Han Solo Is Not A Lead Character: Why SOLO Bombed At The Box Office

So Solo “bombed” at the box office this weekend, which is to say it brought it more money than all the people reading this article will ever earn if they all put their paychecks together.  Still, for a Star Wars movie, “half of what Rogue One brought in” is not good news for Disney, so everyone’s scrambling to explain why Solo disappointed. 

Here’s my theory: It’s not that Alden Ehrenreich does a bad job as Han Solo (he does well), or that the troubled production brought bad vibes to the box office (though that didn’t help), or that the movie’s terrible (the first half of the film is flat-out wretched, but once Donald Glover steps in as Lando everything smooths out delightfully).  

It’s that Han Solo is not a lead character, and should never have been given a movie to star in.  

Now, if you’re not paying attention, you might think that Han is a lead character – after all, isn’t he one of the three iconic characters from the original Holy Trilogy?  And yes, Han is certainly prominent.  The movie couldn’t function without him.  

But the role Han Solo plays is not lead.  Leia and Luke are the leads.  

Han is there to push Leia and Luke’s characterization, forcing them to make decisions that in turn make them grow.  Which makes him a supporting character.  

This theory is brought to you by a YouTube video called “Pirates of the Caribbean: Accidentally Genius,” which is an hour-long dissection of why Pirates is so good – and, by proxy, why all the sequels fail.  And one of the main takeaways from that close analysis is that the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow ’s main function is to push Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann into questioning their approaches to life. 

Will Turner is a quiet, talented craftsman, but he doesn’t know when to break society’s rules to get ahead.  Captain Jack is the guy who shows Will the benefits of cheating.  

Elizabeth Swann is a  woman who’s been brought up to believe that she’ll be a trophy wife, though she longs to be something else.  Captain Jack’s incompetence and lack of ambition helps push her into stretching her muscles until she becomes an active participant in her life.  

And Captain Jack Sparrow is… clever.  He remains clever.  But in terms of character arc, Jack Sparrow learns jack squat in the course of the movie.  He’s fundamentally static – which is good, because we don’t want him to change!  What we love about him is that he’s a wastrel, a backstabber, he’s reliably unreliable.

Giving him a character arc is going to be unsatisfying, because any change we make to him will inevitably move him in a direction we don’t like.  If Jack learns to be more responsible?  Then he’s not Captain Jack Sparrow.  If he learns to be more backstabby?  Then he’s an outright villain.  

You don’t want to give Captain Jack Sparrow a main storyline, because right now, where he is, is literally the most fun place he can be.  He’s perfect as-is, because he’s fun to watch – but put him on the main stage, where the emotional backbone of the movie rests upon us being invested in having Captain Jack evolve into someone new, and we discover there’s a reason why Will Turner isn’t as show-stealing as Captain Jack but is much more fundamental.  

(As, in fact, we did discover how disappointing it was, squeezing poor Jack into the role of “hero.”  Even if the first Pirates is so damn good that people keep shuffling back to the theaters in the wan hope that the next sequel will be even 20% as good as the original.)  

No.  Captain Jack Sparrow is there to pressure other people into evolving.  That’s a beautiful, noble role.  Every bad decision he makes is in order to force someone else to grow in order to make up for Jack’s flaws, and as such Captain Jack Sparrow is the ultimate plot device.  Throw him into every pirate movie, he’s gloriously useful!

You just don’t make him the center of the damn film.  

Now.  That’s also Han Solo’s role.  

Han’s there to contrast against Luke’s farmboy optimism, and to force Luke to grow.  It’s Han’s refusal to get involved that forces Luke to learn how to convince smugglers, and it’s Han’s refusal to go on the final mission to the Death Star that makes Luke seem more (suicidally) heroic.  

Likewise, Han’s there in movie #2 to take duty-bound Leia and force her to choose between what she needs to do (smooch Han) and what she wants (lead the Rebellion), leading to a kick-ass scene at the end Empire.  (“I know.”)

Which is not to say that Han doesn’t get some character development – he does, because those first two films are beautifully plotted.  He has a very narrow change from “cynical” to “not cynical” in A New Hope, and then goes from “I stick my neck out for no one” to “self-sacrifice” in ESB.  And then…. doesn’t have much to do in Return of the Jedi aside from be snarky, because that’s as far as Han can go.  

Like Jack Sparrow, there’s only so much you can change Han before he becomes… well, not Han Solo.  Much like Will Turner, Luke can go all the way from “dream-struck farm boy” to “badass black-clad destroyer of Hutts” to “cynical island-bound suicide,” and (with varying levels of success) those are all part of his evolution.  Part of what we love about Luke is that we get to watch him grow.

