One film revealed the origins of an iconic Harrison Ford character brilliantly, and it wasn’t Solo.
Solo was not good. It’s not terrible either, but the vaguely fun and poorly shot heist movie underwhelmed. And one of its worst elements was its incessant fansplaining, as it tried to answer all those Han Solo questions Wookiepedia couldn’t be bothered with.
Some were legitimate questions: how did Chewbacca and Han Solo meet? How did they come to win the Millennium Falcon? What was the Kessel Run exactly? Others were questions no one thought to ask or which didn’t even make sense: how did Han Solo get his surname? How did Han Solo come up with Chewbacca’s nickname? How did the Millennium Falcon get to be that particular shape?
It’s always tricky exploring the origins of an iconic character. It’s meddling with the secret ingredient. And everyone’s favorite space cowboy seems a particularly risky punt. In A New Hope, Han Solo shows up ready-made in the cantina; and five minutes later he shoots his own backstory. Knowing more about where he comes from is antithetical to who he is. You hope he popped out of the womb with a card up his sleeve, a wry grin on his face and a finger on the trigger. After all, no one ever looked cooler for being seen with their parents.
But that said, it has been done before. And done better.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade closed the trilogy and began with a flashback prologue. Essentially a ten-minute origin story, it shows Indiana Jones as a youngster, played by Mosquito Coast‘s River Phoenix. He is deeply uncool – a boy scout for crying out loud! – with floppy hair, a tubby friend and a tendency to say such un-hip things as ‘That belongs in a museum!’ In the course of a madcap chase from Monument Valley, via a train transporting a circus to his father’s study, we see the making of an unlikely hero.
The scene is ludicrous if you stop and think about it, but Steven Spielberg whips the action along with such verve you never stop and think about it. So we learn not only how Indiana Jones got his whip – amateur lion-taming – but also how he got his hat, his fear of snakes, his passion for history and Harrison Ford’s chin scar – amateur lion taming, again. There’s wit and lightness. In Solo, a similar tack is taken but the humor is groaningly poor. From the surname explanation to ‘Chewbacca has too many syllables’, everything feels like it’s not funny because it’s not true.
Add to that Spielberg’s film gives us a parallel cinematic origin story of his influences. The young adventurer goes from John Ford’s Monument Valley via a Buster Keaton-esque chase scene to the circus from The Greatest Show on Earth, in which incidentally Charlton Heston sported an early version of the Indiana Jones costume. Indiana Jones the character and Indiana Jones the genre are built in the space of those opening ten minutes and when we match cut to the adult Indy years later recovering the same artifact that he lost as a kid, there’s a sense of resolution. It’s bravura film-making and George Lucas was inspired to create The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as a consequence.
Of course in Solo, there’s no equivalent jump to the adult Han Solo, mainly because this is an origin story which is uncomfortably close to the endpoint: Alden Ehrenreich’s 28 to Harrison Ford’s 33. And in defense of Solo, it might also be the case that Indiana Jones is a different kind of character. Both he and Han Solo are anti-heroes, but for different reasons. Han Solo is an anti-hero because of his initial cynicism – ‘I stick my neck out for nobody’ – but Indy is an anti-hero because of his relative frailty. He has to cheat at fights to win; he falls on his ass when punched – also featured in the prologue – and he has a boring Clark Kent-like alter-ego as Prof. Jones, which is actually who he is in ‘real life’.
So when his father (Sean Connery) turns up and we have the incongruity of the swashbuckling adventurer reverting to the dutiful, put-upon son constantly disparaged by his grumpy dad – ‘I should’ve mailed it to the Marx Brothers!’ – it makes for the funniest moments in the whole series, but it is also consistent with the character we’ve been with for two previous outings. And we finally learn his real name: ‘Junior’. ‘Indiana’ is a name borrowed from the family dog. But this doesn’t diminish him. In fact, we get a deeper appreciation for who Henry Jones Jr really is: a self-made man, the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a university professor who takes field research to extremes. By contrast, Solo is an orphan boy named by an Imperial bureaucrat expediting a hurried application. And Solo – Han Solo – we’re supposed to believe just kept this name? Had no real hand in forming his own identity?
As the knight who guards the Grail might say: ‘He chose … poorly’.