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Monday, May 28, 2018

'Solo: A Star Wars Story' Review and Analysis

*MAJOR SPOILER ALERT*

Solo: A Star Wars Story is not a game-changing movie. It doesn't change what we know about iconic characters or the Force itself. It doesn't brilliantly subvert fan expectations in the way that The Last Jedi did. And its best quality is that it doesn't try to be.

But at the same time, Solo is not a basic, superficial, purely-fun movie either. It shows us why the Empire is so terrible and gives us a new perspective of what they've done to the galaxy. Through L3-37 and Chewbacca, it delivers the kind of socially conscious storyline about racism (or at least its Star Wars equivalent) and slavery that Star Wars has never really done before.

That's not to say that Solo should be lauded for its progressiveness. Father-son duo Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan aren't bad writers necessarily, but the way they treat their female characters is more obviously problematic than any of the other Disney-era Star Wars movies. While Qi'ra gets to shine at the end of the movie and Enfys Nest is an instant icon, Val and L3-37 are both promising new female characters who get killed off pretty promptly. 

Maybe the weirdest thing about the movie is how explicitly it sets up sequels, even though none are confirmed (and are arguably bad ideas in the first place). Qi'ra, the most important figure in Han's life for most of the film, ends the film on a truly shocking note, while Han and Chewie's next adventure is heavily teased. But based on the film's lower-than-expected box office performance and the mixed critical response, those sequels might not happen. 
And you know what? That's not such a bad thing. Solo's male-centric narrative and relative lack of diversity (compared to The Force AwakensRogue One, and The Last Jedi) are mostly unrelated to its flaws or why audiences aren't as interested in it, but if Lucasfilm decides to create more films with female leads and diverse casts as a result of this, that's actually pretty great for Star Wars and Hollywood in general. 

But honestly, it doesn't matter that much if Solo isn't a great film, or even the lowest-grossing one of all time. Not every Star Wars film has to be a masterpiece and a record-breaking hit! When we have a movie coming out every year, that's just something we have to accept. And it's when we start setting these kind of expectations for every single Star Wars that the franchise is actually in trouble. 

The Characters

Han

Solo is about learning how Han Solo became the person we meet in A New Hope. Every character and every plot point is to teach him a lesson and further his development. But the "origin story" aspect of the movie doesn't go overboard; we never meet Han's parents or have some Batman-esque flashback to a childhood tragedy.
As it turns out, Han did it all for a girl. And while this doesn't make for a particularly strong character – just like Jyn Erso, whose sole motivation was her father – the difference is that Han's arc is about finding his place in a larger universe. His time spent working for the Empire teaches him what they're doing to the galaxy (on Mimban, he points out to his commanding officer that they're the evil invaders), and Enfys Nest introduces him to the beginnings of the Rebellion.
Of course, there's still about 10 years until he actually meets Luke and Leia and joins the Alliance. At the end of the movie, his next step is joining a new crew on Tatooine—one that we can assume is being put together by Jabba the Hutt. But Solo is about planting the seeds of the Rebel hero he'll become, and for what's meant to be the first installment in a series, that's just fine.

Chewbacca

We so often take Chewie for granted in these movies. He's the comic relief, the reliable sidekick to Han and now Rey, but he never gets his own agency. Solo doesn't exactly rectify that, but it does give him some more depth by addressing the way the Empire has enslaved Wookiees—a horrifying parallel to how dehumanization has been used to justify real-life genocide and slavery.
Maybe there's something wrong about Chewie's arc being about him choosing to stick with his new, arrogant human friend instead of continuing on his quest to free his people and return to his family. But at least Solo reminds us that Chewie is Han's best friend for a reason. He's the kind of bro that offers you a fuzzy shoulder to lean on when your no-good girlfriend ditches you for a half-robotic Sith Lord.
Qi'ra

Qi'ra may look exactly like the Star Wars women that have preceded her (which is a problem in and of itself), but it's her survival instincts that set herself apart from them. As a result of growing up on Corellia and being effectively abandoned by Han, her primary goal is always just to save her own neck, by any means necessary. She still seems to care about Han, but she'd rather seize control of Crimson Dawn than risk a happy life with him. 
Qi'ra is cunning, manipulative, and as we learn at the end of the movie, very dangerous. And it's a shame that it takes so long for her to get the spotlight, but when she does, the movie actually treats her pretty well. She is allowed to brutally murder the main villain and achieve revenge on the man whose creepy, inappropriate affection for her hints at a pattern of sexual harassment (and perhaps assault) between them. 
Most importantly, rather than "fridging" her by having her die tragically in Han's arms at the end, thus justifying his cynicism, Qi'ra is set up to be a complex female villain (which is always a cool thing to see in Star Wars) in a Solo sequel. Whether she exploits his love for her to manipulate him once again or straight-up beats his ass with more Teräs Käsi, Qi'ra will be one to watch. 

Beckett

From a certain point of view, Beckett is meant to be a darker version of Han's future: a cocky, arrogant gunslinger who has become too cynical to have any real friends. He seems to love his girlfriend (or wife?) Val, but when Han brings her up later, Beckett indicates that he never really trusted her, either. This is why his betrayal is surprising to exactly no one, including Han.
How did Beckett get to be like this? How many people betrayed him in his life? Who was his mentor? These aren't questions that necessarily need to be answered, but a Beckett comic in August might answer a few of them—and thankfully, Enfys Nest, Rio Durant, and Val will be along for the ride.

