Solo was good; here's how it could've been great

Solo: A Star Wars Story was good.

It was really good, you guys. You should see it if you haven’t yet. I’d imagine a fair bit of you haven’t, given that Solo was the second lowest-grossing Star Wars movie to hit theaters (the ultimate honor there goes to Clone Wars, which I still have never seen). Why did this happen? The movie is well-acted, well-directed, well-paced, has appealing characters, great action scenes, and feels exactly like a Star Wars movie should. There were flaws, yes, but pound-for-pound, it’s comfortably better than any of the prequels. Why did it bomb so hard?

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I’m going to have to put the blame on The Last Jedi. And yes, it does feel weird to posit that a movie that made 1.3 billion dollars and got 91% on Rotten Tomatoes should hurt the performance of the next in the series, but no other explanation really makes much sense. The Last Jedi was, for all its critical and commercial success, undeniably divisive among fans. As much as the hate for Last Jedi is associated with alt-right chuds mad that there were too many women and brown folks (and yes, those folks are quiiite vocal, and really need to GTFO of my YouTube recommendations), I think that segment is relatively small in proportion to those who were just turned off by the movie, but picked up the anti-Jedite banner because every fucking thing is a culture war these days. It feels like an outrageous, dismissive, and unfair claim to make that everybody who hated Last Jedi was so butthurt about it that they made themselves hate Solo, but again, no other explanation really makes sense.

“The Admiral is a WOMAN with PURPLE HAIR instead of an UGLY FISH MAN. I cannot take this shit seriously.”

I don’t want to get into a whole sidetrack about Last Jedi. Suffice it to say, I had mixed feelings about The Last Jedi, but I ultimately concluded that it was a “great” Star Wars movie, if not always particularly “good”.

Well, shit, I said “suffice it to say”, but that won’t really suffice, will it? I didn’t hate it like I hated The Force Awakens, but I definitely thought it had some problems. After nearly a year, and more reflection than I ever thought a Star Wars movie would demand, I’m forced to admit that the worst things about Last Jedi were mostly the things it had the least control over. For example, Rey, Poe, and Finn are terrible characters. Rey is dull, Poe is a twat, and Finn is a sucky gormless cowardly loser who sucks. But that’s on Force Awakens, as is the crapulent nostalgia and the hokey kid-friendly “you gotta hope!” schmaltz that reared their ugly heads throughout Last Jedi and hamstrung it into not fully developing some of its more interesting themes. (The final shot of the dumb little boy wistfully wielding his broom to the stars made me audibly retch.)

The parts of The Last Jedi that were good were all its own. No Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back took such huge leaps in what a Star Wars movie could be. I really, really enjoyed the new visual language director Rian Johnson and his cinematographer Steve Yedlin developed, I adored the moral ambiguity it brought to the characters of Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker, and I heartily appreciated the strikingly mature and radical themes and messages it had to offer. But what I appreciated most about Last Jedi is the ultimate source of its divisiveness: namely, that it didn’t try to give me, as a fan, everything I wanted. It could have gone in a slavish retread direction, like Force Awakens did, but it didn’t. It departed from convention. It took risks. It respected my judgment as a thoughtful movie consumer. For somebody suffused in modern mainstream nerdery, not being pandered to is a really weird feeling, and a lot of Star Wars fans just plain didn’t like it.

“So basically this B-plot is thematic and it’s about how war and oppression are equally caused by quote-unquote ‘villains’ and the amoral wealthy who finance them for their own interests, and the latter will never be touched by the violence they create unless you bring it to them.” “LAME. DUMB. DOESN’T GO ANYWHERE.”

Which is why it’s so weird that Star Wars fans didn’t take to Solo. Solo is all pandering—extremely skillful pandering, but pandering nonetheless. It’s got appealing characters with Old Hollywood charm moving through a fast-paced pulpy heist story set in the dirty used-future of the original Star Wars trilogy, sprinkled with breathless battle sequences and judiciously exercised callbacks. It knows exactly what you want to see Han Solo do and it lines up the pins in the right order and knocks them all down with zest and panache. It’s everything the anti-Jedites claimed they wanted Last Jedi to be, and it wasn’t enough to attract them.

