Iron Tongue of midnight is a blog by chris diggins, a writer and critic living in new jersey. it's a place for him to put his errant thoughts and deeper analysis about media pop culture.

Solo Tells Us Who Shot First, But Never Asks Why

As I sat down to watch Solo, there were two words I was absolutely dreading hearing. As every minute passed, I kept worrying in the back of my mind that they would come up and confirm all of my worst fears. And for a while, it seemed like I was worrying over nothing, that they wouldn’t go down the path I thought they would. But then, about halfway through, I finally heard those two little words, and I couldn’t suppress a deep sigh at the direction I now knew we were taking: “Kessel run.”

A lot of words have already been said, both about Solo and plenty of other prequels and sequels, about how they tend to provide origins for everything and ruin all the mystery. And that’s a valid criticism! It’s hard to think of a single thing about Han Solo that doesn’t get an origin story or callback (callforward?), from his gun to his iconic lines to his very name, and none of it feels particularly inspired or essential. Yet all of that could be forgiven, if this movie were truly committed to explaining how Han Solo became the man we met at that wretched hive of scum and villainy all those decades ago. But as obsessed with the minutiae of Han Solo as the movie is, it doesn’t seem to really know who he is.

Think about the Han Solo we’re introduced to in A New Hope. Cocky, confident, sure. But also a bit surly, even cold. It’s been lost in the endless debate of “Han shot first,” but him shooting Greedo is meant to show us that he’s kind of dangerous. And only a last-second change of heart (and an admonishing look from Chewie) keeps him from abandoning the Rebellion as soon as he gets his money. In other words, he’s not a trusting, altruistic, or even particularly nice man. His character arc in A New Hope is all about changing that.

Now think about the Han we meet at the start of Solo. He’s as snarky and self-assured as the Han we’ve always known, but he’s also fairly idealistic. Despite his squalid circumstances he’s determined to get out with his childhood sweetheart and make something of himself. And when things don’t go as planned, he swears he’ll come back for her, spending years trying to make good on that promise. This is pretty different from the Han we know! So if you’re going to do an origin story prequel and start with your character in such a different place, your job is to establish how he became the person we knew in the first place.

The really frustrating thing about Solo is that you can actually see the bones of that story underneath the movie. By the end, Han has been betrayed by his new mentor and his love interest. He entered into what he thought would be a fun adventure and money-making scheme, only to be abandoned by all of his partners and nearly killed by one of them. The only thing that saved him was finally learning his lesson and not believing in the goodness of others: he shoots first, striking down Beckett before Beckett has a chance to kill him. That’s an extremely powerful concept, one that perfectly caps off a transformation from idealist to cynic in a way that cleverly and meaningfully nods to Han’s particular cinematic history.

The problem is that this scene exists in a vacuum. At no point in the scenes preceding or following this one is this conflict actually dramatized in any way. None of Han’s problems, until the very end, come from trusting people. He and Kira were not separated from each other due to an excess of trust, nor was Beckett’s crew killed and the HYPERFUEL destroyed because Han trusted someone he shouldn’t. If anything, placing total trust in people has worked out unreasonably well for Han so far! It got him out of the Imperial army and into the kind of smuggling crew he always wanted to be in. He met his best friend by trusting him and working together to escape. The only point even remotely close is when Lando cuts and runs after Enfys Nest shows up, but that’s played off as a joke and is not referenced by any of the characters afterward.

More egregiously, the whole reason for Han’s final plan to trick Dryden Vos is so he can give the HYPERFUEL to Enfys Nest and her band of rebels fighting against the crime syndicates of the galaxy. After he comes out on top, he happily hands it over and goes off with Chewie to whatever adventures await them. Not only does he show no sign of having been actually affected by what’s happened, the whole point of his arc in A New Hope was about him becoming the sort of person who would risk everything against a powerful enemy to do the right thing. Now Solo is suggesting he has always been that person. If he had regret over this decision, if he swore never to let sentimentality get in the way of a paycheck again, we could understand how he became the Han we knew. But he doesn’t. He’s a hero, he’s always been a hero, and his conflict in A New Hope no longer makes any sense.

Of course, inter-movie inconsistency wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, if those choices made for a good movie anyway. But the inconsistency is internal too, and results in a scene full of drama and emotion with nowhere to put it. I was genuinely confused about how I was supposed to feel when Han shot Beckett, because of how little work the movie does to earn it. It’s the same problem I wrote extensively about in The Force Awakens, having the texture of a conflict and drama without actually doing anything to establish why we should care. And Solo does this over and over and over again: L3’s death and resurrection as the Falcon’s navicomputer, whatever the hell was going on with Chewbacca and his family (maybe??????) on Kessel, Kira’s endless moaning over the terrible things she’s done. None of it actually makes you feel anything, because none of it is backed up by anything that happened in the movie beforehand.

So in the end, Solo is little more than an indulgence, a reason to have fun quips and cool scenes with one of cinema’s most beloved characters. And if we’re being honest, this was an entirely predictable result. But what makes the movie so frustrating is that seed of a real dramatic arc, the bones of a great story hiding somewhere in there. Maybe that was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s original vision. Maybe it was something lost in an endless sea of rewrites. Or maybe it was an accident, one great scene tucked away in an otherwise unremarkable movie. We’ll never really know. But I’m always going to be more interested in the story Solo gestured at than the one it actually told.

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