(Obvious Star Wars spoilers from Episodes IV-VII)
Two years ago I made a video on YouTube all about Die Hard and why it works as an action movie and how character arcs worked. 80s action cinema actually has some of the most basic yet effective screenwriting ever, but for today, I’m gonna take a slight diversion.
John McClane is one of the most relatable action movie characters ever, but if we look to the world of science fiction cinema, we cannot ignore Han Solo (Who, alongside McClane and Indiana Jones, may be in my three favourite heroes in all of cinema). A million other essays exist exploring the character I’m sure, but this is where we consider Han Solo as an imperfect person and how we ourselves can aspire and be inspired by his journey.
Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford, is never the main character in a Star Wars movie. Generally when viewing film, we put ourselves in the place of the main character, which in the case of Star Wars generally means Luke Skywalker for the original trilogy; Anakin Skywalker for the prequel trilogy; and Rey and/or Finn depending on the trajectory of the current trilogy we are in. Star Wars, like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings by way of fandom, has a whole cast of characters arguably more interesting than the main character. Darth Vader, Remus Lupin, Aragorn, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gollum, you can pick the majority of characters and they will most likely be someone’s favourite character.
It’s Han Solo, however, that has a journey that can stand out in the Star Wars universe. Looking purely at the narrative of the original trilogy, Han Solo is the least remarkable and actually closest to human out of the main grouping of characters. Ignoring bar patrons, Imperial officers, and otherwise, Han Solo is just a man with a ship that goes fast and he can make it go fast.
The world of Star Wars is one populated by war (obviously), politics (thankfully toned down in the originals), rebellion (a powerful throughline), and the Force. As has been filtered through our cultural consciousness down to even people pretending to open automatic doors with a wave of their hand, the Force is everywhere. And the Jedi and the Sith are those who make full use of it and wield elegant laserswords to do medieval/feudal Japanese battle with one another.
Han Solo, despite growing up in a world where the Jedi are wiped out by the Empire, doesn’t buy it. Solo is a man who somehow had never experienced the Force in use and wouldn’t believe it until he had properly seen it. Han Solo is stubborn and a realist. Ignorant until proven wrong to his face. And that’s only the tip towards why Han is so interesting and relatable.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is the archetypal Hero’s Journey. All film students and people who find it interesting to read about narrative theory in their free time have heard all about the Hero’s Journey and how Star Wars follows it basically beat for beat. It’s a reason why it’s so universally accepted and loved and appreciated due to how simple and effective the narrative is. We get all the types of characters our hero Luke Skywalker faces, and we take a journey that ultimately ends by the time the credits roll. A New Hope is one of those “my first screenwriting lesson” movies, but once again, while Luke Skywalker is an interesting character, it is better to consider Han Solo.
Luke Skywalker should be the character we all relate and connect to. He’s a farm boy whose aunt and uncle forbid him from escaping and living a life of adventure and excitement and spends time gazing out at the binary suns of the planet he lives on. In theory, we project onto Luke, and we sympathise with how he wants to escape and get the plot moving, and when it finally does, we feel how empowering his journey is. He finds a princess, becomes acquainted with his father’s secret history and weaponry, and Luke even blows up a planet-sized space station to save the day. Luke Skywalker’s life goes from 0 to 100 in the space of a couple hours screen-time and we’re with him the entire journey.
Consider, however, Han Solo. It’s cathartic and exciting to watch as Luke Skywalker rise from zero to hero much like it is watching something like Disney’s Hercules, or watching Dominic Toretto in the Fast and Furious movies going from stealing DVD players to stopping nuclear submarines and truly having a “family” (Don’t worry, that essay will come one day…), but Han Solo is infinitely more interesting, relatable, and inspirational.
This isn’t like talking about Boba Fett. Boba Fett is the most overrated character in Star Wars that only gets interesting when you do expanded reading of people who wanted Boba Fett to be interesting write their own stories. In reality the Mandalorian bounty hunter is only captivating because of badass armour, being a man of few words, and the fact that Darth Vader has to add the caveat of “No disintegrations” to a bounty regarding Fett’s past. Anything and everything you need about Han Solo comes from the original trilogy. No extra reading or watching, you get exactly what you need from Harrison Ford across six-ish hours of cinema.
