Once upon a time, you could have made the case that a Leia, Luke, or Han preference was something like asking someone if they preferred John or Paul, Eddie or Kurt, or MCU Iron Man or Captain America. Luke (Mark Hamill) was the naive idealist drawn to adventure and the promise of the galaxy. Leia (Carrie Fisher) was the accomplished politician with privilege and principles. Han (Harrison Ford) was the cynical realist who was certainly a rebel with his own cause. Han has a strong fan base, both because the character grew to be the more relatable of the group and because of Harrison Ford’s sleeper star power. (You could also make the case that the performance was made stronger by Ford’s admitted dislike for Han Solo’s neo-jerk persona.)
While the more recent iterations of the Star Wars universe have been satisfying in many ways, the idea of Solo standalone with a non–Harrison Ford actor caused many fans to fear that the missteps of the prequels had been forgotten like a foreign war. Some also worried that Solo worked best as a foil to the idealism of the other rebels and might stand exposed if left to his own devices. Additionally, few of the expanded-universe properties featuring the character have quite gotten his singular blend of hot-rod asshole and charming rogue quite right. Of course, the backstage gossip, change of directors, and early buzz didn’t quiet the very vocal internet hand-wringing about this next Star Wars Story.
So, were they right to worry or not?
Solo dives right into the action, in true Star Wars tradition, and follows its ripsnorting journey all the way to an ending that feels a little too early. Which, as aficionados of storytelling may remind you, is the mark of a tale well told. “Arrive late and leave early,” they say. This is an adventure, and it harnesses the outlaw rock-and-roll energy that was no doubt on Lucas’s mind when he imagined the space smuggler long ago. This Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) starts as an overconfident street tough and, amid all the flash and fury of a Star Wars movie, manages to show his growth into someone who could become mythic. This is no small accomplishment, and it is hard to imagine it happening in the hands of someone less crafty than director Ron Howard.
Anyone who has seen The Empire Strikes Back knows that Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) was a key figure in Han Solo’s rise to notoriety, and his inclusion in this film was one of the most promising parts of its potential. When Donald Glover was cast as Lando, the Internet let out a collective squee, and Disney was certainly wise to this—much of the marketing in the weeks leading up to this release featured Lando very prominently. This is well deserved, as Glover delivers a performance that is legitimately mesmerizing and brilliantly detailed. While Ehrenreich wisely sticks to nodding to Ford’s performance, Glover dives in and brings a younger and feistier version of Billy Dee Williams’s performance to life with a very studied homage. This is a work of craft, and while it may not be Oscar territory, it is certainly to be celebrated (and hopefully to be honored with a rumored standalone film).
Emilia Clarke plays Qi’ra, Solo’s hometown crush, whose own adventure collides and twists around his in some unexpected ways I won’t spoil here. She breaks free of the line of Star Wars “princesses” and feels closest to previous expanded-universe heroines. While the story doesn’t give Clarke a lot of time to draw out the finer points of her character, she already has one of the more dynamic arcs of the universe. As an original addition to the established myths of Lando, Chewie (Joonas Suotamo), and Han, hers is a strong entry.
For the sake of our spoiler-free world, I will not comment on the various villains, allies, and in-betweens that this film brings forward at breakneck speed. They are clearly drawn from the right Star Wars fabric and offer all that means in the best and worst ways. Woody Harrelson isn’t completely wrong in his role as Beckett, but his persona overshadows his character too often and is one of the weaker points of the entire film. Also, the transition between creative teams wasn’t seamless, and there are sadly some moments in the film that don’t quite follow the tone as a whole. Some jokes are too broad, and you can feel the ghost of Jar Jar Binks whispering in the filmmaker’s ear.
However, there is also some cinematic mastery on display here, and it may be lost, for better or worse, to the action and character fireworks that drive the movie. Cinematographer Bradford Young gives each scene its own palette and visual language—something that stands against the more unified looks of Rogue One, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. This visual variety opens the film up in ways that keep things fresh and exciting. This is a youthful film, and something of a coming-of-age story, so it makes sense that each scene would open into wider spectrum of shadings. As mentioned earlier, Ron Howard is adept at both wildly swinging physical action and the character details on which a film like this is dependent. Cowritten by Lawrence Kasdan, the man behind franchise pinnacle The Empire Strikes Back, Solo brings with it a promising blend of the classic Star Wars mythos and a universe that is becoming increasingly deep, consistent, and engaging.
Punch it, Chewie.