At its heart, Star Wars is a classic tale of Good vs. Evil. Look at the Force - split into Light and Dark sides. The Original Trilogy is about how good triumphs over evil. It also showcases the redemption of evil. The Prequel Trilogy, meanwhile, shows how good is corrupted to evil. It also showcases the power of hope - even in the darkest times. Based on the history of the Star Wars films, and J.J. Abrams's long and documented passion for the Original Trilogy, there is little doubt that the Sequel Trilogy will continue the trend of Good vs. Evil.
In the Star Wars films, evil is never faceless. In the Original Trilogy, Evil was personified by Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, mysterious bounty hunters... and the omnipresent Galactic Empire with its myriad stormtroopers and guaranteed-to-be-Force-choked Imperial commanders. The Prequel Trilogy eschewed the human villains for a more robotic adversary - with various droid armies and the not-quite-robot-but-not-quite-Sith General Grievous standing out alongside Darth Maul, Darth Sidious, Count Dooku, and (right at the very end) Anakin Skywalker.
The big question, though, is: Who will the villain(s) of the Sequel Trilogy be?
The Likely Suspect
At the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, the Empire is broken. The Death Star II has been destroyed, the Imperial fleet surrounding it has been decimated, and the two Sith Lords that held the galaxy in their unrelenting grip have been killed. Presumably, Episode VII will take place approximately 20 years later. It seems fair to say that, unlike in the Expanded Universe (of which, the post-Return of the Jedi stories are likely to be moved to an alternate universe), the Star Wars galaxy will have enjoyed a relatively peaceful period since the events of Return of the Jedi. The galaxy is a huge place, and the remnants of the Empire have likely been biding their time to wage war.
Yes, the Galactic Empire is the most likely candidate for the main antagonist in Episode VII. Dictators are overthrown all the time, and the death of Emperor Palpatine would not cause the Empire to disintegrate. Remember, too, that while the Emperor was the leader... Darth Vader was no second-in-command. As A New Hope showed, Imperial Moffs (like Tarkin) were senior to Vader. It makes sense that the remaining Imperial leadership would still be around somewhere. The Empire is also the most logical antagonist due to sheer firepower. After all, the series is called Star Wars. A return to iconic ships (i.e. TIE Fighters, Star Destroyers) and epic space battles seems all but assured. You can bet that the Empire, in some fashion, will be disturbing the Force in a big way. Plus - is there anything more memorable than a stormtrooper helmet?
While a droid army allowed for a plethora of dismemberment by lightsaber, it seems unlikely that the droids will return in any significant appearance. A filmmaker inspired by the Original Trilogy, Abrams will likely keep lightsaber-centric action pieces to a minimum and amp up the space battles. If lightsabers are, indeed, used more infrequently than the Prequel Trilogy, there's no real need to keep a droid army around.
There have been a slew of actors rumored to make an appearance as a villain in Episode VII - including Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Hugo Weaving. All three actors would be shoe-ins for Imperials. But there is one thing missing from that list - and, in fact, from Star Wars film villains in general - women. In six films, the main women characters (just two of them!) can be summed up as "butt-kicking royalty." Yes, I'm referring to the awesome Princess Leia and Queen Amidala. But there is room for something different in the upcoming films. The Original Trilogy showed audiences an evil Empire totally devoid of aliens and women. The Prequel Trilogy showed audiences the deliciously evil Sith that never included any women. If the Empire does, in fact, make its comeback in Episode VII, it will need something fresh to differentiate itself from the Original Trilogy. A female villain would help to do just that.
Never Say Never
After appearing in all six films, it seems likely that the Sith will return in the new Sequel Trilogy in some capacity. Perhaps even more than space battles, lightsaber duels scream Star Wars in a way that nothing else does. Even with the Sith supposedly extinct, evil never dies. The best thing that Abrams can do with Episode VII, if he does include any Sith, is continue to make them visually impressive. Darth Vader's helmet still lives on today as an iconic image, and the wild tattooing of Darth Maul was every bit as memorable. After the backstepping with visually disappointing Count Dooku, George Lucas capped off the Prequel Trilogy with General Grevious - another visually impressive villain. The bottom line is that the most impressive Sith have been aliens or armored (or both!). If the Sith do, in fact, return - expect the villain to capture the imaginations of audiences everywhere.
The most-praised Star Wars film is, without a doubt, The Empire Strikes Back. The writer of that script, Lawrence Kasdan, is also the writer for Episode VII. It stands to reason that some of Kasdan's contributions in the Original Trilogy may be revisited in the Sequel Trilogy. It is fair to consider, therefore, that bounty hunters may take on a more crucial role in Episode VII. Easily one of the more memorable moments of The Empire Strikes Back is when Darth Vader recruits a group of bounty hunters (while an Imperial officer scoffs, "Bounty hunters? We don't need their scum!"). While Boba Fett is the only bounty hunter of any consequence, every bounty hunter was detailed and embodied an aspect of villainy. Although bounty hunters played only a small role in the Prequel Trilogy (with Jango Fett and Zam Wesell), they were more heavily featured in The Clone Wars - with Cad Bane quickly emerging as a fan-favorite. There is a chance that the bounty hunters will be saved for the rumored Boba Fett spinoff film, but they could easily find a place in Episode VII too.
Don't Hold Your Breath
Sadly, there is almost no chance that an Expanded Universe character will be featured in the Sequel Trilogy as a villain. As vast as the Expanded Universe has become, it has also become home to several beloved antagonists. Some of the fan favorites, like Grand Admiral Thrawn, have become iconic among Expanded Universe fans. But with the post-Return of the Jedi stories in serious jeopardy, it would be unwise to simply pluck Thrawn from the books and use him as the main villain. It's the same reason that we will never see the visually surreal Yuuzhan Vong, the beloved Mandalorians, or the dastardly Lumiya. All these villains come with a massive amount of history, and utilizing them in the Sequel Trilogy would result in the changing of this history (and possibly the characters too, as they are adapted for film) and also put their contributions to the Expanded Universe in jeopardy. While the Expanded Universe may surely be looked at as a fountain of ideas, the finished product will be very different from the Expanded Universe. And that's a good thing. Expanded Universe fans will always have the books and comics. Those will never go away. But the new villains for the new sequel trilogy should be something the audience has never seen before. A good villain surprises and shocks - and is never predictable.
Star Wars is much more than just its villains - but they are among the most memorable aspects of the film franchise. At the end of the day, this is all just speculation and educated guesswork. It's a fun way to pass the time until the real news and plot synopsis and teaser trailers start hitting the Internet. We live in remarkable times, with new Star Wars films on the way and an exhausting amount of time to speculate and wonder. Once again, Star Wars has captured the imaginations of countless fans. We're all looking forward to the new villains, and the battles that will surely follow in their wake.
What about you, reader? Do you agree? Disagree? What villain(s) do you think we'll see in Episode VII and beyond? Let us know in the comments!