"Solo: A Star Wars Story" and the Expanded Universe
Before we get too far: This is not a review of Solo, and there will absolutely be spoilers ahead. I'll see how far I can get before they come up, and there will be a clear indication for when they're about to start, but you should know that they absolutely will be here.
What follows is kind of a rant, and I apologize in advance.
Solo, much like Rogue One before it, is an ambitious attempt at smoothing the harsh cut between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Both movies come in the still-undulating wake of Disney cutting ties to all "unofficial" Star Wars content, and replacing it with their own. Rather than allowing the public (and a good helping of professional writers, artists, developers, and filmmakers) fill in the gaps left by the main Saga, Disney opted to do the work themselves, seizing empiric control over what's known as the "Star Wars Expanded Universe". Everything created before that point was de-canonized, and rebranded as "Star Wars Legends", which is a polite way of saying that it was taken out back and shot. Star Wars fans have plenty of feelings about that move, and I won't go into detail about them here. Largely, the consensus is that "Star Wars is over" and the series has been thoroughly ruined by corporate greed.
I... only sort of agree with that.
Star Wars is kind of a tough nut to crack. The “main” story (which I consider to be episodes 4 through 6) adheres so strictly to the Joseph Campbell-esque hero’s quest, that its ending does feel pretty complete. The evil is vanquished, the student has become the master, the scamp gets the girl, and so forth. There isn’t much left to tell there that wouldn’t somehow re-trod that same ground. As a result of this, everything that has been added to the “main” saga has felt relatively tacked-on.
And I don’t mean offense by that— The Force Awakens is a wonderful movie, and even The Phantom Menace still has a place in my heart. But, realistically, they don’t do much to affect the universe set by the original trilogy. The thing that makes these additions interesting is how they introduce settings, and fill them with characters and details that bring the world to life.
As a young teen, some of my favorite books were the Star Wars Encyclopedias, a Scholastic Books product that tried its best to make the franchise feel educational somehow. There was an encyclopedia for each movie, and they went into the smallest details about every character, prop, and concept contained therein. I would spend hours learning about the various lightsaber stances taught by the Jedi, the ingredients of a death stick, the different species of flora and fauna native to Naboo, and so forth. It was the density of these details that brought the universe to life for me, and kept me interested despite the lackluster story of the prequel trilogy.
It's the same density of detail that interested hundreds and thousands of authors to write their own stories set in the universe, adding all sorts of flavor to the existing universe. This is how we got stories like the daily lives of Stormtroopers, the interpersonal drama of moisture farmers, the last thoughts of a Rebel pilot. This is also how we got Admiral Thrawn, who I guess is coming back into the canon now, which I'll have to learn more about.
These stories, while they often referenced events of the original trilogy, existed firmly outside of them. They added detail and filled in the gaps and allowed us to better imagine ourselves in the world where the force is real, beat-up X-wings zip across sandy dunes, and we really can be anything we want to be. The main story and characters were still there, and we could appreciate them from a distance, but these stories preferred to get lost in the weeds and explore on their own.
It's understandable why so many people are angry about Disney deeming these stories as "non-canon". They were, for lack of a better analogy, the New Testament for Star Wars fans-- a message meant for everyone, inviting each person to a galaxy far, far away. Then, to add insult to injury, they've started creating their own offshoots and expanded universe content? Of course fans are angry, I think that's natural.
But I don't think that this means that Star Wars is over.
For starters, they can never take my Expanded Universe from me. I will cherish every moment spent imagining alternative Jedi weaponry, or the obscure games played in back-alley casinos. I personally triple-dog-dare George Lucas to come to my house and take my copy of the Christmas Special. Also there is nothing anyone can do to erase my battle droid fan fiction. Nothing.
But more than that, this effort to re-do the Expanded Universe reflects, I think, a recognition that people want to see what's at the edges of this world. As a Disney subsidiary, Lucasfilm gets to create these side-stories with an actual budget, and we get to vote with our dollars regarding what we do and don't want to see more of.
It also means that the side-stories are all managed from one place. While this can contribute to the feeling of corporatization that so many complain about, it also means that these stories exist in the same universe in a more tangible way, which is where Solo really shines.
If you want my opinion, this isn't the end of Star Wars. This is the start of something new.
OKAY, SPOILERS FOR SOLO AHEAD. CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK, YOU SCRUFFY-LOOKING NERF HERDERS.
I'll start with the one thing I thought was weird: the dice. So prominently were they featured in the first act of the movie, I think Lucasfilm realized that no one knew what the hell they were in The Last Jedi, and had Ron Howard film them from every conceivable angle.
