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The tragedy of Han Solo

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Knowing the end of Han Solo makes Solo a very different movie

Solo: A Star Wars Story Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.

Solo: A Star Wars Story wants to be a relatively lighthearted adventure, even with all the war, slavery and mob bosses. That tone might have worked if we didn’t know what ultimately happens to Han Solo as a character, but possessing the ending while we’re learning about the beginning changes the entire feel of the movie.

That’s not a terrible thing. The moviegoing public tends to respond well to stories in which someone they can relate to is called upon and learns how to be a better person than they were before. A story doesn’t have to hit those beats, of course, but it’s the path we’ve been taught to expect in big-budget films.

Han Solo doesn’t follow that trajectory, and it makes him one of the more striking figures in a major franchise. The character lost the ability to learn from his mistakes and grow as a person the moment his son ran him through with a lightsaber. His death took place while he was more or less estranged from his wife. Han will not return as a blue, glowing ghost. We have no reason to believe he will return at all. We do not leave him on a satisfying note, where we know he may go on other adventures.

He lived a violent life filled with uncertainty, and he died violently, with at least some of the work he was meant to do left unfinished.

And this shifts the relatively fluffy tone of Solo: A Star Wars Story, because we already know the warning that fellow smuggler Tobias Beckett gives to Han is prescient: If you go into this life — if you accept your part in this debt — you will never be free of it. What a prequel can lose in terms of drama can be gained if we already know how a story ends. We know that neither Han nor Chewbacca are going to die during this adventure, but we also know that Han is never going to live a life of peace.

What may seem like a lighthearted romp at times is actually the beginning of the end. Han Solo spends the rest of his life jumping from debt to debt, trying to stay at least a half-step ahead of the people hunting him for the price on his head. Moments of relaxation have been rare, and what seems like bravado when he runs screaming at stormtroopers could just be an honest disregard for his own life.

He started stealing when he was a kid, and the woman who gave him a reason to do anything in Solo never needed his saving at all. He came from nothing, and when he returned to a life running rackets and evading mobsters after his son fell to the dark side, it must have felt like he returned to nothing.

It was also probably comforting; standing still has to feel stressful when you’ve spent your entire life running, even if you become a general in what later becomes the functional government. Han went back to doing what he’s used to doing, even if he was never that great at it. Like Beckett said: He was in that life for good.

It sounds dire, and maybe bleak. But Han also tended to do the right thing, as long as the right thing was kinda adjacent to whatever else he was doing. He was the guy who volunteered. He was the guy who came back. And when he was finally killed, he was killed trying to bring his son back, to make his family whole again. He might never have found his own peace or happy ending, but at least he died on the right path.

As tragedies go, there are worse fates.