The original Star Wars in 1977 introduced us to one, if not arguably two, of the best villains in cinematic history. First was, of course, Darth Vader. The second, though his villainy was more subtle, was Grand Moff Tarkin. The rest of the original trilogy and the prequels would enlighten us to the evil and treachery of the Emperor, Sheev Palpatine. But who was the greatest Imperial villain in Star Wars? That title, for me, belongs to none other than Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Thrawn: Treason; Greatest Imperial Villain
Image: Del Rey Books

While admittedly no longer canon, the novel Heir to the Empire in 1991 delivered to fans a new, imposing threat to the galaxy in Thrawn. Timothy Zahn’s blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss possessed neither the menace of Vader nor ruthlessness of Tarkin. Nor was he as downright evil as the Emperor. It was his other characteristics that make Thrawn the greatest Imperial villain in Star Wars.

Thrawn: Greatest Imperial villain in Star Wars

What Thrawn possessed that the others didn’t was sheer, tactical genius. He was contemplative, meticulous, and insightful. His skills at reading and learning from his enemies surpassed those of anyone in either the Imperial Navy or the Chiss Ascendency. One of his greatest insights came by way of his reliance on the art of a species to learn from it. Thrawn rose to become the greatest Imperial villain not by brawn, but by brilliance. Unlike the others, Thrawn would often see the utility in losing one battle, gleaning from the loss the knowledge that would ensure the next three victories.

Thrawn; Greatest Imperial Villain
Thrawn as he appeared in Star Wars Rebels. (Image: Disney/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

[Warning: reading further will expose you to minor spoilers for Thrawn: Treason.] We learned Thrawn’s backstory through Zahn’s latest trilogy of Thrawn novels, which leads right up the events of the final episodes of the last season of Star Wars Rebels. Thrawn walked a fine line of loyalty between the Empire and the Ascendency. He was so bold as to collaborate with Chiss Admiral Ar’alani and even bring her aboard the bridge of his Star Destroyer. And therein rests the true basis for Thrawn being the greatest Imperial villain.

Thrawn’s mastery

Throughout the new Thrawn novels, other Imperial officers often criticize the Chiss Grand Admiral’s failure to understand Imperial politics. I argue to the contrary. Thrawn became the greatest Imperial villain by being a political virtuoso when it mattered the most. Skilled in manipulation, Thrawn mastered the ability to manage not only Vader (as told in the novel Thrawn: Alliances), but also the Emperor himself.

Image: Del Rey Books

The alien had no business being an officer in the homogenous, human Imperial ranks, yet ascended to the rank of Grand Admiral nevertheless. His breaches of protocol, and even losses, should and would have rendered him a corpse, were he anyone else. Instead, Thrawn maintained his life, position, and authority. He made himself invaluable.

Orson Krennic created the Death Star, and even he couldn’t boast that feat.

So what do you think? Who would you say is the greatest Imperial villain in Star Wars? Let us know!