When The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.05 billion, its greatest new asset was the Star Wars franchise and its legion of fans. Part of the Star Wars culture at the time was its “expanded universe” of novels, comics, games, and more, where creators were allowed to explore the many corners of George Lucas’ vast Star Wars galaxy. One of Disney’s first actions was to clear out that expanded universe to allow the company a blank slate of possibilities for its upcoming Star Wars projects.
Perhaps the biggest loss for Star Wars fans was Grand Admiral Thrawn, the central villain in an incredibly popular series of novels author Timothy Zhan published in the 1990s. Thrawn, a blue-skinned humanoid alien, was a fan favorite whose complex character made him one of the best villains in the Star Wars universe.
Disney announced this month at Star Wars Celebration Europe that Thrawn would make his triumphant return to the Star Wars universe. As a character in the upcoming third season of “Star Wars: Rebels,” Disney’s fantastic cartoon series that takes place just before the events of the original Star Wars film, Thrawn and his characteristic eccentricities will officially join the new Star Wars canon. Fans of the grand admiral nearly broke the Internet with their excitement.
A Compelling Bad Guy
As a big fan of bad guys, I’ve always liked the complex, calculating, cultured villain, which Thrawn embodies. In the Rebels season three trailer that reintroduces him, the Grand Admiral says, “To defeat an enemy, you must know them. Not simply their battle tactics, but their history, philosophy, art.” This was the same set of beliefs held by the original Thrawn Zhan created more than 25 years ago.
In a 2012 interview Zhan was asked why he thought there such a large and enduring fanbase for Grand Admiral Thrawn. He said, “I guess probably that he’s a clever villain. People like reading about clever, interesting opponents to our heroes. People who are able to outthink, outmaneuver as well as outfight. Ultimately the heroism of the hero is measured by the villainy or power of the villain, and with Thrawn I wanted something different than Force using Vader or Palpatine. Somebody who doesn’t have Luke’s Force Powers, but can run him around in a maze whenever he really wants to.”
Disney also announced Thrawn would be returning in the written word with a new novel penned by his original creator due next spring.
Disney Mines the Expanded Universe
This isn’t the first time Disney has brought back a popular aspect of rejected Star Wars legend. In the finale for season two of “Star Wars: Rebels,” the episode takes place on Malachor, a location from perhaps the most popular video game of the old Star Wars expanded universe, “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.”
“The Force Awakens,” the first Star Wars movie after Disney’s purchase of the franchise, also featured many elements the expanded universe had inspired. Han Solo’s son as a Jedi apprentice who turns to the Dark Side? Yep, that came from the expanded universe. Although his name and exact circumstances of the situation are different in the old tales, the concept is the same.
Just as he was in the expanded universe, we also learned in “The Force Awakens” that Luke Skywalker is a terrible teacher who can’t keep a hold on his most promising students. Then again, considering his two Force instructors both died before finishing his training, perhaps there is a good reason Jedi Master Skywalker is such a poor professor.
Starkiller, the bigger, badder Death Star in J.J. Abrams’s new Star Wars series, is a name that pops up throughout the old expanded universe, perhaps most notably as the code name for Darth Vader’s apprentice in the now expunged from canon “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” video game series.
By slowly but surely pulling in pieces of old Star Wars lore into the new canon, Disney is throwing a bone to long-time Star Wars enthusiasts while introducing some of the best aspects of the expanded universe to a new generation of fans. Now if only Mara Jade could make her comeback.