Shortly after Disney acquired Lucasfilm, it became clear that the new era of Star Wars wasn’t going to be restricted to Episode VII and future entries in the Skywalker Saga. Just three months after the deal, Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed that the company was looking at producing standalone movies spinning off from the events of the main series. One of the earliest names raised for the treatment – through a mixture of both fan expectation and quantifiable leaks – was Han Solo, Harrison Ford’s cocky smuggler gone good. He was the breakout character of the original trilogy, had already been a source of fresh stories in the Expanded Universe and, following his death in The Force Awakens, there is a distinct lack of scoundrels in Star Wars going forward.
There were always a few skeptics unsure of delving into Han’s younger years, but (aside from that having been the case since the early days of the books, comics etc.) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story showed how Star Wars can expand in new directions – and Han Solo is certainly a direction many want to go in. Lucasfilm’s first masterstroke was hiring The Lego Movie and Jump Street masterminds Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Then they managed to cast the perfect mix of charisma and unknown persona as the lead in the form of Hail, Caesar’s Alden Ehrenreich and surrounded him with a knock-out cast including Donald Glover’s Lando, Woody Harrelson’s mentor Beckett, Emilia Clarke’s love interest and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s female droid. Throw in Arrival ‘s cinematographer and father-son team Lawrence and Jon Kasdan on scripting duties (the latter who wrote Empire and The Force Awakens) and you’ve got a movie that, based on pure talent, is just as exciting as Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.
However, we now have the first genuine cause for concern. Recently at a Disney event, Bob Iger revealed some new details on the movie. Some we already knew (it’ll show how Han met Chewbacca and acquired the Millennium Falcon) and others suggest it’s trying some new things in Star Wars (it’ll span six years, in stark contrast to the mere weeks of the other films). One detail stood out above the rest, though: Iger said we’ll learn how Han Solo got his name.
Oh dear. The jokes came quick and fast – Henry Solo Jr., Johnny Shotfirst, Gunny McPayyaback – but the fun and games distracts from just how worrying this is. What’s in a name? When that name’s Han Solo, quite a lot.
“Hanz Ohlo? I Like the Sound of That”
There is only one acceptable explanation for Han Solo’s name: his parents’ surname was Solo and when he was born they chose to call him Han. Even having him as an unnamed orphan assuming the name (something we already saw with Finn in The Force Awakens) is going to feel odd, and anything further a ridiculous retcon that takes this exploration of Solo’s past too far.
Sure, there has been meddling with the character’s history before in Star Wars legend. The Han Solo Trilogy previously delved into his past and post-Return of the Jedi novels continued his story in unexpected ways – killing off Chewie and turning Han into a political figure. In the new Marvel comics, it’s even revealed he had a wife pre-Leia (or, rather, pretended to as part of a con). But these were all extra material – even the canon comics could be ignored if you so wanted, and are ultimately in service of what Harrison Ford originally brought to the big screen. Han Solo is a fully fledged movie, standing on the same podium as the classic trilogy, meaning that anything it contains will be forever taken as a resolute truth of the character.
To play devil’s advocate, there is some logic to the idea. Taking the original Star Wars by itself, it’s rather fitting of Han to be using an alias; he’s a smuggler on the run from intergalactic gangsters and constantly dodging bounty hunters who begrudgingly helps Luke and Obi-Wan on the promise of unimaginable riches, only finally becoming a true hero at the very end. Reading the 1977 film in isolation there’s nothing in his establishment to suggest he’s not the sort of guy to use an alias. This carries through to Empire, where his past still haunts him.
However, by the time he’s mellowed in Jedi, becoming a true Rebellion hero, it’s weird he wouldn’t raise it, and once we reach his fractured relationship with Leia in The Force Awakens it’s frankly rude to keep his past hidden. When he says to Rey “he used to be” Han Solo, it means nothing (or is at the very least less thematically rich) if the smuggling and/or heroism he’s become legendary for was under a pseudonym. Getting to the character’s core, Han is ultimately an honest, deep-down good person, and that openness about who is needs to be there from his cocky introduction.
Another issue is that the idea of an assumed name is hardly an original idea in Star Wars. Obviously Sith titles are given, but the first movie also had Obi-Wan Kenobi going under the inconspicuous Ben and technically Owen Lars being Luke’s “Uncle” was stretched. In fact, when you also consider that Organa was Princess Leia’s adopted name, then the Han twist makes the only main character in the original film who wasn’t hiding some deep truth was Luke Skywalker. The idea of the standalone films is to diversify the storytelling, not trudge up the same old tropes.
