The Phantom Menace
Han Solo, accurately recreated by Alden Ehrenreich, and Lando Calrissian, expertly portrayed by Donald Glover, have never been feminist icons, nor should they be. They are chauvinistic, self-absorbed scoundrels, the lovable, but flawed products of the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. Yet behind the women, weapons, and card games, the viewer is always aware of their hidden loyalty and compassion. Han and Lando’s bravado undoubtedly makes up part of their identities, but it can still be easily punctured by the wit and gaze of the late great, and hopefully still around in Jedi-ghost form, Carrie Fisher. “I love you,” says the princess. “I know,” answers the smuggler, while allowing himself to be frozen in carbonite. An act of compassion, which displays what his words cannot. Overall, the characters Han and Lando don’t exude aggressive masculinity, but perform it rather obviously. This performance was made legible through their actions, failures to perform, and most importantly, the strength (physically, mentally, and politically) of Princess Leia as a balance in the force.
The Princess Strikes Back
Leia is of course imperfect. Subordinate to Han and Luke, she only succeeds in (accurately) criticizing their plans, not changing them. But it was the 70’s and one had to start somewhere. Unfortunately, years and years in the future in a film not really that far away, the balance she provided back then, however imperfect, is wholly missing from the new Han Solo story. Unlike Leia, Khaleesi the…wait, I mean, Qi’ra the love interest and presumed counterweight to Han’s hubris in Solo, portrayed by the talented Emilia Clarke, is complicit in, rather than skeptical of the arrogant criminal that young Han wants to perform.
Where Leia calls Han’s bluff with cutting sarcasm and political rank, Qi’ra lacks power and cunning. She is not a senator, but the assistant to mob boss, Dryden Vos. Rather than rejecting Han’s attempted outlaw routine, she is wooed by his antics and can’t talk with L3 about anything other than love. Although she does have some pretty awesome sword moves in her brief fight with Vos and ultimately assumes his powerful role in Crimson Dawn next to robot-legs Darth Maul, her action-hero abilities are never explored. Even her decision to abandon Han for a promising career in crime comes across not as agency involving forethought, planning and execution, but rather as betrayal and opportunism, both old tropes about strong women. Ultimately, Qi’ra serves to reinforce rather than resist Han’s machismo, creating the mess that Princess Leia will have to clean up later.
A New Hope?
One could ask: Maybe the balance in the gender side of the force doesn’t come from a human at all, but a robot!? One could ask, but one would be wrong. L3, Lando’s droid co-pilot, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a noticeably activist figure, so much so that it comes across as parody and farce. When confronted with the injustice of robot-fighting at Lando’s hideout, L3 attempts to incite the droids to rise up and resist their oppression. Her powerlessness to affect the situation is obvious and allows the scene to function as comic relief, rather than having an empowering edge. The moment is awkward enough that Lando, embarrassed by his droid/partner/crush?, guides her away like a child. Thus, the fight for equal rights, equal representation and equal voice for droids, Banthans, workers, women, POC, LGBTQ and many more, becomes nothing more than a silly distraction and one that ultimately costs L3 not only her voice, but her life. While leading a failed revolt, she is hit by a laser blast. Her hard drive is then integrated into the Falcon and permanently made part of the ship’s system, never to be heard again. With L3’s assimilation, Qi’ra’s weaker character, Val’s early death, and the narrative unimportance and limited screen time of Enfys, Solo falls short in leveling out Han and Lando’s bravado. Without this counterbalance, there is little artifice to their arrogance and even less reason for introspection in the viewer.
An Actual New Hope
It feels like it’s time for something more positive. There’s always a lot one can find wrong and too seldom suggestions for what can be done better. To the credit of director Ron Howard and the film team of Solo, the film is very Star Wars and there are interesting, subtle moments that challenge the observations above. Also to their credit, it would have only taken one simple suggestion to return balance to the force of the movie: to have Val (Thandie Newton), super smuggler villainess (she, I assume, would also then be entitled to a last name), keep Han in check. In many ways, it is Tobias Beckett (played by Woody Harrelson), Val’s lover, who takes on role of Han's mentor and counterpoint. He is strong, but self-serving, wise, but untrustworthy. Had Val taken on Beckett's role, the story remains the same, except she would provide the strong, clever, complex, influential and indeed longer living character that would have given Solo all the Leia-esque female counterweight it needed to check Han’s brash bravado exterior. But in Yoda’s words “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Solo provides all the camp, action, intrigue, and adventure one loves in a Star Wars story. Han and Lando are their scoundrel selves, and the viewer is sucked along to seedy depths of the galaxy and the enticing debauchery of the smuggler lifestyle. Solo captures much of what there is to love about a Star Wars film from the 70’s. Unfortunately, it brought with it the many problems of representation in a space western from the 70’s.