Now while Luke Skywalker turns out to be a Jedi like his father, Princess Leia becomes an important strategist and diplomat for the rebellion, C-3PO can speak six million different languages and helps his best friend R2-D2 – a droid who can hack almost anything and has a billion gadgets, Darth Vader can choke people just by looking at them even through monitors, and the Emperor can shoot lightning out of his fingers, Han Solo is a lying, cheating, smuggling scoundrel.
Hell, even the old man that promised to pay him managed to disappear into thin air into immortality.
Solo has two things in his life: Chewbacca, his best and only friend, and the Millennium Falcon. Forever the best named spaceship and forever has it where it counts. The Millennium Falcon is manoeuvrable, fast, small-ish, and Han Solo’s pride and joy. Even if it doesn’t want to work half the time. Of course, Solo never earned the Millennium Falcon honestly, having tricked Lando Calrissian out of it which is referenced in Empire Strikes Back (And Calrissian flirting with the Princess and stealing Han’s clothes isn’t exactly enough to balance that out) Plus in our one step towards the expanded universe in Han Solo discussion, Chewbacca wasn’t always a friend either, having been freed by Han from slavery and then in their travels slowly grew to be best friends through thick and thin.
While the majority of main characters in the Star Wars original trilogy have things that made them who they were: immaculate conception through the Force to be the chosen one to bring balance but to then destroy it as the Emperor’s right-hand man, being a child of that person who rose to be a Jedi Knight under tutelage of the greatest living Jedi Master, being that person’s twin sister adopted into royalty and the Rebel Alliance, Han Solo stars with not a lot, and what he does have he earns. All while making mistakes.
When we meet Han Solo he’s already a marked man. In debt to Jabba The Hutt, Han tries to talk his way out of confrontation and when that fails, shooting first (Don’t even start, Internet) to save his own hide. In our first scenes of seeing Han Solo, we discover that he lies, he’s greedy, and he’s looking out for number one. He raises the amount of money he wants to be paid for transporting Luke, Obi-Wan, C-3PO, and R2-D2, both so he can save his own hide and of course leave plenty to himself.
Han Solo has a rough ride across the original trilogy of Star Wars films, but he finds his way. We see true character growth in him, and he continues to be so watchable and charismatic.
What is interesting in Han Solo is that he fucks up. We see Luke fail in his attempts to learn about controlling the Force with Yoda on Dagobah, but Luke never quite fucks up in his journey. He has his hand cut off after learning his enemy is actually his father, and he gets captured by Jabba The Hutt after making an oversight, but Luke’s actions are never quite like Han’s.
Han Solo is only human. He’s the only true human across the main characters, with even Leia being Force-sensitive to the slightest degree. Han Solo never realised what he signed up for. Even when faced with Luke’s initial training with his lightsaber on his own ship, Solo hand-waved the Force as a bunch of simple parlor tricks. Han Solo is that person who won’t let you enjoy a magic trick because he think he knows how it’s done.
It’s so interesting and inspirational to look towards Han Solo, because he is a character that grows. He changes in the best ways and he has hardships and he fucks up like anyone would. Han Solo is arrogant and headstrong and will run after Stormtroopers causing a racket, only to turn and run around after confronting hundreds of them around the corner. Han Solo puts so much faith into his ship that he works on all the time that it couldn’t possibly fail the jump to lightspeed. Han Solo will get on an intercom and try and talk his way out of a commotion before shooting the panel because he didn’t like the conversation anyway.