Likewise, to a lesser extent, Leia.  She’s all duty in the first one, reluctantly romantic in the second, and by the third there’s the vague promise she might be the next Jedi.  Leia didn’t get as much of a chance to grow, but motion was built into her arc.  

Han, however?  We don’t want to watch him grow.  We learned everything we needed to know about him before he walked out of that cantina, and we loved him as-is.  And if you think you can spitball something that’s more appealing than Harrison Ford in his most iconic state, well, shucks, you give it a shot.  But I bet you any change you made to Han frickin’ Solo would be way less satisfying than Han Shot First Solo.  

So where’s a prequel get to go?   

I mean, you’ve got limited range.  Because it’s a prequel, we know Han has to end up cynical and self-involved.  Having that be seen as a fall from grace – i.e., “Han was in a wonderfully happy place and wound up embittered” – would be a hell of a downer film for Star Wars’ light froth.  

So where do you go?  

The moment the film was announced, I said, “Okay, Han’s gonna go from a doofy kid to an experienced smuggler, because that’s really the only story they can tell.” And without too many spoilers – yeah, that’s what happened.  

I think the reason Solo wasn’t met with a lot of enthusiasm was because audiences are smarter than you think.  And people intuitively realized there were one of two outcomes here: either we get a Han Solo that’s not the Han Solo we love, or we get the Han Solo we love in a by-the-rails movie with no character-based surprises along the way.  

Now, we do get a few character-based surprises in Solo – but significantly, none of them have to do with Han, who is theoretically the guy who should be surprising us.  The lead role in Solo falls consistently flat despite Alden’s heroic efforts because what you have in Solo is a static character who’s meant to surprise other people into adapting to his shortcomings, and you’ve given us an entire movie where we instead watch Han dork it up. 

(Because I don’t know where people got the idea that Han was mega-competent – if you watch any movie with Han Solo in it, it’s literally his job to screw up whenever they need to raise the stakes.)  

As such, the pitch of the movie was underwhelming, feeling more like a marketing team than from someone who understood Star Wars.  As other, wiser, folks have noted, a Leia movie would have drawn cheers – not just because Han’s another straight white dude, but because Leia had room to maneuver.  

As it was, what we got in Solo was a film that spends a lot of time asking “What don’t we know about Han Solo?” – questions like “Where’d he get his gun?” and “Where did those golden dice come from?” – and not a lot of time asking questions like “What do we like about Han Solo?”  A smarter prequel would have put Han in the backseat again, the way he was in Force Awakens and the original trilogy, to pressure someone new into becoming something – as I think Ron Howard tried to do with the screenplay he was given, but by then it was too late. 

Now.  To reiterate.  Solo is not a bad movie.  I enjoyed it a lot.  But it is a slight movie, which is a bad thing when you’re an entry in the most famous space opera of all time.  It’s space opera, with huge sweeping sagas and great character turns and magnificent sacrifices, and in Solo what we have is a guy who goes from “less competent” to “more competent.”  

And I’d argue that the reason Solo doesn’t seem like a Star Wars film to many people is because of that choice of lead.  They chose a guy who wasn’t meant to be center stage.  They didn’t know that some characters are popular because they don’t have to do the heavy work of evolving into new people – folks like Han and Jack Sparrow steal the show because supporting characters are the Peter Pans of the stage, they never have to grow up, and as such they can be funny and flawed and beautiful and memorable and wonderful. 

I love Han Solo.  He’ll always be my co-pilot.  

But they shoulda given the film to someone else.  

4 Comments

  1. Raven Black
    May 29, 2018

    This was the Star Wars movie that finally made me appreciate the slow parts of the original. Because it turns out that stuff *constantly* exploding and being shot at isn’t actually much more interesting than stuff *never* exploding and being shot at. You need the lulls to provide contrast.

    • TheFerrett
      May 30, 2018

      It’s the same reaction I have to watching Rocky – they’re slow, but that setup is all character.

  2. Anonymous Alex
    May 29, 2018

    That mistake is at least as old as “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and probably older as there is nothing new under the sun.

    I’m sure I’ll see the movie anyway.

    -Alex

  3. Ariel
    May 29, 2018

    I’d argue it makes Han *less* competent.

    What do we know about Han a few minutes after meeting him? He’s an outlaw, and “fast” (Kessel run!).

    Now we know the Kessel Run feat isn’t even his… It’s the sentient AI inhabiting the Falcon that did the amazing thing. (and btw, huge thumbs down to lady droid’s full name: L3-37. BOO)

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