Solo was originally supposed to be directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Those are two dudes who have made a career out of being extremely wacky, extremely meta, and having a firm grasp on the vernacular of Hollywood stories. Ever since they debuted their fractured take on the high-school docudrama with Clone High (whose theme song I’m humming under my breath as I type this), Lord and Miller have together shown a singular knack at turning film character archetypes inside out. They’re the ones who transformed a ridiculously premised but otherwise straightforward cop procedural series into a high-flying, deliriously funny send-up of ‘80s movie and TV clichés. They’re the ones who transformed the LEGO Movie series from an optioned cash-grab into some of the funniest and most subversive kids’ movies around (accidentally making the millennium’s best Batman movie in the process). I was really excited when I heard they’d been attached to direct Solo, and it ginned up my enthusiasm for a movie I didn’t think much of at first.

But alas, Lord and Miller were ultimately fired from the movie, albeit after already having filmed a lot of it. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (a Star Wars veteran who co-wrote Episodes 5, 6, and 7) was unhappy with Lord and Miller’s improvisational style, which he said was causing the narrative to drift “off course” and turn the movie into a comedy when they were only hired to provide a comedic touch. Kasdan and his co-writer/son Jonathan Kasdan took to showing up on-set to supervise Lord and Miller, which they didn’t care for at all. Reading between the lines, it’s pretty clear what happened: the legacy talent took unkindly to the young upstarts not treating his work with the proper amount of seriousness, and enlisted the help of bottom-line-conscious studio execs to nose them out.

Cue: “I got a bad feeling about this…”

As a result, Lord and Miller went uncredited on the movie, and replacement Ron Howard was the only one who received any directing credit. But it’s known that some of the footage that Lord and Miller shot ended up getting used. I watched Solo attentively, and think I succeeded in finding some scenes that pretty much have to be theirs.

Keeping in mind their trademark acerbic humor, there are two scenes in particular where I detected some characteristically Lord and Miller-style jokes. In the opening scene, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) has a standoff with worm/whale/albino/crime boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) in which he pulls out his backup plan:

Han: This is a thermal detonator, [click] and I just armed it.

Lady Proxima: That’s a rock!

Han: No, it isn’t.

Lady Proxima: It is! And you just made a clicking sound with your mouth!

I don’t care what you say, that’s good shit. I lol’d in the theater over that. This kind of sassy, improv-y absurdity abounds later on during the Kessel Run scene, which is just packed with jokes, many of which depend on the viewer’s understanding of the Star Wars idiom. Han, in the pilot’s seat, asks Beckett (Woody Harrelson) if there are still TIE fighters on their tail. “Like rashnold on a kylak,” he replies. A baffled Han waits a beat before admitting, “I don’t know what that means.” A minute or two and seven or eight jokes later, Han bookends the scene with a maneuver he learned from his old pal Needles, “the best street racer in all Corellia… till he crashed… and died… doing this.”

*”Last Kiss” begins playing*

The other scenes that reminded me of Lord and Miller are less on the “funny” side than on the “meta” side, “meta” being the other thing they’re known for. Throughout the movie, there’s a germ of a theme that keeps wanting to poke its little theme-y head out of the ground and bloom as a beautiful theme plant, but it never quite gets there. That theme is Han’s characterization. The LEGO Batman Movie brought a level of critical evaluation and self-awareness to Batman’s character that it really, really, really needed. The following scene from Solo, between Han and his ex-lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) put me in mind of that, and the specific language used here makes me think that some similar meta-commentary was intended.

Han: You know, I’m not the kid you knew on Corellia anymore.

Qi’ra: No? Then what are you?

Han: I’m an outlaw.

Qi’ra: Okay, outlaw, you can tell yourself that. But I might be the only one in the galaxy who knows what you really are.

Han: Yeah? What’s that?

Qi’ra: You’re the good guy.

Han: [chuckles] I am not a good guy. I am definitely not a good guy. I’m a terrible person.

“I actually combine qualities of the Anti-Hero, the Gunslinger, and the Noble Crook; there’s a piece in this quarter’s Cinema Journal that goes into it in some detail.”

