Expectations: So Low
Okay, so I finally got out to see Solo. I was on the fence about seeing it at all, but two things swayed me. First, “This is America.” We’re all big Donald Glover fans in my house, but that video blew our collective minds. We had to see Glover’s Lando Calrissian. Second, I figured the cops would come and revoke my nerd card if I didn’t go see this one. And hell, I sat through the prequels. Surely this movie wasn’t going to be worse than those.
Well, it’s not. So that’s good. But it’s in the same category, which ain’t good at all.
Solo was doomed to failure from the very moment it was pitched. It’s built on a premise that’s fundamentally flawed: take a character we know and love and tell the story of the younger version of that person, before they got to be cool. The premise itself is intrinsically boring. If you start by stripping away the cool stuff about this character, you’re already dealing with a less interesting protagonist, and if you then tell the story of how the cool stuff came to be there, we already know the ending. The best you can really hope for is a knowing wink at the audience.
If you count Episodes I-III as Star Wars movies (I don’t), the premise has already failed at least twice in Han Solo’s own social circles. Young Anakin Skywalker sucks and young Boba Fett sucks. But expand your search for this premise as far as you like and you’re going to find many more misses than hits. Need I remind you of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles? (Which, by the way, scores higher than Solo on IMDb.)
Hell, even when it’s targeted at young people the premise still sucks. Muppet Babies was terrible. (And—ouch—also scores higher than Solo.)
I can only think of one example where the premise actually worked for me, and that’s Better Call Saul. I love that show. Love it to pieces. Almost as good as Breaking Bad, which is arguably the best TV drama of all time. (For me the three finalists are so close I can't call a winner: Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Deadwood.) But it’s got three things going for it that stitch it together even when the fatally flawed premise might have broken it apart. First, it’s a comedy. That goes a long way when you’re starting with something silly. Second, Saul Goodman started as a bit character, not the star. Third, and probably most important, Saul’s story is the story of a fall from grace—so, in effect, it weaves together the character’s rise and his fall, which from a storytelling perspective is intrinsically interesting.
What I’m calling “the premise” isn’t the same thing as the Origin Story. That one is tried and true. (Every superhero gets one, of course, but so does Moses. The Buddha. Jackie Chan. We’re talking epic, larger than life, world-changing figures here.) The premise I’m talking about here isn’t about origins, it’s about milking the cash cow. Solo was doomed to fail because it wasn’t a genuine attempt to tell the origin of the character. He starts as the charming outlaw who lips off, takes reckless risks, acts like he’s in it for himself but really is a good guy at heart. So there’s no character arc, there’s just a prop arc. We never knew where he got his trademark DL-44 blaster pistol. Now we know.
(Though while we’re on the subject, Tobias Beckett? Seriously? How the hell do you justify naming a Star Wars character "Tobias Beckett"? If that’s the best you can do, just name him Woody Harrelson.)
I imagine this movie would be utterly thrilling to anyone who’s never seen a movie before. But if you want to enjoy this movie, go see it with a small child you really care for. It’s visually stunning, and Disney’s fingerprints are all over this thing. The cool parts are cool, the funny parts are funny, but there’s no attempt at surprise or plot twist or complication—and certainly none of the moral uncertainty that you’d think would be at the heart of any Han Solo story.
In the end, what we’re left with is another Star Wars movie made for children. And here’s the thing I wish these filmmakers would understand: Star Wars movies really suck when they’re made for children. Kids love Star Wars, but not because the movies are made for them. They love aliens and robots and spaceships. They love big mythological archetypes. And yeah, sure, they also love massive marketing campaigns dumping an avalanche of toys on them, but that’s independent of storytelling itself.
Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back weren’t kiddie movies; kids like me loved them anyway. Return of the Jedi was clearly directed at children, and even as kids we thought it was the worst of the bunch. All three prequels were made for kids, and they’re all worse than Jedi. (Much worse, for many reasons, but like Solo they misidentified what the target audience should have been.)
Okay, so I like my fiction dark. I dig tragic Shakespearean endings. So while a lot of Star Wars diehards thought Rogue One was too grim, I loved it. But everyone loves The Empire Strikes Back, which is certainly the darkest of the original trilogy. Not for kids, that one. Yoda scared the shit out of me.
I said Solo is in the same category as the prequels, and here’s why: it’s made for kids. (It’s also a callow attempt to milk the cash cow instead of telling the origin story Han Solo deserves, but that’s a separate problem.) If you can watch this movie through the eyes of a child—maybe while sitting next to one of your favorites—then maybe you can get past the Disneyfication. I didn’t, so I couldn’t.
In one sense I did get what I came for. Donald Glover is absolutely perfect as Captain Lando Calrissian. But please, Disney, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t make the movie of how young Lando got to be as cool as he is.