Lando

Was there ever a chance of Lando not stealing the show? No, of course not, because Donald Glover is a treasure and he perfectly captures Lando's charm and swagger. He's a scoundrel and a cheater at sabacc, but he has a character arc about...uh...learning to hate Han because he indirectly caused the death of the droid Lando loves, ruined his pristine ship, and then took it from him?
Okay, so maybe there isn't that much depth to Lando in this movie. But even if there are no Solo sequels, you could probably convince audiences to see a Lando spinoff with no one trying to steal Glover's thunder. Maybe it could be a prequel to Solo and L3 could return. Maybe it could actually have black directors and writers for once. Hell, why not give Glover one of those responsibilities, or both? That's not a bad idea at all. 

L3-37

L3 might be Solo's best new character. She's the first female droid, and while the film does make Lando attracted to her because of that (because God forbid a major female character not be a love interest), what really drives her is her dedication to the equal rights of droids. And it's a silly idea, but it's a whole lot more interesting than just "comic relief droid."
But what the film does to her goes beyond typical "fridging." Killing her off during her best moment – the slave revolt she leads on Kessel – just to give Lando an emotional beat is bad enough. But downloading her onto the Falcon as its new navicomputer, despite the fact that the ship has never had an intelligence of its own in the past? That's just awful.
Think about it: you're taking a droid who repeatedly demonstrates through actions and dialogue how she wants her kind to be free, how she doesn't serve a master, and then you strip away her voice and sentence her to a live of servitude to whoever's piloting the Falcon. The fact that the film doesn't even recognize the disgusting irony of this makes its treatment of L3 the worst out of all its characters (which is saying a lot!).

Val

We're used to our Star Wars women being young, white, and learning to find their place in the galaxy. Val is none of these; when we meet her, she's already committed to Beckett and their crew. Whether she's charging into battle on Mimban, expertly shooting down the Cloud-Riders and viper droids, or deciding to blow herself up to finish the mission, Val exudes fearlessness and confidence in everything she does.
There's a long discussion that should (and will!) be had about what it means to kill off Star Wars' first visible black woman, but the short story is that it's a total disservice to Thandie Newton, a problematic message to send to audiences, and just nonsensical in terms of basic writing. But at least when Star Wars has such a nonlinear storytelling style, there's plenty of opportunity to see more of her in the future. 

Dryden Vos

Dryden is not a totally old or basic kind of Star Wars villain. His materialism in comparison to Jabba the Hutt is evident in his choice of a huge pleasure yacht – complete with a club and a collection of precious treasure – instead of a seedy den. He is dangerous, and at least a little scary, but mostly he's used to further Qi'ra's character development. And you know what? That's just fine. 
Enfys Nest

It would have been perfectly acceptable if Enfys Nest had just been a ruthless armored female villain with an awesome, distinctive musical theme. Really, it would have been great, and she would have easily been a fan favorite. But instead, Enfys is revealed to be a (biracial) freedom fighter, a victim of Crimson Dawn's colonialism who leads a gang of other oppressed people. The Cloud-Riders aren't evil pirates, they're the beginnings of the Rebellion.
Even more than that, Enfys mentions that her mother wore the mask before her. So "Enfys Nest" isn't just one person but a legendary, archetypal, heroic figure, passed from one generation to the next. That sounds like a pretty cool idea for a superhero-style Star Wars spinoff movie. (At the very least, we know she's signed on for Solo sequels, too.)

Darth Maul

To the movie's credit, it fully recognizes Maul's (canonical!) storyline on The Clone Wars and Rebels by letting Sam Witwer voice him again, giving him robotic legs, referencing his homeworld of Dathomir (where Qi'ra's supposed to meet him), and even giving him the same double-bladed lightsaber he uses on Rebels. His involvement with Crimson Dawn isn't even that surprising since he already formed a Shadow Collective of crime syndicates.
But those series also gave Maul a conclusive arc that ultimately paints him as a deeply troubled yet strangely sympathetic figure. Maybe the Kasdans are familiar with that and are capable of telling a story that could still expand more about him, but since the majority of audiences have no clue about his canonical revival and later death (at the hands of old Ben Kenobi, no less), it honestly doesn't seem worth it.

Other notes
  • When Beckett brings Han and Chewie onto their crew, Val suggests a more experienced hunter: Bossk, everyone’s favorite cannibalistic lizard. So Val and Beckett know Bossk! They’re buddies! That’s so cool! We definitely need a story of the three of them on a mission. (Honestly, Val and Bossk on their own would work as a story, too.)
  • Another cool name drop: Lando recognizes Beckett as the guy who killed Aurra Sing, Boba Fett’s one-time mother figure and a truly despicable (though badass) assassin who appeared in The Phantom Menace and The Clone Wars. It's sad that this fan-favorite character is killed off-screen, but it's also a safe bet that her final encounter with Beckett is told in a future comic.
What did you think of Solo: A Star Wars Story? Where do you hope these characters go next? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @sithobserver, and may the Force be with you all. 

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