When It’s Worked Before (And Why It Probably Won’t Here)
OK, so it’s a bad idea and the best outcome is that Iger was simply overstating a point: when he said “getting his name”, he meant earning the legend that caused Han to be so well known to Rey thirty-five years later (although that’s weird phrasing). But what if it isn’t – could Han Solo not really being Han Solo actually work?
If it does, it’s wholly down to the talent. Lord and Miller aren’t just exciting because they’ve made good movies, but because they’ve made subversive films from questionable ideas – anybody could have made a reboot of a 1980s Johnny Depp TV show or movie based on building bricks irreverent, but in both cases they went a step further and delivered something deep and astutely self-aware. The same is expected from Han Solo, and it’s definitely possible that discovering Han isn’t his real name is all part of their wider tonal approach; how exactly they’re handling the film is unclear, but something far more comedic than the dark war movie tone of Rogue One is to be expected. If they take it through to being almost a send-up of the franchise’s increasingly sacrosanct canon then a name change may work.
This would actually not be the first time Star Wars has done this. In the early 2000s, Dark Horse (who then had the comic license) published a series of books based around hapless Stormtroopers-turned-Rebels Tag and Bink. Inspired by Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which followed two minor characters from Hamlet off stage, the series was a tongue-in-cheek exploration of Star Wars idiosyncrasies that placed the pair at every key event across the saga – they were the soldiers discussing the new T-16 on the Death Star and had a long-standing relationship with Manuel “Manny” Both-Hanz, a spy who died getting the plans to the second Death Star. It’s unlikely that Lord and Miller will actually be taking inspiration from this run, but the ideas they could be playing with may have been previously seen there.
However, going down this route would throw up a roadblock we’ve already discussed: Tag and Bink only worked because it was non-canon. Even by the lax standards of the pre-Disney Expanded Universe, it was a clearly untrue story, a comedic Star Wars Tale – the level of silliness required to make the name switch work could be too much in a canon film.
For true inspiration, we should instead look at the one case where this exact naming rejig has been done successfuly before. Better Call Saul is the rare spinoff (a prequel to boot) that manages to match its original in terms of quality while being a completely different beast – whereas Breaking Bad was a crime epic with an intimate family drama nestled within it, Saul is a family drama against the backdrop of the criminal and legal system – and central to the premise in going back is that we learn sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman was once the wrong-footed yet altruistic Jimmy McGill. We’re yet to see the moment when Jimmy fully becomes his alter ego (although the origins of the name, “S’all good, man”, are already established), but it’s unlikely to be something that undermines where he’s come from or where he’s going. Is there anything to say the same can’t be done for Han Solo?
Of course, Jimmy, like Frasier Crane in Cheers, wasn’t the lead in Breaking Bad – standout character though he may have been, Saul was ultimately support for Walter White’s fall. Han was – especially post-Empire – a bona fide lead. The cool guy rather than the straight protagonist, yes, but a lead nonetheless. There’s only so far you can go from the fundamental elements of a fully defined character before you have someone who simply can’t logically work (we all know from Lil’ Ani what that’s like).
There are definite ways to make Han Solo being an assumed name work from a narrative sense, but that ignores that Alden Ehrenreich isn’t just playing any old character. Han Solo is an icon and everything about the film sounds likes it’s being constructed with that in mind – surely the six year timeframe is to explicitly name check as much of the referenced past as possible, from winning the Falcon off Lando to the 12-parsec Kessel Run – so to meddle in something so intrinsic feels frankly unnecessary; if Han Solo is going to be a good film, it will be a good film without this shocking reveal.
The whole issue brings to mind the moment in Revenge of the Sith‘s early development when it was floated that, during Yoda’s visit to Kashyyyk for an out-of-place Wookie showcase, Chewbacca would be shown accompanied by a scruffy orphan Han; there’s nothing to explicitly say it couldn’t happen, but it’s a contrivance the film could do without. Thankfully, George Lucas – in a rare bout of late-career restraint – dropped the element after the first draft. Let’s hope, with Han Solo shooting now and well over a year (possibly more) until release, a similar move is made by Lord and Miller.