Star Wars is huge. It began as a massive blockbuster that broke box office records and became a massive franchise. Now in the hands of Disney, the Star Wars franchise has a number of tie-ins and spin-offs, including games of all sorts, novels, animated series, and, now, spin-off movies. The spin-offs are a way to keep the Star Wars name in theatres, with each one coming about a year after the major releases like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The spin-offs fill in gaps in the storyline and keeps people talking about the franchise. Let’s take a look at the most recent spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo delves into the history of the franchise’s favourite scruffy nerfherder, Han. A few points, though. Han wasn’t the first character to appear in a tie-in novel – that honour belongs to Luke and Leia in Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1978 – but Brian Daley featured him and Chewbacca in a trilogy of novels beginning in 1979: Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. The three books were later collected as The Han Solo Adventures and were referenced by AC Crispin in The Han Solo Trilogy. The Daley books were the source of the Z-95 Headhunter, first appearing in Stars’ End and then returning in the X-Wing series of video games and in the CGI series The Clone Wars. Of the main characters of the series, Han has had the most done with his background in the Expanded Universe.
The big problem is that there is so much written about Han that a movie risks contradicting what has come before. Canon in Star Wars comes in a hierarchy, with the movies being primary, the animated series coming next, then the tie-in works third. However, West End Games’ RPG tends to be referenced for terms and equipment, so the hierarchy can be fluid. Daley’s works have been around for almost the length of the franchise, a background influence on subsequent work. It’s a tough line for Solo to follow.
As for the movie, Solo is one part coming of age, one part gangster flick, one part Western, one part pulp, one part heist movie, one part origins story, and all space opera. The movie shows Han crawling out of the dregs of Corellia, meeting Chewbacca, meeting Lando, and getting the Millennium Falcon. The seeds of what Han will become in the original trilogy are planted, showing why he got involved with a senile old man, a farm boy, and two droids trying to escape Tatooine. One of the highlights of the film is showing how Han made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs, and why a unit of length is used instead of a unit of time.
The casting is one of the movie’s strengths. Alden Ehrenreich has the difficult job of being a young Harrison Ford, but pulls off not just the looks but the mannerisms, while still being young and not quite cynical yet. Joonas Suotame plays Chewie, Han’s partner after being rescued from Imperial enslavement. Donald Glover becomes Lando Calrissian, channelling Billy Dee Williams and dominating any scene he’s in. New characters include Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Han’s mentor; Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s love; L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s first mate and droids’ rights activist; and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of the Crimson Dawn crime ring. Everyone named there has a story arc, some successful, others not.
The strong cast leads into one of the movie’s problems. Han gets overshadowed at times in his own story. The story is still his, but it’s not until midway through the film that Han starts to stand out. Lando in particular tends to take over scenes, thanks to both the nature of the character and to Donald Glover’s portrayal. The interplay between Lando and L3 deserves its own feature, movie or TV series, with Glover and Waller-Bridge reprising the characters. This is of no fault on the part of Ehrenreich; Lando is almost the opposite of Han, suave and sophistcated. A film should make audiences want to see more of a character, but not instead of what’s being shown.
Solo also came out at a time when diversity awareness in movies is acute. Star Wars has had issues with reflecting the audience. In 1977, a sausage fest was understandable and excusable for being an artifact of the times. Today, though, audiences are more aware of diversity. The more recent films in the franchise are showing a greater range, including more women and persons of colour both in lead roles and in the background, moving away from the only woman in the film being a princess. Solo, though, is about a white man at a time when films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are breaking records. This isn’t to say Leia and Rey are slouches. They aren’t. Leia took over her own rescue and Rey is creating her own path in becoming a Jedi. It’s more timing working against Solo. If the movie had been Calrissian instead with the same cast, it’d avoid the backlash and counter-backlash.
The biggest problem Solo has is that it is a good popcorn movie. There’s some insight to the character, but it’s not deep. The movie doesn’t go from action piece to action piece. It’s well written, well directed, well acted. It is a solid film. Many studios would be happy if their movies held together as well as Solo. But with Star Wars, solid isn’t enough. Star Wars has always been about the amazing, and Solo just falls short. Expectations weren’t managed, but doing so with the Star Wars franchise is impossible. Fans are expecting mind-blowing, and Solo wasn’t quite there. The movie is worth seeing, but expectations need to be adjusted.