This is far from the first time Star Wars has included self-referential material, but until now, these elements were mainly limited to individual lines and other callback-type stuff like that. This is different. This is actually taking a metatextual look at Han Solo’s character, both individually and as an incarnation of the anti-hero gunslinger archetype. It’s meta as fuck. Or at least, it was going to be, if Lord and Miller would have had their full say.

This impression is only strengthened by the climactic showdown between Han and Beckett at the end of the movie, in which [SPOILER] Han cuts short the double-crosser’s grandiose pre-battle speech by very pointedly—you guessed it—shooting first. This both effectively subverts a widely used Hollywood trope and earns an extra level of meaning based on what we know of Han specifically. It could have been really cool. But instead of letting that moment fall as it may, the next shot shifts in tone dramatically, as a visibly emotional Han rushes to cradle the man he just shot in his arms and commiserate a bit before he dies. That part of the scene felt tacked on, and I think I know who filmed it.

“Ask Sam… if he can cover… my shifts…”

Little else in the movie reinforces this effort, and in my opinion the movie suffers for it. It’s this that keeps Solo from being a truly “great” entry in the Star Wars canon. I’ve read up on negative opinions of Solo, from professional critics as well as disgruntled Amazon reviewers (I consider myself somewhere in the middle). I’ve read complaints that Alden Ehrenreich was miscast as Han Solo (up for debate), that the acting was bad (hard disagree), there was too much explanation of stuff that didn’t need explained (grudgingly granted, although I didn’t really notice a lot of this until IMDb pointed them out), and that the plot details were ludicrous (so… it’s a Star Wars movie, then?). There was a lot of talk about how a Han Solo origin story was “unnecessary”, which seems to me a very weird argument to make. No movie is “necessary”, in the sense that we’ll die if we don’t have them; we make them because they’re awesome. And if a violent, action-packed, high-spirited adventure featuring the original Star Wars trilogy’s most interesting character doesn’t sound awesome to you, then I guess we’re just very different people.

But the one consistent criticism of Solo that I would 100% endorse is that it played too safe. It didn’t take any risks and it didn’t do anything to distinguish itself from the other Star Wars movies. I knew this was going to be an issue once Ron Howard was attached as director in Lord and Miller’s absence. He’s known for being a tiresomely competent director of unremarkable movies. After a four-decade career, he doesn’t really have a singular style of his own. He’s the guy to go to when you want to make a movie that everyone will enjoy well enough. Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney-Lucasfilm complex picked him specifically because they knew he could deliver the sort of on-brand product that Lord and Miller were absolutely not interested in making.

“Picture! Everybody say ‘It’s Fine!'”

This was a loss, not only for Solo, but for the whole Star Wars series. What is the fucking point in making so many of these movies if they’re all going to be the same movie? Star Wars isn’t a franchise anymore—it’s more like a sprawling Marvel-style movie universe. And look what Marvel does with the playroom they’ve cleared out for themselves: They’ve dabbled in spy thrillers, heist flicks, sci-fi, fantasy, teen drama, Afrofuturism; all sorts of tones from tragic to comedic, sober to campy, one-dimensional to meta as fuck. They don’t tie themselves down to one thing. Neither should Star Wars.

There’s room for all sorts of stuff in this galaxy far, far away. The unique filmmaking gifts of Phil Lord and Chris Miller could have re-energized the series and pushed it into genuinely new directions, in the same way The Last Jedi did, and instead they got kicked to the curb in favor of more of the same.

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  • Murry Chang

    When people say that the movie is unnecessary they don’t mean that some movies are necessary for life, they mean that the movie is exploring something that doesn’t need to be explored. Like the Alien prequel movies: They’re unnecessary because the Alien is a WAY better character if we don’t actually know its origins…seeing how the sausage is made is always worse than just buying and eating the sausage.

    • Tyler Peterson

      I don’t buy this argument, I think it begs certain questions about what “needs” to be explored and why.

      Mostly I don’t think “[Character] is always better when you don’t know their origins” is a claim you can ever justify. It’s literally unknowable. Sure, the Aliens prequels sucked, but does it follow that any conceivable Alien prequel would necessarily have sucked? Is it impossible to imagine that one would have been good? If it were, would you still be saying it’s “unnecessary”?