The smuggler flounders in the world he’s entered. He’s just the best darn pilot in the galaxy and damn fine at smuggling. He piloted the Falcon through the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs and he shot Greedo first in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Now suddenly he’s thrown into mission to save an important member of the Rebel Alliance and escort the plans of the Death Star back to the rebellion so they can blow-up the space station with the planet-destroying weapon. Han Solo doesn’t have magical powers that cause things to fly. He doesn’t have a weapon that can defend against a man in black that can kill without hesitation. It’s interesting just to watch Han Solo in Episode IV and rightfully see him peace out once his job is done and he’s been paid.
Here is one of the most interesting Han Solo moments. The man who only thinks about himself, Solo finds the mission to blow up the Death Star suicide. After being paid the credits he’s owed, Han Solo decides to just leave everyone to it. In reality, it’s not his fight. A thief never quite has the honour and side to pick, of course. Looking after his own skin – especially with the looming potential of Jabba being after him – Han Solo takes the money and runs, but not before saying goodbye.
Despite disappointing his new ally in Luke, Han still utters the words “May the Force be with you”, a phrase of the Jedi, a phrase that shows that he himself doesn’t quite see the Force and Jedi as bullshit anymore. That’s not enough, of course, and Han leaves the world he was dragged into.
Of course, that’s not the end of Han’s tale. Instead we get the best return ever, with Luke being against the odds and three Imperial ships – including Darth Vader’s – on his tail, and the Millennium Falcon coming out at the last minute to shoot them down and give Skywalker the all-clear to shoot and destroy the Death Star. It’s a moment in film that’s been replicated time and time again, and it’s no wonder people compare it to the Falcon swooping in out of nowhere to help save the day. This is where you get one of those first examples in modern film where we think a character is gone for good before a crucial moment but then they have a change of heart. Han Solo piloting his ship right back into the battle of underdogs is a heroic moment of growth for the pilot who just wants to get away from his problems. It is here where we really get the potential for Han Solo, and where his true badassdom gains dimension.
Then again, maybe he just wanted a medal. Even if Chewie didn’t get one on-screen too.
Across Empire and Jedi we continue to see Han Solo being the most interesting character in Star Wars. Despite the events above the Death Star, Han Solo is still Han Solo. He’s smooth talking, he bargains, he makes dodgy deals. On Hoth he continues to flirt with the Princess in the most brash of ways. Some scenes his charm battles with his big-headedness and it’s a wonder he manages to keep Leia’s interest. They have a back and forth that’s always confrontational and full of one-upmanship, but we see that Han knows what’s up.
Meanwhile, Han also shows that he’s begun to care. While he may have knocked heads with Luke, the moment he knows Luke is in trouble somewhere out in the snow he goes out looking for him. Even when he snaps at the sceptical person saying he’s heading out on a pointless mission, we see that Han is growing. Han Solo can’t do much, but he can try. He never ceases to try and fails a fair bit too. Which is relatable and understandable. So when he heads out on a Tauntaun to save Luke he fumbles with Skywalker’s lightsaber and cuts open his ride to stuff him in Revenant-style until he can get him back safe.
As the movies develop, Han Solo discovers that he actually has more than just himself, Chewie, and the Millennium Falcon. He’s getting a mismatched family. When he finds out that the Empire are about to come strike the Rebel base on Hoth, he’s done with looking after Number One and begins to save the rest of those who have come into his life. Even if that means flying the Falcon that still needs repairs.
The family are split when Luke and R2-D2 go separately on an adventure that ultimately brings them to Master Yoda and Jedi training, but as that happens, it’s interesting to watch how Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO handle their escape from the Empire.
Which of course I mean it’s interesting to see Han. Sure, there’s conflict between light and dark with Luke in Empire. Information is hidden from Luke that’s delivered in the most iconic scene ever that pays off so brilliantly and sets the tone for the rest of the trilogy.
But Han Solo continues to be the journey that’s interesting, emotional, and relevant. Solo never quite catches a break but we see that his heart has had a fire started in it. We see that he’s continually changing and evolving through the first time we met him. Han Solo is a man with underground connections and who has lied and shot and smoothly made his way through life, and while he dips his toes back into those roots – getting help from his old friend Lando who owns a city but lost the Millennium Falcon all those years ago – he soon pays a price for his previous actions.
