Solo: A Star Wars Story is enough of a mixed bag that it will end up being as divisive as all the other Disney Star Wars movies — probably inevitable when the original directors get replaced in the middle of production. But even in terms of Disney products in which the director got canned, Solo works better than Ant-Man (and in both cases I’d still love to see the respective Lord & Miller version of Solo and the Edgar Wright version of Ant-Man that Disney thought were too risky).
That troubled production history is perhaps reflected in Solo‘s shaky first half (Alden Ehrenreich’s Han and Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra struggle to spice up the exposition-heavy dialog) and the weirdly flat, largely colorless production design — an area in which the other new Star Wars have been notably excellent (I can still practically feel Ben Mendolsohn’s gore-tex cape from Rogue One).
But Solo ultimately works, and if it has one saving grace, it’s the choice of protagonist. In the run-up to the first of Disney’s Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Abrams, there was a popular YouTube video going around called “Dear JJ Abrams,” in which a narrated animatic listed all of the “rules” of the Star Wars universe that Abrams should supposedly follow in order not to screw it up. It was mostly about as obnoxious as any fan video claiming ownership over a thing they didn’t create, but one of its more memorable assertions was “Star Wars is a Western.”
By “Western,” they meant mainly that it was dirty and set on the frontier, “amidst smugglers and bounty hunters.” But in terms of character arcs and conflict, if Star Wars is a Western, it’s mostly an old, white hat Western, a morally simplistic tale of good vs evil in which the bad guy dresses all in black and the good guy is a celibate monk. The good vs. evil aspect of Star Wars is, frankly, kind of boring, and so is the franchise if you think of Luke Skywalker as the hero.
If Han is the protagonist, on the other hand, it becomes an entirely different story — more of a revisionist, Spaghetti western-style western, complete with an antihero. That is, a protagonist who doesn’t fight for grand principles and is mostly just trying to survive. I think that’s what the Dear JJ Abrams guys were getting at, even if they didn’t know it. Anyone who’s invested in the mythology of Star Wars as more than a cool space story for little kids needs Han most of all. Han is the antihero. Good and evil is great for kids, but as adults moral complexity is much more compelling. As a book I was reading recently put it (The Rising Sun, by John Toland): “To the Japanese, a man without contradictions could not be respected; he was just a simple person. The more numerous the contradictions in a man, the deeper he was. His existence was richer the more acutely he struggled with himself.”