‘Star Wars’ has changed a lot since we last saw young Han Solo in ‘Return of the Jedi.’
After six Star Wars films centered on blonde males, the franchise has become an industry leader in female-led blockbusters. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is the iconic heroine of the new episodes and Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso spearheaded the diverse ensemble of Rogue One. This leaves Solo: A Star Wars Story with the dubious honor of being the first new installment to be led by a male character. What likely seemed like an easy play for Disney — an origin story for one of the series’ (and cinema’s) most iconic characters — has become something of a risky bet.
Harrison Ford returned to the role of Han Solo for an emotional swan song in The Force Awakens, and in the process gave us an update on the character for the 21st century. He aged Han’s roguish cheek with a healthy dose of the actor’s trademark weathered sarcasm. Han was still hot-blooded, but he had mellowed somewhat in his old age and was the perfect counterpoint to Rey’s boundless enthusiasm. That resulted in a touching relationship between the two characters, as the old smuggler was quietly impressed by the young scavenger’s natural flair. One wonders whether A New Hope-era Han, who desperately had to feel superior, would have had the same reaction.
Is there even a place for the young Han Solo character in the current era of the franchise? Oscar Isaac’s star X-wing pilot, Poe Dameron, fulfills a similar role in the new trilogy, and he spends The Last Jedi making brash decisions and getting people killed. With the Resistance on the run, he sees gung-ho military action as the only way to combat the First Order’s superior firepower. His derring-do leads a successful offensive against an imperious dreadnought but at the expense of countless lives. And when Leia is incapacitated, Poe clashes even more with her wise successor, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).
J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt wrote The Force Awakens’ Poe as a charismatic matinee idol. Rian Johnson, writer and director of The Last Jedi, then dissected that romanticized Hollywood man. Isaac is no less devilishly handsome, and his performance no less winkingly charming, but Johnson questions what purpose that archetype serves in a more modern, diverse, and politicized setting. Johnson’s Poe is the definitive deconstructed Star Wars man, which leaves Han as a bit of a dinosaur.
Much has been made of The Last Jedi’s humor, and original Solo directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller seemed to have pitched their spinoff as a goofy comedy. The humor was reportedly one of the sticking points that led to the pair’s firing, but that may have been a way to deal with the issue of presenting the character’s macho flaws as a gag. New director Ron Howard, whose reshoots look to have been extensive, is far less known for his funny bone. If the film is now a more conventional adventure movie, then the cocky white male hero may stand out as a dated and regressive protagonist in an increasingly forward-thinking franchise.
Howard is a safe pair of hands, but he’s been in the industry a long time. How unfortunate that he happened to be the one laughing nervously at Natalie Portman’s side as the prequel trilogy vet delivered her amazing “all-male nominees” mic drop at the Golden Globes. In a just world, Solo would give plenty of screen time to Emilia Clarke’s female lead, Kira. But, when you’ve got Alden Ehrenreich playing one of the most recognizable film characters ever, would you dare give anyone else more than a passing spotlight?
For what it’s worth, Han isn’t a traditional innocent heroic lead — unlike, say, young Luke — and one hopes that Star Wars has moved passed copy-and-paste straight white male leads (oh, wait…). Let’s just hope that the MRAs’ men-only cut of Solo: A Star Wars Story is as fleeting as The Last Jedi’s 46-minute version.