Ranking Han Solo Movies Explains Why People Like 'Star Wars'
Reviews, critics, and endless rankings are no match for thinking about Han Solo.
With Solo only a few days away from opening in theaters, many Star Wars fans may be waiting anxiously to see if they think it’s actually good. In some senses, there’s a lot on the line with a movie about a young Han Solo because perennially, the character has always represented the moviegoing audience. That is why analyzing Han’s actions in any given Star Wars film is the easiest way to guess if most people will like one of these movies, including Solo.
Welcome to the Han Solo test, a bespoke criterion that asserts a correlation between Han Solo’s deeds and your friends’ opinions of Star Wars movies by asking one simple question: Did Han do normal person stuff in this movie? Here’s how it works and why it might mean Solo will be well-liked — even if it’s not a huge hit.
No spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story ahead.
The Classic Trilogy
A New Hope
In 1977, in A New Hope, Han Solo feels like a 20th century sex magnet who just stumbled through some kind of time-space vortex and ended up in this crazy universe. The entire “realism” of the construct of Star Wars was sold to the audience because Han Solo felt real. How? Well, for one thing, he actively made fun of the world he lived in and believed that most of the characters were full of shit…until, of course, he didn’t.
When Han rescues Luke at the end of A New Hope, the audience cheers. It’s probably the best moment in the movie and represents a completion of the audience accepting the movie, too. And hey, if this cynical guy is on board with all this, who am I to complain? Plus, the idea that your drunk friend who owes everyone money could come help fix your flat tire at 2 a.m. is cooler and more relatable than some young guy becoming a religious convert and learning magic spells overnight.
Han Solo Test Audience Score: Han is awesome in this movie and everyone loves it.
The Empire Strikes Back
In The Empire Strikes Back, Han again feels like the most real person in the movie because he has a sex drive and appears to be dealing with grown-up problems he previously tried to dodge. Yes, we all relate to Luke’s struggle to become himself, but Han’s struggle is arguably more interesting because he’s trying to shake off who he used to be — and failing at it pretty hard.
Anyone who was irresponsible when they were younger and had too many bad debts because of it knows what it’s like to be Han Solo in this movie. Sure, most people don’t get frozen in carbonite and turned over to Boba Fett because their credit score sucks, but still. People love The Empire Strikes Back, generally more than they love A New Hope. And the way you knew that would be true is because Han was doing a bunch of stuff people relate to: trying to make a new relationship work, trying to fix his car, tackling debt, etc.
Han Solo Test Audience Score: Han is relatable and tries to change. Greatest movie ever?
Return of the Jedi
With Return of the Jedi, the Han Solo test proves its corollary. Everyone knows Return of the Jedi is the least popular of the original Star Wars films for people over the age of 15. Who cares if it deserves to be or not? The point is, Han Solo does nothing cool in this movie and is borderline out-of-character for most of it.
What feels like almost half the movie is devoted to rescuing Han from the vile clutches of the evil gangster Jabba the Hutt, but this sort of sucks because once this part is over, the most fun part of the movie is over, too. Sure, Han becomes a nicer, more stable person in this movie. But because he suddenly feels like a tertiary character, the movie sidelines the audience surrogate, thus creating the first Star Wars film that fans didn’t totally love.
Han Solo Test Audience Score: This movie is beloved because it’s part of the classic trilogy, but it’s a distant third in terms of faves. And Han Solo isn’t really a main character, at least not thematically.
The Prequel Trilogy
The Han Solo test is a no-brainer for three Star Wars prequels. He’s not in any of them, and they’re generally loathed. But — and here’s where it gets interesting — Revenge of the Sith has Chewbacca in it, and it’s the least hated of the bunch. George Lucas infamously planned on putting a 10-year-old version of Han hanging out with Chewie in this movie, but it seems even in the final version, just the presence of Han’s beloved Wookiee partner is enough to make this movie slightly more popular than the other movies. Sure, people will tell you the reason Revenge of the Sith is better than the other prequels is because of cool Obi-Wan stuff, or Darth Vader or whatever. It doesn’t matter, the Han Solo test works here, by proxy, through Chewbacca.
Han Solo Test Audience Score: Han’s absence from the prequels is a problem. There’s also not a similar “outsider” character, so a faux-Han can’t even substitute for him. The least-hated Star Wars prequel features Han’s best friend, Chewbacca.
Before we get to the sequel trilogy (featuring Han’s big comeback) let’s stop for a second and talk about how Rogue One works on this scale, too. Sure, Han Solo isn’t in this movie, and its a prequel, but Rogue One is fairly well liked. We could come up with all sorts of reasons why, but despite its many flaws, Rogue One is probably popular with people because it has two Han Solo-esque figures as its main characters.
Jyn Erso is a criminal and a cynic who ends up joining the Rebellion. She also wears a vest. Cassian Andor (her default best friend) doesn’t believe in the Force, frequently shoots first, and rocks a Han Solo shirt. Both of these characters are basically atheist cynics who don’t trust anyone. Even if they’re not as memorable as Han, they embody his spirit. Therefore, the movie gives people overall good Star Wars feelings.
