This review contains no spoilers.
There are a lot of movies released nowadays that the world didn’t ask for or need. Just this summer, we can look forward to a fourth sequel to Jurassic Park; a sequel to The Incredibles released 14 years after the original; Ocean’s Eleven‘s numerically confusing third sequel; and a sequel to the marginally successful Sicario. And of course today we get Solo: A Star Wars Story.
The early story of the pilot Han Solo is the tenth major motion picture in the Star Wars franchise, and it had problems throughout its development—among them, having to refute the notion that it was nothing more than a cash grab from Disney. The producers fired the indie directors it originally hired to direct the film, replacing them with the veteran Ron Howard. There were also reports that the relatively unknown actor cast to play the young Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich, needed acting coaching during production.
The trailers billed it as a heist film set in space, like a galactic Fast And The Furious, where a young smuggler learns the tricks of the trade. But in reality, it was just like many of the Marvel superhero movies Disney has been pumping out for over a decade: Not much more than an origin story that ties into a bigger story that you’ll hopefully be enticed enough to go see when that’s made.
Step back a bit and squint, and you can see that Disney has actually already made the Han Solo story—if you’re not too picky about your wisecracking intergalactic spaceship captains with furry sidekicks. This new film is essentially a limp, awkward version of Guardians of the Galaxy, the original Marvel film about a gang of mercenaries led by charmingly gruff pilot. But the comparisons don’t stop there: The main character is a scoundrel who doesn’t really know a normal family life (Peter Quill/Han Solo). He falls for a woman of questionable morality (Gamora/Qi’ra). Then there’s a large character who can’t speak and is used for muscle (Groot is really Chewbacca, fur aside); a small wisecracking copilot (Rocket Raccoon/Rio Durant); a jaded old gang leader who takes the main character under their wing (Yondu/Beckett); a villain who is actually working for a scarier villain (Ronan the Accuser and Thanos/Dryden Vos and someone I don’t want to spoil for you); and an infinitely powerful source of energy that everyone wants (infinity stone/coaxium).
The difference is that Guardians was a lighthearted, fun, and thoroughly entertaining film that few had been expecting to do as well as it did (it’s currently the 82nd-highest grossing film of all time). It was a well-executed space opera in the tradition of the original Star Wars movies. Solo, on the other hand, had the weight of expectation of the entire franchise on its shoulders, as well as a relatively inexperienced lead actor trying to fill the shoes of one of the most charismatic actors of all time.
Disney appears to have decided that its goal for the Star Wars franchise is similar to what it has done for Marvel. Many smaller movies will feed into a larger main story, supplemented by TV shows that will drop hints about the plots of future films. The problem with the Star Wars universe is many already know and feel attached to these characters. Only a few knew who Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, or Star Lord were before their big-budget films, but Disney is choosing to make films about Han Solo, and apparently, Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, all beloved characters from countless childhoods.
There was an exception in the first Star Wars spin-off movie that Disney released, Rogue One, and that’s probably part of why it succeeded where Solo fails. It explored new characters, new ways of telling stories about lives in a universe in the throes of rebellion against the Empire—which allowed it to avoid the baggage of existing preconceptions about most of the characters.
Of course, many loyal Star Wars nerds will see anything produced under the franchise’s name. (Me among them: If Disney made a movie that was just Boba Fett cleaning his jetpack for an hour, or a Kylo Ren workout video, I would be there.) And Solo is not a terrible movie—I’d still rate it above all the George Lucas prequels of the early 2000s.
But ultimately, it doesn’t really add much. We don’t actually see why Han is a “slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler” and the film barely ties him to the character we meet years later at the Mos Eisley Cantina in the original Star Wars film, now called A New Hope.
But still, go see it if you’re a fan. Why not? There are some good one-liners, a few fun action scenes, and a lot of shots of the excellent Donald Glover as Lando, in various capes. That alone is worth the price of admission.