Spoilers through to The Force Awakens.
“I have a bad feeling about this…”
That was my less-than-enthusiastic reaction when I heard there were plans for a young Han Solo movie. I was already sceptical about expanding the Star Wars franchise beyond nine films, and I’m certainly not a big enough Han Solo fan that I want to see a whole movie about him.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Han Solo! Harrison Ford adds some much-needed charisma to every film he appears in. But Han’s also got a lot of flaws. He’s reckless, stubborn, egotistical, territorial, and… let’s just say he needs a lesson in positive consent.
Of course, we already do kind of have movies about Han Solo – they’re called the Indiana Jones films. And you know what? I don’t like them! Even though Ford is playing essentially the same character, I enjoy him a lot better in the Star Wars movies.
Why? Well, there is one big difference between Han Solo and Indiana Jones: Han’s not the hero. Luke is the hero. Han is the lancer. Han provides comic relief and just the right amount of cynicism to balance Luke’s unwavering sincerity. If not for Han, we might get bored with Luke’s idealism and annoyed by his good intentions. That means we can cut Han some slack if he’s a bit of a jerk, but it doesn’t mean we look up to him. We’re supposed to look up to the hero; that’s why Luke has to be such a goody-goody. Han is the hero’s sister’s love-interest. If he’s not always completely admirable, he doesn’t need to be.
In fact, I’ve found that I’m generally more forgiving of characters like this when they’re in supporting roles. I found Tony Stark obnoxious as the hero of the Iron Man movies, but have grown to love him as a foil to Steve Rogers in the Avengers films. The makers of the Star Trek reboot wisely emphasise the role of Mister Spock so Captain Kirk can have someone cool to play off of. One of the big weaknesses of Guardians of the Galaxy is that Peter Quill feels like a sidekick in need of a hero.
What these characters have in common is a set of characteristics – over-reliance on one’s own abilities, difficulty empathising with others’ feelings, a tendency to view women as objects – that fall under the umbrella of “toxic masculinity”. Toxically masculine traits are often celebrated, but they are in fact harmful. Because they are perceived as more common and desirable in men, having them may be a way to affirm a character’s “manliness”. But the truly great heroes – Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Princess Nausicäa – are the ones who combine “masculine” traits like bravery with “feminine” ones like compassion. This makes it possible for both boys and girls to relate to them. It also makes them better able to handle complex situations. Han may be “manly”, but he’s also incomplete and immature. Luke is the more well-rounded, adult character.
But, besides being foils, is there anything good we can say about toxically masculine sidekicks? I think there is.
For one thing, they put toxic masculinity in its proper place – as something to be laughed at. Toxically masculine traits in the hero often come off as heroic, but in a supporting character we can see how they’re actually bad. Han’s cockiness in A New Hope may seem cool at the time, but it gets him into big trouble with Jabba the Hutt from which he eventually needs to be rescued. (And boy, does he take a lot of rescuing!)
For another, toxic masculinity is something a lot of viewers can identify with – and are encouraged to identify with. This is obviously a bad thing, but our culture makes it kind of inevitable. When these people see themselves in the “hero” role, they may be inclined to view other people as supporting characters who exist to serve their stories. But seeing themselves as sidekicks may encourage them to think about how their actions affect others and how they can play supporting roles in other people’s stories.
Finally, toxic masculinity gives a character something to grow out of. Over the course of three films, Luke and Leia’s influence begins to rub off on Han. He learns that there are causes more important than his own survival. He’s forced to put his life in his friends’ hands and to trust them. He learns to help other people and let them help him. At the end of Return of the Jedi, he still has a lot to learn, but you feel that he’s at least started on the journey.
That this journey continues can be seen in the new trilogy. One of the joys of The Force Awakens is getting to see Han Solo all grown up. He may still be recognisably Han Solo – may still have some of the same recklessness and cockiness – but he’s also an older, wiser, kinder Han Solo. This Han Solo doesn’t even question his responsibility to help the Resistance. He doesn’t hesitate to put himself in danger for others. And he treats Rey with respect, despite her age and gender.
This all culminates beautifully in his final scene. Han’s death is… not what I expected. If you’d asked me how I thought he would go down, I’d have said, “Guns blazing, in some big heroic act, with a twinkle in his eye and a quip on his tongue.” Instead, he steps, unprotected, onto a bridge on an enemy satellite and attempts to overcome the villain by talking to him. From a survival perspective, it’s downright stupid.
And that’s what makes it so awesome. Because Han isn’t thinking about his own survival in this scene. He’s not thinking about what’s smart, what’s efficient, or even about being cool. He’s thinking about his son, about how much he loves him, and how he’d give anything, anything to have him back. Far from being the old Han Solo who shot Greedo first and asked questions after, this Han Solo is able to be vulnerable, to put his feelings first, reach out on an emotional level, and try the diplomatic approach. It gets him killed, of course. But he’s never been more heroic.