Not before doing the most baller interaction with Darth Vader ever. Han Solo comes face to face with Vader before Luke ever does. He once distracted another TIE Fighter that flew into Vader’s ship knocking him off course, and now in Cloud City doors part to reveal the big bad man of the Empire across a table from him.
What does Han Solo immediately do? Shoot the fuck first. It’s futile, of course, but Han does all he can do. He’s not a Jedi master and he knows he can’t talk his way out of things, so he pulls his trusty blaster and tries to shoot Vader in the face.
It’s a shame Vader can pull a Neo and stop shots aimed at him, but it’s still great to see Han immediately protect those he’s with the only way he can in a split second. He stood up to what he now knows is a powerful user of the Force and dangerous as all hell, still opting to use a blaster.
Han Solo is the true underdog of Star Wars. It is not Luke Skywalker. And Luke Skywalker goes through his own troubles, but he’s never frozen in carbonite by Darth Vader. Solo was the test subject before the attempt to freeze Luke to deliver to the Emperor, but even then they never got to use it on the burgeoning Jedi.
As the test subject, Han Solo was given one last exchange with Princess Leia before uncertainty. The classic “I love you” “I know”. Forever hiding the cards against his chest, Solo is never one to lay it all out on the table. Despite his feelings for Leia, he keeps understated, and he leaves her with one last hint of his scruffy-looking nerfherder edge. It still has that hint of his defences dropped, however. Han gives an air of frustration that in his mind; this is potentially the end. He failed to save the day and get the girl and escape Jabba The Hutt and all the other conflicts in his life. Han Solo fails and fails hard, and finishes Empire as a slab of frozen carbon transported to be put on a wall as a trophy.
Two movies in and Han Solo already gives us an interesting journey. The one sane human voice in the world he’s dragged into, Han Solo has always been the cowboy. The guy who can get you from Point A to Point B as long as the price is right. He keeps a gun by his side at all times, he has a trusty best friend in Chewbacca, and his vehicle just happens to be the best ship in the galaxy. At least, a ship that doesn’t look like much but has it where it counts. Which is exactly what is needed to sneak and smuggle his employers to where they are supposed to be.
Across A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, we’ve already seen Han change. He goes from being all about the money and steps ahead of those who want him dead or worse to someone who cares about others, saving his friends, and helping the Rebellion fight against an oppressive force. Han Solo is the man who drops everything after being paid, but realises that that means he loses everything he has achieved. Han Solo finally becomes a hero and has a medal ceremony to prove it. And before that he was a lowly criminal who cheated and stole every credit he earned. He might not go from farm boy to Jedi Master, but Han Solo goes from douchebag to hero of the Rebel Alliance. And his job isn’t even done.
Han Solo falls in love and treasures his allies he’s made along the way. He does his best to look after and save them, and takes it upon himself when he fails to do so. He tries hard to sort out his ship. He contacts an old friend he once cheated in order to protect his friends. He, in futility, shoots at Darth Vader, a man who Han watched apparently kill the Jedi Master who originally employed him. He is frozen in carbonite by Vader and handed off to the bounty hunter Boba Fett, his past finally catching up to him. Han Solo never stops trying to be a better person and to think of other for a change, but he continually fails and gets punished for it.
But even being encased in carbonite isn’t enough to stop him.
Return of the Jedi opens with the mission to save Han Solo. Despite whatever importance and help a pilot Han Solo can be to the continued Rebel Alliance, it’s still an interesting journey to see all those who would come to try and save Han. If Han Solo had been captured and frozen and sent to Jabba the Hutt at the top of A New Hope, only Chewbacca would be there to try and save him. Instead, we have C-3PO, R2-D2, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and even Lando Calrissian joining in to try and save Han Solo.
If Solo never changed his ways and if he just took the money and ran all that time ago, this would not be the case. He’d have potentially been frozen in carbonite forever. As Leia says, however, when Han asks who saved him, it’s “someone who loves you”. The true testament to their connection and continued love.