      That’s really the heart of my distaste for the word – people making the “unnecessary” argument always seem to start from “this exploration of the character wasn’t satisfying” and leap to “no exploration of this character could possibly have been satisfying”.

      • Murry Chang

        Eh, whether you buy it or not it’s generally true, especially with mysterious antagonist characters like the Xenomorph. There are no origin stories that I can conceive of for the Xenomorph that would be as good or better than the first two movies. The Alien prequels were just the first example that came to my mind. And yes, even if they were somehow good I would still say that they’re unnecessary.

        Hell, Rogue One was a decent flick that was entirely unnecessary. Finding out how the Death Star info ended up in the hands of the Rebellion was not a very satisfying story at all but the movie was an enjoyable enough 2 hours. It’s not a movie that I’m planning on rewatching a million times like the OT though.

        • Tyler Peterson

          I get what you’re saying, I just can’t relate to painting all prequels with the same brush in a world where The Godfather Part II, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Hannibal (the show) and Better Call Saul all exist.

          • John

            Nobody is painting the all prequels with the same brush, just stating a general rule about prequels.

      • Murry Chang

        Just watched all but the last half hour of it last night and it’s actually pretty damn decent. Entirely unnecessary but definitely decent.

  • GreenLuthor

    I think there’s another important factor in determining why Solo underperformed at the box office: when it was released. Disney scheduled a full year between Force Awakens and Rogue One, followed by another full year for Last Jedi. And then… only five months for Solo. Having a new Star Wars movie so soon probably made it feel less special or important. (It’s worth noting that Rogue One was originally scheduled for a May release, but got pushed back to December; had the same been done for Solo, it might have helped.)

    And even more importantly, Solo was released just two weeks after Avengers: Infinity War. Essentially, Disney took a minor side story to one of their major franchises, and made it compete with a MAJOR installment that represented the start of the culmination of a decade’s worth of films from one of their other major franchises. Again, had they pushed Solo back to December, it might have fared better than it did against a movie that was pretty much guaranteed to be a billion-dollar earner.

    (It also probably didn’t help that Disney didn’t really do any promotion until about three months before the actual release, at a time when major releases (like one would expect a Star Wars film to be) get teaser trailers to announce when the first teaser trailer is going to be released, sometimes a year in advance. During time that normally would have been spent building interest in the movie, we instead got stories about the directors being fired an replaced and some 75% or so of the movie being reshot. That’s usually not a sign that the studio has much faith in the product, and if the studio doesn’t have faith in it, audiences are likely to be turned off before they even see anything from the movie.)

    Of course, the real test will be Episode IX. If it does Force Awakens or Last Jedi numbers, then it’s probably safe to say it wasn’t (primarily) reaction to Last Jedi that did in Solo. If IX underperforms (and I have a feeling it probably won’t), then it’d be safe to say a lot of people are pretty much giving up on Star Wars as a franchise. But we’ll see.

    • Tyler Peterson

      Those are all really good points and I wish I could have made them, but as you can see if you read Hit or Bomb, my box office analysis muscles need some tone on ’em :)

  • Kenneth Morgan

    Personally, after several downbeat, Force-heavy, “the fate of everything is at stake” movies from the series, “Solo” was what I needed: a fast-paced, fun adventure. It’s, thus far, the closest we’ve come to a film of the fondly-remembered Solo novel from Brian Daley, back before TESB was released. And, in tone, it’s much closer to the original movie than TFA was. Not every movie has to be an edgy, meta, risky venture that upends all expectations just because it can. I saw “Solo” four times in a theater (twice as much either TLJ or TFA), and I bought the DVD (still haven’t gotten one for TLJ or TFA). I really enjoyed it, and that’s enough for me.

  • maarvarq

    “I’m forced to admit that the worst things about Last Jedi were
    mostly the things it had the least control over. For example, Rey, Poe,
    and Finn are terrible characters. Rey is dull, Poe is a twat, and Finn
    is a sucky gormless cowardly loser who sucks. But that’s on Force Awakens”
    Why Rian Johnson should be excused for this is beyond me, given his cheerful disregard for practically everything else about TFA, verging on a series of “F*** you”s to the audience, and indeed Poe in particular goes from being Leia’s right-hand man to a dangerously unreliable maverick.

