favorite non-OT duel made such a big impression.
In Rebels, Maul is searching for something to destroy the Sith and encounters Obi-Wan as he reaches the end of his journey. They fight, and for a second time, Obi-Wan defeats Maul. The duel was very similar to the original trilogy in terms of its high ratio of talking to fighting, which I always appreciated. I also enjoyed that it was the most like how a lightsaber fight would really play out — much more like a lightning-fast fencing duel than a prolonged broadsword battle. The broadsword fights are neat to look at, but variety is the spice mine of life.
What I think gives it so much staying power though is that fact that once again, neither side is really out to kill the other. …Of course they are in fact trying to kill each other; Maul wants to kill Obi and Obi wants to kill Maul right back. What’s interesting here though is that neither particularly cares about killing the other. Maul just wants access to Luke to use him as the instrument of his revenge, and Obi-Wan wants to protect Luke from Maul. Had Obi not been looking over Luke, Maul wouldn’t try to hunt him down, and if Maul turned around and left, Obi would let him go. They do fight to the death, but the moment is unique because they’re not actually enemies.
Does every action story need this dynamic in its final battle? Certainly not. But, when there’s multiple blockbuster films hitting theaters every year where you know from the start that the conflict is going to be resolved by the good guy punching the bad guy really hard, or really hard in a special way, films that do something different stand out.