Star Wars fans ought to rejoice. Despite bombing at the box office (largely for reasons unrelated to its quality), Solo should be considered another win for the spinoff franchise. In keeping with its Rogue One predecessor, Solo delivers an adult movie with tasteful humor, compelling characters, consistent lore, and a focused story (we don’t ask for much, Rian) – in other words, a passable Star Wars movie. And this should come as no surprise given the powerhouse creative duo brought to bear. Directed by industry veteran Ron Howard and penned by Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter for Empire Strikes Back), Disney clearly wasn’t f*cking around. In fact, Solo is rather revolutionary in that it’s the first truly “secular” Star Wars flick devoid of any huge themes of The Force or Good vs Evil, and maintains an uncomfortable silence of heart-pounding space battles or lightsaber fights – which perhaps explains why it came off as “boring” at times. But that’s OK! I thoroughly enjoyed the slower, grittier, Scarface-noir scenes of grown-up Star Wars antiheroes dealing with grown-up Star Wars antihero problems (conflicting motives, guilty pasts, heartbreak, choosing between two evils, etc).
It’s clear that Disney is using the new trilogy to engender new fans while using the spinoffs to ensure fealty from the old – and to be honest, it’s totally working on me. So keep’em coming (just nothing else like The Last Jedi please, thanks). I saw Solo three times, and enjoyed it more each time. Here’s why:
Han & Chewie:
Alden Ehrenreich’s Han Solo delivers a competent and believable portrayal of how our beloved lopsided-grinning antihero would have actually behaved in his mid twenties, striking the right balance of youthful arrogance, womanizer charm and streetwise grit – all wrapped around a warm gooey center of insecurity, jealousy and good-guy heart. In fact Qia’ra says it best when she chides “no, you’re the good guy” after Han smugly asserts himself as a rough-around-the-edges outlaw, to which he defeatedly replies “No, I’m definitely not the good guy…I’m, uh, a terrible person” – a welcome touch of cinematic self-awareness.
I was relieved to find the Han-Chewie relationship feeling quite authentic and natural, right in-league with their heartwarming “laugh it up fuzzball” antics from the classics. No issues there. I also loved the scene between Han and Lando in the Falcon’s cockpit where, in a brief moment of brotherly levity, they bond over their (effectively) fatherless upbringing – which totally explains their lost-boy “I make my own rules” ethos, distantly echoing Nietzsche’s, “when one has not had a good father, one must create one”. This is followed by Lando further revealing that he’s a mama’s boy – which TOTALLY explains his entitled (but cool AF) attitude. However my favorite Han scene was probably the nostalgia-bomb dropped in Lando’s cape closet on the Falcon when, in true Solo fashion, he cuts off Qi’ra mid-sentence to give her the kiss she secretly desires (SO gangster), beautifully foreshadowing the legendary “my hands are dirty too” first-kiss with Leia in Empire.
Portrayed by the lovely Emilia Clarke, Qi’ra adds another strong, well-written female character to the Star Wars fold, and is perhaps one of the most interesting and complex characters to date. Initially Han’s childhood sweetheart from the streets of Corellia, her character evolves into a dark and mysterious spectre of her former radiant self. After being separated from Han during their botched escape from Corellia, Qi’ra ends up becoming a top-lieutenant for premiere crime syndicate, Crimson Dawn, answerable only to its commander, Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany). However, the film is unclear about her relationship with Dryden, leaving us wondering if she’s a trophy wife, gun moll, slave, or some sort of daughter figure. But if one reads between the lines, the film cleverly implies that she’s developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for Dryden, presumably having been “rescued” from her dead-end existence on Corellia and forced to serve Crimson Dawn. Qi’ra hints at this when she nihilistically quips, “we all serve our own masters”. Either way, she rises through the ranks to become Dryden’s most trusted agent, as evidenced by her charge to “babysit” Han and Beckett on the Kessel Run job (the idiot fanboys are gonna love that one). But as their journey continues, she deliberately evades talking about her past, providing only scant details that hint of something truly dark and filled with some heavy sh*t that she ain’t proud of (making her look even more badass).
