The Redemption Of Han Solo

(Starting in the ninth paragraph of this piece, there are major Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to see the movie, you may not want to read this.)

“Well, I understand, you know, you love Luke, that’s okay.”

These are the words of Harrison Ford after he read the script for Return of the Jedi (as remembered by Jedi’s late director, Richard Marquand, in J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Return of the Jedi). Ford’s not wrong: After being a central part of The Empire Strikes Back with Han Solo’s romance with Leia front and center, here he was, pushed to the sidelines (along with Carrie Fisher’s Leia) so Jedi could focus on Luke Skywalker’s story. Notably, in between Empire and Jedi, Ford was the star of the blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Yeah, I’d probably resent Han Solo, too, as Harrison Ford did for the next 30 years.

When you watch the original trilogy, it’s kind of funny how unimportant Solo is in the galaxy. He’s certainly important to the stories of both the original Star Wars and Empire. And he’s important to the gangsters to whom he owes money. But in the terms of Jedi and Sith and galaxy dominance, he’s a nobody. When Darth Vader needed to test the carbon freezing chamber on Bespin, he basically says, “Oh, yeah, test it on that Solo guy. Who cares if he dies? He’s nobody.” When Boba Fett protests (because, yes, money is involved), Vader rolls his eyes (in theory) and tells Fett, “Look, I’ll cover the costs if Solo is killed. Whatever!”

I always got the sense that George Lucas secretly hated Han Solo – that Han’s popularity was an accident that Lucas never saw coming and he’s annoyed by it all. Remember, Han Solo was supposed to be a dumb-looking green alien.

Then Lucas didn’t want Harrison Ford because Lucas, at the time, didn’t like working with actors more than once and Ford had a role in American Graffiti. Finally Lucas relented and Solo became a human played by Ford, a good actor who thought Star Wars was kind of dumb. Which, of course, made the character of Solo interesting and extremely popular. Solo doesn’t appear in a lot of the early marketing material for Star Wars (including the poster) and then in Jedi, he’s almost written out. Then Lucas tweaks some of Solo’s characteristics to make him less appealing as a flawed movie character, like not shooting Greedo in cold blood. Then, in the prequels, Lucas went out of his way to have no character that could ever be confused with Solo. I think, in Lucas’ perfect world, Han Solo would still be that green alien. Han would still belong to Lucas, not Ford.

During Jedi, Ford famously wanted Solo to die. Here’s a quote from Harrison Ford (also from Rinzler’s book), “I desperately wanted to die.” It does not get much more straightforward than that. But people often attribute this to Ford hating Han Solo. (Which I think later became true, but wasn’t necessarily true when Jedi was filmed. Ford was under no contractual obligation to keep playing Solo. In fact, Lucas and company assumed Ford wouldn’t return and the original script discussions only had Ford showing up at the end after he was rescued.) Ford wanted Solo dead because he figured Solo was so unimportant by Jedi, only the ultimate sacrifice would give Solo any real weight. He was mostly right, but it just wouldn’t have worked in Jedi. Could you imagine sitting through the whole first act of Jedi, watching this whole elaborate (and kind of dumb at times) harebrained scheme of a rescue, then Han dies anyway? He would have been better off left hanging on Jabba’s wall.

When Episode VII was first announced, it came to no one’s surprise that Ford wasn’t immediately on board. Rumors persist that Michael Arndt’s script was about “the new generation” of Jedi and Luke, Leia and, once again, Han, would all play background roles. In Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams’ rewrite of what would become The Force Awakens, Han Solo’s role would be fleshed out to become what is essentially a lead part.

Finally, Harrison Ford would get what’s he’s always wanted out of Solo: A meaningful role in a Star Wars movie and, yes, the character’s death … but, more importantly, a meaningful death. It’s a death that means everything for this new trilogy. No wonder Harrison Ford has seemed so happy lately.

When compared to the original trilogy, it’s almost funny how important Han Solo is in The Force Awakens. Villains with supernatural powers now say his name out loud with part disgust and part respect. That never used to happen. Finn and Rey are in awe of Solo when they first meet him: Finn because Solo is a famous war hero; Rey because Solo is a famous smuggler. This is the opposite of the moment in the original Star Wars when Han is flabbergasted that Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker had never heard of him or his ship.

Do you want to know how to judge if a character is important Star Wars? If a Force sensitive character can feel your “presence,” you’re important. In The Force Awakens, for the first time in a Star Wars movie, Han’s “presence” was felt.

I have mixed emotions about Han Solo dying. I once wrote that this would be a mistake because no one wants to see that happen. After months and months of rumors, I had come to grips with the fact this was going to happen. I just wanted it to have some sort of weight. Well, it did. In two ways.

First, culturally: How in the world could The Force Awakens create a villain to match Darth Vader, one of the most iconic figures in popular culture of all time? Well, that’s impossible. But, what can be done is have that new villain kill one of the other most popular, iconic figures in popular culture. Kylo Ren will never match Vader as a cultural force, but the filmmakers can make us hate him for what he did. This is brilliant. Now, going into Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, Kylo Ren is “the man who killed Han Solo.” And fuck him for doing that!

Second, storywise: Again, in the original trilogy, Han was the skeptic who watched his friend, Luke, become powerful. Han was great at rescuing Luke. But then Luke eventually didn’t need rescuing anymore. In Jedi, Luke was now rescuing Han. But in The Force Awakens, Han Solo’s son is a blood relative of Darth Vader. Han is very much a part of the Skywalker family now. (Note: Maybe Skywalkers should stop having kids.) Han had a real purpose in The Force Awakens and, for a second there, almost convinced Kylo Ren (the former Ben Solo) to give up all this villainy and come back home with him. Almost. But now that Kylo Ren has killed Han, this forces the exiled Luke Skywalker to return from solitude and avenge his old friend. Someone had to die to make us care about Kylo Ren – and what better person to die than the character Harrison Ford has wanted dead for 32 years.

(I laugh when I picture Ford going over his death scene. “No, not only will he get stabbed, I want him to fall down a huge bottomless pit into the planet… [points finger] THEN you’re going to blow up the planet.”)

And you know what? I never thought we’d see Harrison Ford play Han Solo ever again. And as it turns out, The Force Awakens is a really great Han Solo movie. His character is finally important and the end of Solo sets up events that could give real depth to the future movies that so many people feared couldn’t happen. Kylo Ren kills a war hero. Ben Solo murders his father in cold blood. That’s not going to stand well with a lot of people in the Star Wars universe. This will lead to real emotions! Imagine Luke Skywalker facing Kylo Ren now. How great will that confrontation be? In Empire, Luke could still talk to Ben – but Han’s gone. This will be one pissed off Luke Skywalker when Episode VIII rolls around and we owe it all to Han Solo – who has finally found redemption as a character in the eyes of the actor who played him.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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