The Most Underrated Star Wars Movie Came Out at the Worst Possible Time

Timing is everything.

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Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo.
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Never tell Lucasfilm the odds. Five years after its release, Solo: A Star Wars Story has a mixed reputation among hardcore fans and the general public alike. Most believe it was a failure, and financially, it was. But, on its own merits, is Solo actually bad? No. Solo is a solid Star Wars flick, and had it come out at any other time, it could have been massive.

When the notion of a Han Solo origin movie was first revealed in 2013, no one would have bet against it. Way back when Disney-produced Star Wars movies were still novel, the idea that Lawerence Kasdan — legendary screenwriter of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back — would return to pen a new movie about Han Solo sounded like a Star Wars slam dunk.

The idea of depicting young Han Solo had been kicking around since 2004. Lucas toyed with the idea of young Solo in Revenge of the Sith, then again in 2012 while working on the unproduced TV show Star Wars: Underworld. After talking to Lucas, Kasdan only agreed to work on another Star Wars movie if it was the Han Solo origin movie. The final script was a collaboration between Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon Kasdan, but the concept is deeply rooted in Lucas’ ideas.

Much has been made about the firing of Solo’s first directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and it would be easy to claim their dismissal robbed us of what could have been a much quirkier film. Having Ron Howard as the final director was a proxy for George Lucas himself; the two had collaborated on projects like Willow. If fans of Miller and Lord’s Lego Movie were hoping for that film’s tone, what they got was the polar opposite, as Solo feels like a throwback Lucasfilm movie through and through. From an opening car chase to swashbuckling action and last-minute double-crosses, Solo is the most fun Lucasfilm movie since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was a romantic, retro film, although one that felt a little more adult when it came to its relationships.

While the tone of the Miller and Lord version is unknowable, the Solo we got possesses that classic Star Wars wit. The film managed to turn Lando’s odd pronunciation of “Han” (Haaan) into a running joke, proving retcons can be fun. It’s not perfect; even casual fans can probably sense the patchwork feeling that resulted from the collision of whatever Miller and Lord were doing with Howard’s more traditional elements. But it works.

Alden Ehrenreich, George Lucas and Ron Howard.

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And then there’s Alden Ehrenreich, the man destined to be known as the George Lazenby of Star Wars. It’s been argued by critics, fans, and even some Lucasfilm big shots that the decision to recast Harrison Ford was at the heart of the film’s mixed reaction, but Ehrenreich is good here. He’s a serious actor, who like Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor before him, took on a near-impossible task. He doesn’t attempt to recreate Ford’s performance. This version of Han Solo doesn’t know how older Han behaves yet, so what Ehrenreich does is perfect. He shows Han as more nervous, overly excited, and even sweet. Han wants to be perceived as dangerous, but as Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) correctly says, “You’re the good guy.”

So why did Solo flop? Well, in 2018, the toxic troll backlash to Last Jedi was in full swing. This tempest in a teapot shouldn’t have impacted ticket sales, but even if casual fans weren’t aware of this bickering, the news cycle became very focused on the idea of Star Wars exhaustion. A general narrative emerged: Solo was coming out too soon, and its more nostalgia-focused elements were misaligned with the transgressive aspects of The Last Jedi. The mainstream public had just invested their time and energy into a holiday film in which Luke Skywalker died. Asking them to switch gears to a fun Han Solo story just five months later proved there can be such a thing as too much Star Wars.

Had Solo come out in 2016 instead of Rogue One, it probably would have been a smash success. Maybe critics still would have been split, but it certainly wouldn’t have flopped. In fact, considering Han dies in The Force Awakens, having the next Star Wars film celebrate his life would have been a smart use of nostalgia. Or, if Solo had been made as a streaming show in 2019 or 2020, it could have been seen as a breath of fresh air.

Donald Glover in 2018.

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No matter what fans think of Star Wars TV, the stakes are much smaller. The TV shows are allowed to fail in a way the movies aren’t. Everyone holds Star Wars films to an impossible standard, and maybe Solo failed because it was never meant to have been a film. Had George Lucas never sold Star Wars to Disney, young Han would have appeared on TV in Underworld. Would that have been better? We’ll never know. But the stakes for critics and fans would have been lower, and the idea would have been given the room it needed to breathe.

If Disney and Donald Glover ever get around to the Lando series, it will be a huge hit regardless of reviews. And if The Mandalorian-era shows ever decide to bring back Han Solo, Lucasfilm should remember that Alden Ehrenreich is a great actor capable of a far more interesting performance than a de-aged CGI facsimile of Harrison Ford. Until then, his only Star Wars adventure is worth another look.

Solo: A Star Wars Story streams on Disney+.

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