While some might argue that Qi’ra doesn’t stand as a “strong” female, I would respectfully disagree. Yes, she’s technically subservient to a man (whom she kills, mind you), and yes, Solo does fail the Bechdel test – but who cares? Qi’ra succumbs to none of the usual female tropes, and is portrayed as an equal, if not superior, to every other male character – and does so without coming off as condescending lecture on male behavior. She is respected by other men, competent, emotionally complex, and relevant to the story – all while maintaining a believable feminine vulnerability. She’s also a kick-ass melee fighter-assassin (and thermal detonator thrower) on par with her male counterparts. Damsel in distress? I think not.
The Han & Qi’ra Romance:
I actually found the love story between Han and Qi’ra one of the most interesting parts of the movie. It’s dark, complex and beautiful in its realness. It pushes Star Wars romance into more adult territory and I loved that. After reuniting with Qi’ra 2.0 on Dryden’s yacht, the film cleverly explores her enigmatic character from Han’s perspective as he tries to process what the hell happened to his once-innocent sweetheart from days past. While the film never explicitly reveals her history, it’s framed in such a way that a discerning viewer will find all the clues they need. She succeeds in suppressing her affection for Han, save for a few moments of weakness, knowing he can never be apart of her opulent new life as a crime boss and all the shady morality that comes with it. This all culminates in that bold, bittersweet final scene when a smitten Han, suavely standing in the elevator looking Qi’ra in the eye, naively thinks she’ll come back with him. However the look on Emelia Clarke’s face as she says,“I’ll be right behind you”, conveys no such intention. In a final selfless act of true love, Qi’ra tells him what he wants to hear in order to protect him from a life he was never meant to have. Beautifully shot and palpable with emotion, this might have been my favorite scene in the entire movie and represents the quality of filmmaking Star Wars deserves.
And for the record, there’s nothing “anti-male” about Han getting the hard pass from Qi’ra, because seriously, what dude hasn’t? In the simple words of singer/songrwiter Kurt Vile – “that’s life tho”.
Lando & L3:
I was nearly brought to tears by how well Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) did justice to the young Lando Calrissian. As soon as I heard that first line of dialogue at the Sabacc table, spoken in that iconic Billy Dee Williams drawl, I was like “yeah, we’re good”. Overall, he does an outstanding job with Lando’s character, properly emphasizing his signature blend of card-slinging alpha-dog charm and borderline-metro-but-not-really, vogue-rogue narcissism (the holo-blogging scene was a great touch). Some fans might take issue with the “pansexual” innuendo between him and his loudmouth DRA (droids rights activist) companion, L3 – but come on, I think that’s a pretty big stretch given L3’s bizarro, over-the-top personality. My theory? Her emotion chip malfunctioned and caused her to confuse honest friendship for romance – basically the droid equivalent of that mouthy, out-of-touch narcissistic chick from high school who thinks all the boys are in love with her. If anything, I think the film suggests more of a platonic brother-sister dynamic than a romantic one. And even if Lando is a “pan-sexual” (whatever that means), who the hell cares? He’s still a badass. Case closed. And as for L3, I found her to be funny, relevant and not annoying at all. Some may take issue with her “feminist” overtones, but I found them charming and pretty inoffensive. I would deem L3 a worthy addition to the Star Wars droid lineage (and FINALLY answers who C-3PO was communing with when he “talks to the Falcon” in Empire).
Beckett & The Mercenaries (<–totally claiming this as a future band name, btw):
The fact that I’ve lived long enough to see Woody Harrelson and John Favreau (voice of Rio) together in a Star Wars movie is reason enough for me to die happy right now. The abrasive camaraderie between Becket, Val, Rio and their new teammates, Han/Chewie, felt fun and authentic – and is perhaps best highlighted in the campfire bonding scene when, beautiful in its subtlety, Val’s distrust of Han is immediately defused with a hesitant smile after he admits he’s doing the job for a girl (“well, there was a girl”). Afterwards, Beckett evolves into a reluctant mentor for Han, if not even a father figure at times. However their relationship predictably sours as mercenary life gets in the way, ending unceremoniously as Han’s “good-guy” heart gets the best of him. The rival merc gang, Enfys Nest, provides a welcome twist at the end which serves to further enrich the tale of the looming Galactic Civil War while also building on Rogue One’s themes of grey morality in times of revolution.
