Of all the myriad alien races, different planets, and truly indelible characters in the Star Wars universe, the one that continues to be the most captivating is Han Solo, as played of course by Harrison Ford. George Lucas did a lot of creating in those first three movies, but Solo might be his greatest achievement. Above all, Han Solo is a character people like, find charming, and most of all, can relate to, despite him being a cynical pirate who yells a lot. We’re all sort of that, aren’t we? It’s no surprise that J.J. Abrams and Disney/Lucasfilm have been heavily featuring Solo in the marketing for The Force Awakens; they want to assure people that this IS Star Wars by using its most quintessential character.
It takes awhile for Solo to be introduced in A New Hope; in fact, he’s the last of the main characters to appear, with his trusty co-pilot Chewbacca beating him by a few seconds. There are many words that can be used to describe him: scoundrel, pirate, rogue, criminal, sweet-talker, cynic, murderer (since he shot first, of course). These aren’t necessarily the words associated with a hero, and yet throughout that first film, viewers find themselves more and more drawn to him. He has the biggest arc of any of the characters in that movie. Yes, Luke Skywalker has to accept the call and become the savior of the day, but he was always set up to be the true Campbellian hero. Solo starts out a reprehensible opportunist and ends up getting a damn medal!
The path of the Capital-H-Hero is a lonely one, and while Luke is learning the ways of the Force from Yoda, following the Rebels’ defeat on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, Han has to make sure he, Leia, Chewie, and C3PO aren’t captured by the Empire. He’s on his heels the whole time, all the while slowly starting to romance the princess. This is, in the entirety of the six films released to date, the most believable relationship, and one that drew fans into the plight of these characters even more. We care about what happens to this couple, and this guy specifically. When he’s about to be put into carbon freeze, his utterance of “I know” upon being told Leia loves him is still the benchmark of coolness.
Part of what makes Han Solo so compelling is that he doesn’t really seem to get involved in any of the major thematic aspects of the story. He doesn’t believe in the Force in the first movie, and begrudgingly tells Luke “May the Force be with you” before leaving, just to be nice. He also seems pretty ready to leave the Rebellion as soon as he can, preferring to go clean his debt with Jabba the Hutt rather than help out any more. He’s the only character who doesn’t ever voice “I hate the Empire, that’s why I’m helping out,” he just sort of joins up. He gets made a general, for Pete’s sake! All he’s really done is run away and get frozen.
Han is the character who can comment on what’s going on. He’s not po-faced and earnest about anything, really. Throughout the three films, he rolls his eyes at things, laughs at the severity of situations, makes jokes, and thinks he’s the shiznit. Remember when he tries to pretend everything’s fine aboard the Death Star and asks the guy “How are you?” That’s ridiculous! He’s a comical character while still being a heroic figure. It’s a great, great dichotomy that truly works. Adventure movies have been adding the “Han Solo Character” to great effect ever since. Look at the Pirates of the Caribbean movies – Will Turner is that series’ Hero, but it’s Captain Jack Sparrow that everybody likes. It stems from Solo. Han Solo is the antihero who’s still a hero!
In Return of the Jedi, Han feels a bit superfluous, which isn’t a detriment to his character as much as it is to that storyline. The whole first 40 minutes is about trying to rescue Han Solo, but after that, all he has to do is sabotage a thing so the shields on the Death Star II can go away. That movie is entirely about Luke confronting Vader, but that even allows Han to be more likable. He messes up, does things sloppily, gets everybody captured (well, that’s Chewie’s fault), and is sort of too thick to realize Luke and Leia are siblings. That’s because he’s outside of the big thematic moments; he didn’t even know why Luke left!
There are lots of reasons why the prequels don’t really stack up to the original trilogy, but one of the main reasons is that there isn’t a character for audiences to side with like Han Solo. In the originals, Luke is the Hero, no question, but we spend a lot of time with Han because we need some grey in this light side/dark side world. The prequels are all light side/dark side. We’re ostensibly following Anakin – I guess he’d be the Cambellian Hero of those films – which would mean someone like Obi-wan would in theory be the Solo figure, but he isn’t. He’s ALSO a cold, emotionless monk who might crack a quip or two and might get upset (a lot, too much for a Jedi) at things, but he still represents the arch battle between good and evil.
Han Solo’s absence made those movies even harder to take, though one of the best things about them is that there isn’t a little kid version of Han Solo running around anywhere in Revenge of the Sith. It would have been so easy to stick a kid on Kashyyyk when Yoda is helping the Wookiees. SO EASY. But that didn’t happen. We also didn’t see the Millennium Falcon flying around anywhere or sitting in a hangar. Han and the Falcon remained “untarnished” by the prequels, which is why when it came time to first market The Force Awakens, who do you think took center stage?
The first teaser ended with the Falcon being chased by TIE Fighters; classic Star Wars. The second teaser’s big moment, despite the reused dialogue from Luke Skywalker, is when Han says “Chewie…we’re home.” This is not an accident; it’s a very, VERY deliberate choice to put the most beloved, and most knowable, character from the original trilogy right in the thick of things. Harrison Ford has top billing, yes because he’s the biggest star, but also because it looks like Han Solo might be a very central figure to the story.
And in order to make people realize that time has passed, the Jedi have fallen into myth, and that nobody’s really heard of what happened after the Emperor fell, we have Han, the most cynical and skeptical character, tell our new heroes that it was all true, “The dark side, the Jedi, all of it.” He’s the one we trust. We think, if Han’s on board with all of this, then we should be too. The smartest thing Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan did was put Han Solo in this movie, not just for nostalgia, but for credibility.
It’s not just the fact that Han Solo is played by a very handsome actor, it’s that he represents the kind of false bravado and swagger housing a good-hearted selfless swashbuckler that people respond to so much. With all the Jedi and aliens and big, enormous themes at work, it’s easy to forget that, at the heart of it, the Star Wars universe is a fun adventure in strange new worlds, and who better to go on that journey with than someone who’s got a little twinkle in his eye?
Han Solo: franchise linchpin.
Images: Lucasfilm/Disney/20th Century Fox
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor for Nerdist.com and also writes lots and lots about movies and TV. He loves Star Wars so much he sends it a Valentine every year. Follow him on Twitter, why don’t ya?!