Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
Hollywood loves a good origin story. Whether it’s one of the myriad Marvel superhero options like DC’s Wonder Woman or Batman Begins, or even a take outside of comic book lore with Casino Royale or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you could close your eyes and hit scroll on Netflix and odds are pretty high you’ll land on an origin story in the queue. Beginnings matter, and more than that, they captivate us. And usually, we’re granted a look at how stories and characters begin before we know how they end. Usually.
As anyone familiar with the Star Wars franchise knows, George Lucas perplexed moviegoers when he released the first Star Wars (now known as A New Hope) in 1977 and chose to throw moviegoers into what felt like the middle episode in a serial series (Lucas later added the designation “Episode IV”). This indicated there must be a backstory that occurred before the first movie, but, other than a few details, audiences are never given a complete, chronological history of the preceding events. After the smash success of A New Hope, Lucas went on to make Episodes V and VI (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), and the world heard nary a word of what came before A New Hope until the ‘90s arrived with the promise of three prequels. I doubt anyone could have anticipated then how vast the canonical Star Wars cinematic universe would grow, but somewhere along the way, someone decided there were origin stories yet remaining to be told.
One of those stories, of course, is that of our favorite smuggler turned rebel leader Han Solo. Due to the release order of the Star Wars movies, we already know much about Solo—his ultimate great loves, great friendships, and great sacrifices. When Disney announced what eventually became Solo: A Star Wars Story, a number of questions bubbled to the surface. Does his origin story matter, or might it be little more than a Hollywood cash grab and another chance to sell merchandise to children? More importantly, do we need this?
I don’t think the answer is a simple one, because despite the usual success of not only origin stories in general, but Star Wars in particular, in making Solo, Lucasfilm and Disney faced a huge hurdle: Recasting one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history. When Alden Ehrenreich was tapped to play Han Solo, fans rightfully wondered how he—or anyone—could fill Harrison Ford’s shoes in the role, and if it should even be attempted. Furthermore, writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan had to sit down with the weight of fan and producer expectations, and years worth of canonical material, in order to craft a beginning for an iconic character, and write it in such a way as to convince the viewership they should care about seeing more of the galaxy’s most famous nerf herder.
What they came up with was Han Solo as a young protagonist searching for a way to free himself, and those he loves, from the grips of crime bosses desiring to control a valuable hyperfuel. Along the way, he befriends his famous copilot, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and earns the Millennium Falcon from his “frenemy” Lando Calrissian (a great turn by Donald Glover).
The story is simple enough, and fan service abounds, but making Solo: A Star Wars Story was still a gamble—something that is heavily winked at throughout the film through the repetition of gambling in the storyline. The last time the powers at Lucasfilm delved back into origin territory to retroactively tell us how beloved characters in the universe came about, they delivered the prequels, which made money, but drew ire from fans for everything from bad writing to wooden acting. 2016’s Rogue One doesn’t really count as an origin story so much as a “lost footage” film—a missing piece of the canonical timeline—so in dipping back into origin story territory, Lucasfilm and Disney essentially decided to go all-in on the hope that Solo would remind viewers more of the successful new films than the humdrum prequels.Solo: A Star Wars Story edifies not only the existing Star Wars canon, but it injects new meaning into the life and storyline of Han Solo.
What sets Solo apart from the prequels is its emphasis on character development over world-building. Characters like Han Solo matter more than intergalactic trade associations and assembly lines of droids, especially in a cinematic universe that is already so rich in world development. If you’re going to name the movie after Han Solo, you’d better do everything you can to get the character right, because the genesis of the swashbuckling icon will be what has the power to capture or repel audiences. “Getting the character right” made such a stir at Lucasfilm during the filming of Solo that creative differences between producers and the original directors caused them to exit the film and Ron Howard to step in as director to guide the movie to its completed form. Howard had to tell the origin story of Han Solo in such a way that it adds to, not draws away from, the character we already know and love.
I recently rewatched Captain America: The First Avenger with my family, and I was struck by how different I would view Captain America in the MCU if that movie didn’t exist. Or even, if the first third of that movie didn’t exist—if we didn’t know Steve Rogers was a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who didn’t like bullies and who just wanted, above all, to do the right thing. If we didn’t know the super serum amplified not only his strength, but his personality, as well, Captain America would be just another strong man in a suit. What if Captain America’s origin story had come out after Infinity War? Would it change my perspective on Cap—add gravitas and emotion to his character? Absolutely it would. What about Black Panther? Did seeing Black Panther change how I viewed T’Challa the next time I watched Captain America: Civil War? Absolutely it did.
To move from superheroes to ancient icons, what about the biblical story of King David? Does it matter that he was the youngest and scrawniest of his brothers, someone the prophet Samuel nearly overlooked when God sent him to anoint the next King of Israel? Did his time as a shepherd influence how he governed the people of Israel? Or, let’s turn to the New Testament. When Jesus called his disciples, he called each of them up and out of doing something else, but they didn’t entirely eschew who they were before. Like fishermen who became “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:18-22), who we are in the early stages of our lives intrinsically remains part of our identity even if or when we find our identity in other things.
If we view Han Solo’s story arc as a spiritual journey—or even a journey of sanctification—then no part of his journey is unimportant to understanding the man. When he emerges from the gloom of Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope, he’s just another jaded smuggler on the brink of spiritual awakening, but Solo gives us an opportunity to know the heartaches, the losses, and the longings of his early life that set him on that path.
In Solo, we learn such things like why, except for Chewie, Han’s alone in the universe, whether or not it’s in his character to shoot first (spoiler alert: it is), and whether he ultimately values profit over doing the right thing. Seeing what he’s willing to give up at the end of this movie helps promote understanding of why he returned at the end of A New Hope to help Luke destroy the Death Star. Learning the first chapter of his story teaches us about Han Solo’s struggles to become a pilot and obey orders when necessary. It shows us a youthful optimism we know will fizzle a bit with age and disillusionment. We can’t help but smirk when he says, “I have a good feeling about this,” because we know that sentiment will change with time. We learn that by A New Hope, he had reason to be jaded, but although he wants to self-identify as an outlaw, he’s not, and he never has been. “You’re the good guy,” the woman he loves, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), tells him near the end of Solo. “Good guys” come back again and again, and as this movie shows, it’s not in Han’s character to abandon someone he loves, a story thread that comes full circle in The Force Awakens when he pursues, and ultimately dies for, his son.
Han is a good guy, and fiercely connected to the people he loves. He says early in Solo that he has “no people,” but as the story progresses, he begins to find his people and his identity outside himself. In this sense, the movie can’t escape being “meta.” We, the audience, know far more about him than he knows about himself. He’s part of a bigger universe, a greater story, he just doesn’t know it yet.
Likewise, Solo as a movie acknowledges its place in the larger Star Wars narrative. Arguably, it did not need to be made any more than we need to know the full stories of any of our beloved characters. But now that it has been made, I’m thankful for it. I think it’s a successful story, even if box office numbers are sputtering to catch up to expectations, because it edifies not only the existing Star Wars canon, but it injects new meaning into the life and storyline of Han Solo. Whether or not Alden Ehrenreich succeeded in portraying Han will be up to the individual viewer, but the movie itself echoes his efforts. It walks in tandem with the establishment, ultimately, because it has to, and while it was a gamble to attempt to give us more of such an iconic character, it can be a reminder that in God’s economy, our lives don’t begin at our moment of transformation, but that who we are from beginning to end matters.
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