EU References and the Bria Tharen Connection:
Expanded Universe (“Legends”) fans will be delighted to find plenty of respectful nods to the great stories that carried Star Wars since 1983. Most obvious was the inclusion of Han’s time as an Imperial officer and pilot after graduating the Imperial Academy on Carida. Much like Jimi Hendrix, it was within the disciplined confines of military life that Han discovered his true inner renegade, which eventually leads him to risk his career to rescue Chewie from Imperial slavers. As a result, Han gets dishonorably discharged and starts anew as a smuggler alongside Chewie, owing him a life debt. So the film wasn’t totally off-base, the only difference being that he was kicked out of flight school for having a “mind of his own”, but instead of getting court-martialed, he’s forced to enlist in the Imperial Infantry (an even worse fate). However Han still technically rescues Chewie from Imperial slavery just like in the books. My only real complaint was that the movie totally ignored Han’s officer and pilot training at the Imperial Academy. These scenes could of so powerfully (and humorously) added to Han’s “coming-of-age” narrative as his rogue inclinations begin to conflict with Imperial esprit de corps. It also would of been wicked cool to see Han developing his craft in flight school, kicking ass and taking names in tie fighters.
Shrewd fans of Anne (A.C.) Crispin’s beloved “Solo Trilogy” will note the striking resemblance between Qi’ra and the suspiciously rhyming “Bria” Tharen from the books. While not an exact carbon copy of Qi’ra, the Corellian-born Bria was also Han’s longtime love interest who, like Qi’ra, reluctantly leaves him out of a sense of duty to protect him after realizing their diverging paths were incompatible (sound familiar, Padme?). Having struggled with addiction and lack of purpose, Bria leaves Han to confront her demons alone, not wanting to burden him in the process. She eventually finds her purpose in fighting for the fledgling Rebellion and rises to become the leader of the notorious Red Hand Squadron (think Inglorious Basterds) that heroically captured the Death Star plans in the Battle of Toprawa, sacrificing herself in the process. This obviously bears enormous resemblance to Jyn Erso of Rogue One, which begs the hugely important question, is Bria Tharen the spiritual inspiration for the two female heroines of the spinoff films? The resemblance is eerie beyond coincidence, and if this was indeed intentional, mad respect to Disney for bringing this legendary EU character to life as the hybrid of Qi’ra and Jyn Erso, both outstandingly written and performed.
It’s a crying shame Solo had to be the first casualty in the fandom wars (second if you count the declining toy sales), and with rumors already swirling about future Star Wars film delays and cancellations, it certainly won’t be the last. Ron Howard’s team did stellar work, and most certainly do not deserve their “sacrificial lamb” fate borne by The Last Jedi’s backlash boycott. The fact that Solo and Rogue One were quality films suggests that Disney is capable of delivering high-caliber and tonally-consistent Star Wars films – and contrary to popular belief – actually shows how little Disney wants to obstruct the vision of the writer & producer, which, unfortunately for Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy, only serves to magnify their responsibility for the sheer carelessness with which Episode VIII was handled.
However it’s not enough for Disney to just make good spinoff movies – it must ensure the same level of care for the mainline trilogy, whose episodes should not be lazily conceived in isolation, but in aggregate, as an entire trilogy (isn’t that the whole point?!). The results of Solo seem to suggest The Last Jedi backlash is indeed strong (and well organized), and if killing Solo is what it takes to wake up Lucasfilm’s leadership to their negligent treatment of the new trilogy and its many conscientiously dissenting fans, then, in the indelible words of Jagger, let it bleed.