    I swore from the first time I heard about Solo that I wasn’t touching it with a bargepole. I am growing to loathe prequels, which must either depend on flaws in the original (Rogue One, in attempting to explain a literal hole, opened several new metaphorical ones, and I was given no reason to give a crap about any of the new characters), or else be completely inconsequential. I gather that Solo falls into the latter category. If “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is your bag, then good for you, but it didn’t appeal to me in the slightest.

    At least Solo‘s poor box office means that the goddamn Boba Fett solo movie seems to be dead in the water.

    • Xander

      This is why I haven’t seen Solo, yet. It has nothing to do with The Last Jedi, which I literally just saw last week, and has everything to do with the fact that I’m tired of prequel movies. Let’s face it: Episodes 1-3 were objectively bad movies, not just bad Star Wars movies. As you said, Rogue One was good, but it wasn’t anything that I’ll need to rewatch again and again as I have the original movies.
      It also didn’t help that Solo looked like a pretty generic heist flick from the previews. I watched the trailer and thought that it looked awfully similar to the second episode of Firefly, except the train was on a roller coaster track rather than the ground.

      • CaptainCalvinCat

        Meh, the episodes one to three were fine. Sure, they had clunky writing, but I still enjoyed them. Plus: there was lots of clunky writing in the original trilogy, too.
        “”You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more
        powerful than you can possibly imagine.” – even if this later turns out to be true, this is not necessarily Shakespear, now, is it?
        Personally, I think this “Only a master of evil, Darth” is right up there with “I don’t like sand – it’s rough and coarse and it gets everywhere” in terms of “Oh my gosh, George, why did you write this?”

        And it isn’t as if the other writers were that good, either.
        Vader killing off the People, that failed him, left, right and Center? Sure, why not give him a mustache, that he can twirl, while you’re at it? By the way, how was Vader able to hold his breath to provide us with that Little jumpscare Moment on Bespin?

        Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars, but I’mma say, that this goes for ALL the “Episodes” and Solo. Rogue One was just a boring let down.

        • Xander

          Oh, I’m not saying that the original movies were perfect; I’m just saying that they were good movies. And, yes, Vader was a mustache twirling villain in Empire and Return, but that actually fits his characterization from the first movie. Leia specifically says that Tarkin is holding his leash. Well, in the next two movies he was off his leash, and he’s not really that great of a leader.
          I’ll admit, though, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Empire. What jump scare moment are you referring to?
          The problem with the prequels wasn’t the writing (even though it wasn’t good), it was the pacing. It seemed like Lucas was more interested in showcasing the technology of the movie than of telling a good story. In the original movies, the effects served the story. The opposite seems to be true with the prequels with a lot of movie moments thrown in just because they’d look cool with thoughts of how they’d serve the story secondary.

  • John

    Both Solo and Prometheus seemed to be more generic sci-fi movies with a bare hint of the franchise they are apart of. And both of them I think would have been better received if they were separate movies not connected to a larger franchise.

  • somedingus

    Ok, you’ve sold me on watching this movie now, but I have take some bones with your take on Last Jedi. I wholeheartedly agree that the MAGA Chuds can eat a dick in regard to them hating on women & minorities and representation and all that. Star Wars has room enough for everyone and that is as it should be. What Star Wars also needs though, and what Last Jedi was lacking, is FUN. What about

    • Murry Chang

      Actually I just saw all but the last half hour of Solo last night and it’s pretty damn decent. The train robbery is one of the best Star Wars action sequences of all time imho.

    • Greenhornet

      “I wholeheartedly agree that the MAGA Chuds can eat a dick in regard to them hating on women & minorities and representation and all that.”

      How very strange that you type that and then voice the VERY SAME OBJECTIONS that the “MAGA chuds” are saying. Do you even listen to the opinions of others, or do you simply dismiss them for political reasons?

  • CaptainCalvinCat

    Finally – thank you.
    I have the flick on Blu ray, watched it last saturday and was expecting a Piece of crap. But I got a pretty decent movie, one that I’d recommend watching.

