‘Solo’ is good, independent of its franchise

The suave, action-packed spin-off deserves better than tired reviews belaboring its franchise identity.

Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012. Suddenly, a deadened film series lifted off with a new trilogy, accompanied by a flurry of merchandise, theme parks, and movie outgrowths. The Force Awakens (2015) sent the new Disney commodity into hyperdrive, immediately inspiring an expansive schedule of upcoming Star Wars movies, eager to satiate fans’ decade-long cravings.

The first item on that agenda came in 2016, with the bleak and bizarre war film Rogue One. A self-contained prequel with an almost entirely new cast of characters, the first Disney/Lucasfilm experiment did not boast the adventurous nature of pre-Disneyian films. Its roots in beloved intertextuality, however, forced a fondness between critics and audiences alike. Two years later, that fondness has stalled. With three new movies under our belt, fans are less rabid and ready to engage more meaningfully with Star Wars content.

For over a year, media has been feeding off the reported brokenness of a new Star Wars spinoff. Creative differences, director changes, and an unproven lead. With a culture declaring itself unready for a new franchise addition, reports told us Solo: A Star Wars Story wasn’t ready either.

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The cast of Solo

In its opening weekend, Solo, whose budget was around $400 million, raked in roughly a quarter of that worldwide. Still scoring good franchise numbers, the anticipated prequel is significantly underperforming given high expectations on the heels of The Last Jedi (2017). Critics and journalists, it seems, foresaw this lemon, questioning its potential for success before the weekend was out. And, despite the inconsequential nature of its shortcomings, it was framed as a failure for the franchise: “‘Star Wars’ just fell to Earth.”

Among these analyses is seldom a review of Solo independent of its identity within the Star Wars conglomerate. Despite halfhearted verbiage pointing to the film’s “blandness” as telling of all that “hot goss” about production brokenness, criticism lacks the fairness Solo deserves as its own action movie and its own narrative. While surely the newest Star War relies on familiar IP, it is meant to, and succeeds in, standing on its own two feet. Early feedback fails to recognize this, lacking the same unfettered appreciation as that of Rogue One.

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In a crowd of otherworldly creatures, Lando (Donald Glover) is still the most interesting thing in the room

We didn’t need to know how Han Solo got his surname. We didn’t need to know how he met Chewbacca. We never needed to see or hear about “Han Solo” ever again, given the decades we’ve celebrated and scrutinized the fake space dude. New stories and new characters are always better, because allowing new voices and new ideas into the zeitgeist subverts cultural autocracy. All these things are true, but that doesn’t make Solo a bad movie.

Solo begins in the “mean streets” of a galactic underworld, where a charming douchebag named Han (Alden Ehrenreich) finds himself running from debt collectors and making out with the Khalessi. While Han sneaks to his escape, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is not so lucky. As she is dragged away by the shadowy authorities, Han promises he’ll come back for her.

Years pass, and on his search for a craft he can pilot to Qi’ra’s rescue, Han joins a rag-tag team of criminals, hired by some boss-level villains to pull off a high-stakes train robbery. Things go awry, Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) joins them, and adventure ensues.

This mostly episodic tale of romance and peril calls back to what Pirates of the Caribbean invented in 2003: heroic, sexy swashbucklers that aren’t all good guys. To so naturally embed anti-heroism and sensuality in this lighthearted action flick is formidable, not unlike Kylo Ren’s storyline in The Last Jedi. Winding narratives and visuals consistently charge the movie with childlike energy: there are no lulls, no dull action, and no empty promises. The world mirrors Han Solo’s debauchery, just as that of Pirates mirrors Jack’s.

Perhaps the film’s biggest lifeline is its strong characters. Alden Ehrenreich does precisely what Han Solo needed him to, without mimicking Harrison Ford’s characteristic performance. An irresistible bad boy with a kind heart, Ehrenreich’s Han transforms from love drunk boy to suave leading man through the course of Solo, never once missing a joke or tender moment. Emilia Clarke is equally impressive, abandoning her typical melodrama for a multi-layered and active protagonist. Together, they are as symphonic as they are unpredictable, constructing the saucy world of Solo from go.

This review would be remiss to exclude Woody Harrelson, who adds so much to this story from just his casual quips. The sexiest we’ve seen Funny Matthew McConaughey in a long time, Tobias Beckett acts as both Han’s antagonist and mentor, i.e. Jack Sparrow to Ehrenreich’s Will Turner. He shows us how dirty Han Solo could get, given his sex appeal and talent, while simultaneously sculpting the title character into a trope already established by the series. With Han, Beckett allows for more human dynamics to complicate and advance the story.

Solo‘s biggest achievement, however, is its uniform and fresh aesthetic. Without lacking a glossy franchisian veneer, the prequel strives for the same grittiness of its characters, restructuring the look of the original trilogy to better fit its depravity. In its first big action scene, an impossibly sleek high speed train carves through alien cliffs and mountains, a fresh snowfall reflected in its glistening windows. Atop this breathtaking design, our heroes dual in brown bomber jackets and fur coats, their afros and mohawks swaying in the wind.

There is something vaguely retro about the war scenes, sexy parties, and Qi’ra’s bangs. Donald Glover’s Lando is a smart mix of its 70s inspo and 2018 cool. In melding the new and old, Solo achieves a kind of otherworldliness often lacking from the series’ newfound modernity. As a backdrop for relentless one-liners, this committed aesthetic helps ground the movie and tether its characters to their world. If anything, Solo is generous with its visuals; in a media landscape where CGI creatures are hardly sufficient, this movie overachieves in beautiful stimulation.

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Han and Chewie bonding over a near-death experience

This movie is not a masterpiece. With really only one femme character of importance, Solo does not wriggle free from the Star Wars boy club. Its four most important characters are horny white people. At 135 minutes, its chronicles of violent adventures is unending. There are 50% too many characters. Etc., etc., etc.

This movie is the perfect action movie, and the narrative of Star Wars saturation is overblown. Every seat was filled at my Thursday night premiere screening, and every aha-moment of Solo‘s IP-dependent storyline was punctuated by gasps and cheers. As I was leaving the theater, a boy around 10 said, “Dad, that was my favorite movie.” Soon after, a woman around 70 exclaimed, “That was just excellent!”

It is entirely understandable to be bored of words like “Darth” and “kessel run,” but being bored of the diegesis at the center of Western pop culture is not the same as being bored of Solo. Expecting every incarnation of Star Wars to carry the same responsibility of episodes XII or XIII is naive. This franchise is a commodity; it is made to be sold, and selling it is. Solo arrived at a time of early onset franchise fatigue, encouraged by critics wanting more from the box office. Wanting more is justified, but I’m not sure what else Solo has to give.

Don’t be surprised when this Han Solo you’ve written off is generationally venerated, just as Jack Sparrow has been for the past 15 years.

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