A long time ago in a theater far, far away Disney released the next installment of the Star Wars universe: Solo: A Star Wars Story. It was fun, fast, brash, arrogant, and all one expects from a film about the legendary, ladies-man smuggler. There were laser battles and giant monsters, evil, conniving villains, and damsels in distress. It had explosions and space ships, and princesses that can’t drive (space ships). It was cheeky and irreverent and all the things that come with an adventure fantasy and character out of the 70’s. The only problem is: It’s 2018.
The Phantom Menace
Han Solo, accurately recreated by Alden Ehrenreich, and Lando Calrissian, expertly portrayed by Donald Glover, have never been feminist icons, nor should they be. They are chauvinistic and self-absorbed, scoundrels, the lovable, flawed products of the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. But behind the bravado, girls, and card games, the viewer was always aware that they hid compassion and loyalty. The bluster was a mask, a front-stage self, undoubtedly constructing part of their identities, but also easily punctured by the wit and gaze of the late, great, and hopefully still around in Jedi-ghost form Cary Fisher.
“I love you.” Says the princess. “I know” answers the smuggler, while allowing himself to be frozen in carbonite, an act of compassion, which displays what his words cannot. Within the characters of Lando and Han, one didn’t just get aggressive masculinity, but rather the obvious performance of such, a performance that was made legible through their actions, failures to perform, and most importantly, the strength (physically, mentally, and politically) of Princess Leia as a balance in the force. It was a performance of a performance that could resonate with many viewers of the original film.
The Princess Strikes Back
Leia was of course imperfect. She was still subordinated to Han and Luke and only succeeded in (accurately) criticizing their plans, not changing them (Not to mention that she was pretty much the only woman in the earlier films). But it was the 70’s and one has to start somewhere. Unfortunately, years and years in the future in a film not really that far away, the balance she provided, however imperfect, was wholly missing from the new Han Solo story. Khaleesi the… wait, I mean, Qi’ra the love interest and counter-weight to Han’s hubris, portrayed by the talented Emilia Clarke, is complicit in, rather than skeptical of the arrogant Han that young Han wants to perform.
Qi’ra is lacking in power and cunning. She is not a senator, but rather the assistant to mob boss, Dryden Voss. Rather than calling Han on his attempted outlaw routine, she is wooed by his antics and can’t talk with L3 about anything other than love. Although she does have some pretty awesome sword moves in her brief fight with Voss and ultimately assumes his powerful role in Crimson Dawn next to robot-legs Darth Maul, her action-hero abilities are never explored. Additionally, her decision to abandon Han for a promising career in crime comes across not as agency involving forethought, planning and execution, but rather as opportunism and betrayal, both old tropes about strong women. Ultimately, Qi’ra serves to reinforce rather than resist Han’s machismo, creating the mess that Princess Leia will have to clean up later.
A New Hope?
But one could ask: Maybe the balance in the gender side of the force isn’t a human at all, but a robot!? One could ask, but one would be wrong. L3, Lando’s droid copilot, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a noticeably activist figure, so much so that it comes across as parody and farce. When confronted with the injustice of robot-fighting at Lando’s hideout, L3 attempts to incite the droids to rise up and resist their oppression. Her powerlessness to affect the situation is obvious and allows the scene to function as comic relief, rather than having an empowering edge. The moment is awkward enough that Lando, embarrassed by his droid/partner/crush?, guides her away like a child.
Thus, the fight for equal representation, equal rights, and equal voice for droids, Banthans, workers, women, POC, LGBTQ, and many more, becomes nothing more than a silly distraction and one that ultimately costs L3 not only her life, but her voice. After her protest leads to her being hit by a laser blast, her hard drive is integrated into the Falcon, permanently made part of ship’s systems, never to be heard again. With L3’s assimilation, Qi’ra’s weaker character, Val’s early death, and the narrative unimportance and limited screen time of Enfys, Solo leaves little counter-balance to Han and Lando’s bravado, little hint of artifice in their arrogance, and little reason for introspection for viewers of the film.
An Actual New Hope
It feels like it’s time for something more positive. There’s always a lot one can find wrong and too seldom suggestions for what was and can be done better. To the credit of Ron Howard and the film team of Solo, the film was very Star Wars and there are interesting, subtle moments that challenge the observations above. Also to their credit, it would have only taken one simple suggestion to return balance to the force of the movie: Val, super smuggler villainess. (She, I assume, would also then be entitled to a last name). In many ways, Woody Harrelson’s character, Tobias Beckett, Val’s lover, is the mentor and counterpoint to Han. He is strong, but self-serving, wise, but untrustworthy. By switching Beckett and Val, the story remains the same, except Thandie Newton would provide the strong, clever, complex, influential, and indeed longer living character that would have given Solo all the Leia-esque female counterweight it needed to check Han’s brash exterior. But in Yoda’s words “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Solo provided all the camp, action, intrigue, and adventure one loves in a Star Wars story. Han and Lando were their scoundrel selves, and the viewer is sucked along to seedy depths of the galaxy and the enticing debauchery of the smuggler lifestyle. Solo captured much of what there is to love about a Star Wars film from the 70’s. Unfortunately, it brought with it much of the problems of representation that are not to love about a space adventure film from the 70’s.
Let’s talk about some of those subtle gender-bending moments. Han and Chewie’s first encounter leads almost immediately to their first close, rolling-in-the-mud fist fight. The scene is reminiscent of sorority-girl fights from so many bad college films, where context and voyeuristic perspective make the on-screen violence serve as only a cover for the obvious intimacy.
Taking it even further, the viewer is treated to a Han-Chewie shower scene immediately afterwards, as they wash off the mud. Howard films this scene starting with the naked ankles of Han and Chewie and slowly pans up their entangled legs in the darkened shower, a visual trope that reminds one of the beginning of so many intimate Hollywood scenes. But, before the camera goes too far, it cuts to Hans face as he dryly comments “we didn’t have to shower at the same time.” Indeed, they didn’t, but with such, albeit joking, moments, the viewer gets a new take on Han and Chewie’s relationship and the overlaps of friendship, violence and intimacy. Does homosociality exist between man and wookie? I guess now we have to ask.
What about love between droid and human? L3’s initially comical claim that Lando desires more than their working relationship is confirmed through the passion that Lando shows for L3 as she lies mortally wounded. He caresses her broken shell, the sorrow he feels at her demise, hinting that, despite Qi’ra’s doubt, there was truly a spark between the droid L3 and the gallivanting human Lando.
This moment lets the viewer see their relationship throughout the film not as antagonistic, but like an old married couple in a relatively unhealthy relationship. They fight and argue, recreating gender roles from That 70’s Show or perhaps a little Married with Children. But to Lando’s Al can L3 be Peg? Can we even see L3 as female just because of her voice? Do droids even gender? It’s in these undefined spaces that Solo questions and complicates it’s macho surface. In both cases, Howard uses classic movie vocabulary to create parallels between Hollywood romance and many other forms of intimacy. Maybe there are cracks in the mask in places one wouldn’t expect.
 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959
 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak?, 1988
 Eve Sedgewick, The Epistemology of the Closet, 1990