    But somehow I knew, that this would happen, because I have a history with liking movies and disliking movies, that others hate or love.
    For example: TFA and TLJ – the only bad Thing in those movies is, that they were killing of Han and Luke. The rest is totally fine.

    But the whole “this is now all so SJW”-idiots out there make it sound as if TFA and TLJ would be – I dunno: Cancer or something.

    The only Star Wars related flick, that I don’t like, is Rogue One. I found it to be too grim, too gritty, too dark, too – well: too unnecessary.
    I agree with People, that are saying, that this movie is turning the opening crawl of “A new hope”, where it is stated, that Leia herself got her hands on the plans, into a lie, because Leia didn’t get her hands on the plans, it was this band of redshirts, that are all dying. Man, with that many deaths in that movie, they should’ve made Rogue One into the Story of how the plans for the second death star were brought to the Rebellion. “Many bothans died in order to get us the plans”.

    • John

      It’s not stated that Princess Leia got her hands on the plans herself. Its stated that the rebels won their first victory against the empire and that rebel spies had stolen the plans. Leia is only mentioned as being the custodian of the plans as she returns to her homeworld.

  • trustno173 .

    Your insults to people who didn’t like TLJ were quite petty. I expected nothing from TLJ except a good movie, and I got a slap to the face instead. You think people who hated TLJ hated it because they weren’t pandered to? What the hell is wrong with you? Seriously? We hate it because it’s an awful film that’s an insult to the entire franchise that did little new and what new things it did do were shallow and underdeveloped.

    • Tyler Peterson

      What’s wrong with me indeed? I went out of my way to avoid making any unfair blanket statements about people who didn’t like TLJ and it still wasn’t enough for your hypersensitive ass. This is why you anti-Jedites aren’t taken seriously. Your gargantuan sense of entitlement boggles the mind. You’re triggered by anything that doesn’t wipe your asshole clean and powder your balls. You resent the implication that you want to be pandered to, and yet you characterize a disappointing movie as a “a slap in the face”? That’s fucking bonkers. Why do you think you’re owed the hypothetical, nebulously-defined “good” version of Episode 8 that exists in your head? Because you’ve seen all the other ones? You’re a “fan”? They made some movies and you paid to see them – end of transaction. Why would I want to listen to the opinion of someone who thinks it’a acceptable to throw temper tantrums over the latest space wizards movie? It genuinely does not speak well toward your mental health that your identity is so wrapped up in Star Wars that you take personal grievance over this column.

      • trustno173 .

        The captions made blatant insults at people who had criticisms of the film, saying they boiled down to petty and immature reasons for disliking it and that they just wanted to be pandered to, which isn’t true in the slightest. You did no such thing. That’s why I got offended, you mocked people who had issues with the film and blew them off.

        So me wanting a good movie that isn’t blatantly disrespectful towards the franchise and the fans is having a ‘gargantuan sense of entitlement?’. I literally expected nothing, I had no theories, I just wanted to be entertained and they utterly, utterly failed.

        I don’t want to be pandered to. I just wanted a good film that respects the franchise, the characters, the world, and the lore, and TLJ took a massive shit on all of those. That is why the film is a slap in the face. It’s not simply disappointing, that I could handle, but it goes out of its way to insult something that I, and millions of others, love dearly, one that helped me through a very rough time in my life, so I’m some head-case for taking offense when some pretentious hack mucks it up for his personal whim? Fuck that shit and fuck TLJ.

        • Tyler Peterson

          So you took two jokes I made skewering two silly arguments I’ve seen levied against TLJ and interpreted them as a moral judgment on you and everyone who thinks like you. If you’re trying to dispel the perception that you’re hypersensitive and entitled, that’s not the way to do it.

          I didn’t even read the subsequent paragraphs. I’m confident they contain nothing I need to see.

          • trustno173 .

            Silly arguments? What? An unnecessary subplot that took away from important stuff that people would rather see and with shallow morals and various details that make absolutely no sense when you stop and think about them? Or Holdo aka Pong Krell as a human woman with a plan that can only be described as brain dead. If you think people have no right to complain about such awful writing and awful characters, then I can’t believe you’re on this site.

            Also, yeah, that doesn’t make you come off as arrogant at all.