Okay, now for what I liked:
But not for the reasons you think. Sure, it was nice that we get to see Han in a relationship before Leia (because of course he was), but more important: we get to see what Han could have become. Qi'ra, a fellow runaway indentured to Lady Proxima, moves from position of servitude to position of servitude, patiently biding her time until an opportunity presents itself. When she finally gets out from under Dryden Vos' thumb, she absolutely could have gone with Han and maybe have been happy leading that life. But she knows too much, and she knows that going with Han is not the safe play here. No matter where she goes, she knows that she will continue to be either beholden to someone, or hunted by them. "Everyone serves someone", she tells Han early on, and she lives by that. She knows that the safe play here is to lean into the Crimson Dawn, and usurp Vos as an information broker. While she's still serving someone (who I'll talk about later), this position affords her a degree of security. For Mass Effect fans, this gave me similar vibes to the Shadow Broker storyline, which I loved.
I also love that storyline because it gives us a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of Star Wars that actually does something. In A New Hope we see Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villainy, but nobody there is doing anything particularly scummy or villainous. Save for an infamous blaster duel, the cantina reads very similarly to an Elks lodge, and doesn't pose the same threat that the setup tries to give it. It's refreshing to know that crime is a real industry in this world, and has real teeth to watch out for.
A lot of people will list L3 among the best characters of the year, and with good reason. She's funny, poignant, and introduces the idea of human/droid sex into the Star Wars universe.
But she also raises questions that are important to the Star Wars universe, specifically about robot sentience. This is something that is in the cultural zeitgeist lately, with shows like Westworld and games like Detroit: Become Human and Nier: Automata taking center stage. Up until now in the Star Wars universe, while droids have often been a favorite character, they have been firmly placed in an "other" category. "We don't serve their kind here," is a line that rings true with too many people, and not much is done to rectify it. Rather than stand up for his friends who changed (and effectively saved) his life, Luke asks C-3PO and R2-D2 to wait outside.
In Solo, L3 serves as the droid Spartacus, and in addition to actually leading a droid rebellion, shows us in a mechanical sense how many of the beings that we see in the background are being controlled. She demonstrates several times that when that control is removed, many droids would rather be doing something else. As a series that is finally starting to put women and people of color into positions of power, it's good to see this equality begin to extend to all sentience.
The thing that I appreciate most about Enfys Nest is that not much is explained. We get bits and pieces of backstory (their mother wore the mask previously, for example), and a demonstration of what the so-called marauders are capable of, but the film doesn't go too deep into any one thing. We could have gotten so many things-- the origin of the mask, the location of their home planet, the technology powering their unique hover-cycles, and so forth. But we don't, because it's not important.
What is important is what Enfys Nest represents. At the end of the film, Enfys tries to recruit Han to join... something. Something new, something big, something that doesn't have a name yet. It's a chance, a hope, a rebellion. While that last word they use will either delight or frustrate you, it reminds us that there is an optimism in this world still. After a whole movie where actions are motivated by a need for survival, and each success is met with a betrayal, this optimism is a welcome presence. It reminds us that in the face of hardship, we do not always need to become cold or harsh, or attempt to run away from our problems. We can always choose to lean in, to run towards danger with a smile on our face and our friends at our side.
This is a quick one: I love how they named him Solo. It brings up so many more questions about the naming schemes in the Empire. Is this a John Snow situation, where all nameless bastards are given a common last name? Are there other Solos out there? If Han had a twin, would he be Han Duo?
This is the last one, both because I've written a lot (too much?) already, and this is my main point: the introduction of Darth Maul at the end of the movie represents Disney/Lucasfilms commitment to the promise that they are creating their own Extended Universe.
While I haven't yet watched Star Wars Rebels, I'm sure as hell going to now. In animated the series, now the only canonical TV show in the Star Wars universe, it's revealed that Darth Maul survived his fight with Obi-wan in The Phantom Menace. He returns, a bit worse for wear, with robot legs and a new lightsaber, fashioned from the parts of new weaponry introduced in the show.
That same Maul, those same legs, that same saber, appear in Solo. The events of a television show, which existed pretty much entirely outside of the main arc of the Star Wars saga, have directly affected a plot point in a Star Wars motion picture. Whether or not they'll go anywhere with it, I guess that remains to be seen. I hope they do, even in small ways. Maybe Qi'ra makes an appearance in Rebels? Again, I haven't seen the show yet, I'm not sure. But what this proves is that the relationship of Star Wars movies to other media is no longer a one-way street, and what happens in the other properties can (and should) have an effect on what we see on the big screen.
Up until now, we've only seen shows, comic books, video games, and so forth, based on the Star Wars movies. Solo represents a significant change in the other direction. Moving forward, who knows what we'll see? Movies based on the video games? The conclusions of plot points started in the comic books?
If Solo works-- not just for us, but also financially for Lucasfilm and Disney-- it can represent a huge opportunity for the franchise, and for the creators who love it. The Expanded Universe may be dead, but its spirit lives on in this gesture. Ideas can come from anywhere, and the canon has more than enough room to expand.
Star Wars isn't over. Star Wars is just getting started.