Han Solo Test Audience Score: Jyn and Cassian team up to give everyone two Han Solos for the price of one. People are, for the most part, pleased.
Sequel Trilogy and Solo: A Star Wars Story
The Force Awakens
Even if all your friends say they hate it now, The Force Awakens was very popular in 2015, and that’s because Han Solo was front in center in the movie acting like himself, even if it was a little implausible and depressing. In fact, The Force Awakens is where the Han Solo test gets profound. In this movie, Han is the audience surrogate again, with a twist.
In The Force Awakens, Han doesn’t represent a regular person from the Seventies; he represents old Star Wars fans in 2015. “It’s true, all of it,” he says about the history of the Force and the heroics of Luke Skywalker. Even Rey and Finn casually debate his status. “The war hero?” Finn asks. “No, the SMUGGLER!” Rey insists. Clearly, Rey like most people: she prefers Star Wars movies where Han is relatable and fun, rather than the one where he is boring and lame.
When Han dies at his son’s hand in this movie, the message is pretty clear. Star Wars is going to try and move forward without Han Solo, and the olds are just going to have to deal with it.
Han Solo Test Audience Score: The Force Awakens is popular because Han Solo is in it. Only now, he ceases to represent the audience, rather simply representing the idea of pure Star Wars that anyone can like.
The Last Jedi
Obviously, the audience of Star Wars films has changed a lot since 1977, meaning the idea of who Han Solo is has changed, too. In The Last Jedi, Han is relegated to only an idea. Because the character is dead, his absence makes a statement, and depending on how you feel about this fact, the movie either does or doesn’t work for you. People think fans are divided about the fate of Luke in this movie, but really, if Han had still been alive, or had there been a flashback in which he appeared, how people felt about all of that would have thrown off the entire conversation.
Because the entire focus of The Last Jedi was on Luke, he dominated the conversations about the movie. Han’s absence in this movie left everyone without a real surrogate, and we all believed (strongly) that the audience surrogate is Luke. But Luke can’t be the true surrogate because he’s too entrenched in everything to have an outside perspective. Plus, Luke’s demeanor was always in flux, whereas Han’s personality was somewhat fixed, even if his actions changed a little bit. To put in another way: no one had any trouble accepting that a 75-year-old man went back to a life of crime in The Force Awakens. But, if you ask some fans, Luke Skywalker supposedly “got weird” in The Last Jedi. Being mad about Luke’s arc in The Last Jedi ignores the idea that Luke started his journey as a desperate virgin who converted to a weird religion in seconds. Han going back to be a shady criminal who helped the good guys on occasion clicked with people because it was consistent with what they liked about the character. In other words, Luke’s “character” was always nebulous and changing, meaning, we didn’t have much to pin on him going into Last Jedi, other than, I guess, the assumption that he didn’t drink milk straight out of an alien breast, but whatever.
Han Solo’s son, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren doesn’t do much for The Last Jedi in terms of bringing in a proxy Han character, and that’s because for the most part, he’s more like his grandfather Anakin. Meaning, while Kylo Ren is sometimes relatable, it’s not really in a way that makes you feel good.
So, the closest thing to a faux-Han Solo in The Last Jedi is actually Finn. People will tell you Poe Dameron is the new Han of the sequel trilogy, but that’s superficial. Sure, Poe has the Han Solo “look” and is a bad boy pilot, but he’s not an outsider like Han. Further, Poe’s only real character growth is professional, not personal. In The Last Jedi Poe learns to be a team player with everyone he works with. While this is great, it’s hardly on par with Han’s journey. Finn, on the other hand, is an outsider, who briefly tries to escape his big responsibilities, twice, a very Han move. Still, because Han wasn’t in The Last Jedi, and the audience pinned most of their nostalgia on Luke and Leia, the general consensus is mixed.
Han Solo Test Audience Score: Fans are divided on The Last Jedi, and that’s mostly because people can’t agree about Luke Skywalker, which wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if Han was either still alive in this movie or had a more convincing proxy.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
So, what will people think of a movie specifically about Han Solo, but not starring Harrison Ford? The answer remains to be seen, but based on the existing Han Solo test, and the fact I’ve actually seen it, I’m going to guess that Solo will be slightly more well-liked by the general moviegoing population than Rogue One, though it will do a little worse with critics and the box office. The biggest flaw of Solo is actually built into its purpose: its an origin story about a character who works best in contrast with characters who are totally different from him. Solo is more like Rogue One insofar as it’s populated by nothing but characters who are like Han Solo, including Han himself. It’s not the deepest of Star Wars films, but that’s also its charm.
George Lucas created Han Solo to be “the cynical loner” who eventually becomes “the good guy.” Star Wars is popular because Harrison Ford’s performance as Han Solo made that trope a populist bridge between mainstream cinema and high concept sci-fi/fantasy. Star Wars could not have had the broad appeal it has enjoyed without Han. And now that he’s back and younger than ever, the scruffy smuggler with a heart of gold will continue to be the easiest way for people to like a Star Wars movie, even if they don’t know it.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is out everywhere on May 25.