Looking at the past five years of Star Wars films, one sticks out like a gold droid on a forest moon: Solo: A Star Wars Story. Not only did the film gross the least of the bunch (by over $300 million), it was the only one released over the summer, centered on an original trilogy character who was recast, and it was designed to set up sequels which are now very unlikely to happen. That mostly negative connotation had me wondering, what is it about Solo that did this? Why all the hate?
The film recently made the jump from Netflix to Disney+ and I rewatched it for the first time since it was in theaters. I watched specifically with an eye on the larger context: where does this movie fit into the story of Star Wars? Initially, nothing really stood out; it’s a fun enough movie, the characters, especially the new ones, are great, Alden Ehrenreich does as good a job as imaginable playing the iconic character, and it’s filled with moments Star Wars fans had been thinking about for years.
Then I stepped back. I realized the crux of the movie truly lessens the stakes. Everyone is after coaxium—a substance used to make the potent fuel that powers ship’s hyperdrive engines—which is, to our characters, essentially just the money it’s worth. And yet in Star Wars, from the first film onwards, Han Solo very quickly realizes money is not important. That’s when it hit me.
Familiar, predictable story beats? Uninteresting central conflict? Great new characters with little to do? A deluge of winks and nods to Star Wars movies and mythology of the past? Solo reminded me a lot of The Force Awakens, a movie that is almost universally beloved and the most successful Star Wars movie by as wide a margin as Solo is the least (it grossed $300 million more than the next film).
Unlike Solo, though, The Force Awakens had the honor of being the first new Star Wars movie out of the gate after Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and that huge swell of excitement absolutely helped cover some of that movie’s obvious flaws. Like the fact that it’s almost a beat by beat remake of A New Hope and is basically the story of people fighting over a map. I wondered, if Solo was the first Star Wars movie of the Disney era and came out in 2015 instead of 2018, would it have been the overall disappointment it ended up being or would it have enjoyed success similar to The Force Awakens?
Instead of rolling our eyes at moments like Han Solo getting his name, his blaster, or winning the Millennium Falcon as pointless fan service, would fans have cheered them as they did with similar moments in The Force Awakens? Instead of complaining about the recasting after seeing Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher return, would people have applauded Lucasfilm for trailblazing new ground in the franchise? Of course, questions like these are impossible to answer, but I think those alternate universe reactions are entirely possible. It feels like, ultimately, Solo is a victim of its time and place. The film’s down the middle brand of fan service came just a little too late.
Instead of being first out of the gate, Solo was the fourth new Star Wars movie, and the first to come out within a year of the previous release. When Solo premiered in May 2018, fans were still debating and arguing over The Last Jedi, which came out December 2017. For the first two trilogies, fans had to wait three years for the next Star Wars. Starting in 2015, it was one release per year. But Solo, this very fan service-y, fluffy movie, came out less than six months after the previous release. That immediacy really helped magnify that the movie is, for the most part, excessive and unnecessary. It had almost a fly in the ointment vibe: “Oh, get out of here Star Wars, haven’t we had enough of you recently?”
Oh, and don’t forget, between the releases of The Last Jedi and Solo, Star Wars Rebels had its finale. The video game Star Wars Battlefront 2 had only come out a few months earlier. Not to mention the deluge of comics, books, and toys being promoted. Just so much Star Wars. Releasing Solo at that time was simply too much too fast. I said it! It was the culmination of everything fans had worried about since Disney first bought the franchise. Would the company release so much Star Wars it lost some of what makes it special? With Solo it seemed like it had, at least for a while.
It took about 18 months for the franchise to bounce back from Solo. That’s when The Mandalorian premiered. It was everyone’s obsession, both because there was, once again, a long time to wait for it and, frankly, because it was a really solid creation. Solo, on the other hand, wasn’t great. It was good. Or maybe “okay.” If it was “great” maybe things would have been different. Because let’s face it, many of the Star Wars movies are “good,” not “great.” Return of the Jedi. The Force Awakens. Rogue One. Those movies are mostly revered, or at least excused because they’re simply Star Wars. That’s in large part because fans had to wait for them and anticipation along with excitement helps a lot with evaluation and acceptance. Despite Solo being a very acceptable Star Wars quality, it suffered.
Rewatching the film now there’s also a new piece of the puzzle. The 2019 release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. That film was certainly a big piece of fan service and, like Solo, many fans hammered the film for it. Compare the two though and Solo looks fairly formidable. It introduced a laundry list of excellent new Star Wars characters (Enfys Nest, Beckett, Val, Qi’ra, Dryden Vos, Rio Durant, I could go on), solidified several legendary Star Wars moments, and left us with many exciting questions to answer moving ahead. Plus, in my opinion, at least the meaningless quest for coaxium makes logical sense for the scoundrel characters as opposed to a quest for a key to finding a map to find a key, and so on.
We’re only two years removed from Solo but, already, it’s looking a little better. Clues to its financial failure are a bit more obvious but the disappointing reception of The Rise of Skywalker makes Solo’s flaws and failure less of an oddity. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever see what happened when Han and Qi’ra met again, the fact they exist at all is still giving us a good feeling.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is now on Disney+. Give it a rewatch.
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