Jedi is kinder to Han Solo. By this point in the narrative, Solo is not the greedy person he once was. With Jabba the Hutt killed by Leia he has no-one to run from, and with his accidental defeat of Boba Fett, this is made sure of. In Return of the Jedi we are free to watch Han Solo deal with the end of the Empire at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, all while Lando Calrissian pilots his – or technically, Lando’s – ship and Luke confronts Vader and the Emperor parallel to their mission.
We manage to get all the closure we need on Han Solo. He is a war hero given the rank of General who fell in love with a Princess who loved him back. Sure, they had issues, like Leia once kissing her twin brother Luke, but that is all clarified over time.
Ultimately Han and Leia help lead a mission that removes the shield generator for the second Death Star, leaving it vulnerable to attack, and ultimately its destruction. All while Luke and Vader have their own closure at the defeat of the Emperor. Everyone regroups, everyone celebrates, Han finishes the original trilogy with his whole cast of friends (including Ewoks who manage to defeat the Emperor’s best men on Endor) and being in the arms of the woman he grew to love.
Not bad for a scoundrel that was not to be trusted.
Han Solo is inspirational to all when you look at it. He turned around a life of crime to become a true hero. He went through hell and back including essentially death in order to help save the day. He was a human in a world full of powerful people and essentially magic and he managed to stay head to head with everything.
To everyone who has gone through a shit time in their life, they can look to Han Solo. Han Solo has done the greedy and crappy thing in life. He’s thought about himself and run away, but there was no more crucial a time for him to come back into people’s lives and help out. He’s lost everything including his ship, his girl, and essentially his life, and then more people than you imagine come together to save him. Even when there is a rebellion going on. One of the last remaining Jedi Knights chooses a time to reveal himself in the rescue of Han Solo. A man who once thought the Force was all mumbo jumbo.
Han Solo has had that period of his life where it feels like he’s stuck in an overly-long second act more than once in his life. He’s turned his back on the life he could have and he’s run from his problems to such a degree he shouldn’t be able to bounce back. But he does.
A farm boy can leave home and rise to power in an antiquated martial art powered by the universe’s balancing force and take out the Dark Side with the Light. But so can a normal Average Joe with nothing but a bucket of bolts and a furry giant of a best friend shoot the Emperor’s Number Two right in the face and survive (temporarily), ensure a planet-destroying weapon is destroyed twice, and freaking win the heart of a goddamn princess.
Han Solo is the important Hero Journey in the original Star Wars trilogy.
And you can look at Force Awakens as the epilogue to his tale. Whether it’s the perfect symbolism of his sceptical arc between “There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny” and “It’s true. All of it”, his relationship with General Leia fading and coming together over the guilt of their son turning to the Dark Side, or Han Solo’s final gesture of not being a scoundrel, but a man of love: Touching his son’s face one last time before falling into oblivion, dead.
Han Solo is a human like you and me. Sure, if the films were from Han Solo’s perspective, it wouldn’t be as interesting. Not when there are lightsabers and the dichotomy of Dark and Light. If you do want that perspective, however, there’s a reason Firefly exists. Or Guardians of the Galaxy exists. Or my own novel, The Binary Bounty, exists (Only bit of self-promotion here, I promise)
People love Han Solo for a whole bucket-load of reasons. Much like so many people love Boba Fett. Or Darth Vader. Or a whole bunch of characters from the prequels, even.
But I love Han Solo for the case I state above. I love Han Solo because he is a Hero. And because even if I feel like my life is frozen in carbonite sometimes and I don’t have the things I used to or the things I want. I’m not alone. I fuck up, I make mistakes, I go backwards rather than forwards. But I am not alone, and I will bounce back and help destroy symbols of hate and repression. And I’ll be the coolest motherfucker in the galaxy and I will win the heart of a princess.
And then my son will turn to the Dark Side, lead me to a suspiciously dangerous bridge, stab me in the chest with a lightsaber and drop me over the side of it.
Life’s not perfect.