Meet the Young Han Solo, Same as the Old Han Solo

This article is pretty representative of a lot of what I’m reading about the Young Han Solo news that’s leaked over the past few days. I understand and sympathize with the frustration people are voicing – we don’t need a Han Solo prequel, it’s a boring idea, it lacks diversity – but I will be honest: I’m not sure why anyone is surprised about all of this.

Near the end of the linked article, the author writes:

Young Han Solo feels like a desperation move, and with The Force Awakens making close to $2 billion worldwide within a month, Disney should be the furthest thing from desperate.

Without any disrespect to the author intended, I think this completely misunderstands what Disney is trying to do here. Young Han Solo is the opposite of a desperation move – it’s a move made in full confidence, designed to capitalize on the unprecedented success of “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” Disney is not in the business of funding arthouse cinema; the $2 billion they’ve counted so far from “The Force Awakens” is not an indicator that they can start taking some risks, it’s an indicator that Star Wars is still an enormously profitable franchise, and that staying the course will lead to even greater results. The Walt Disney Company has assets totaling some $84 billion. It is in their absolute best interest as a multibillion dollar corporation to make Young Han Solo because its familiarity to audiences almost guarantees a profitable return on investment.

I’ve seen some people predict audience disinterest in a Han Solo prequel because it’s a stale and unnecessary idea. I doubt that this movie will break records the way “The Force Awakens” did, but this prediction seems off. Disney is the company that pulled over $500 million out of “Ant-Man” last summer. I don’t mean to insult anyone who worked on “Ant-Man,” or anyone who enjoyed “Ant-Man,” but before 2015, most people’s reaction to the idea of an Ant-Man movie was probably some variation of, “who the hell is Ant-Man?” That they were able to market that idea all the way to half-a-billion dollars, and a sequel already in production, leads me to believe that they’ll probably find a way to make a few bucks off Han Solo, a character who’s been a staple Halloween costume since 1978.

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Perhaps the surprise surrounding the Young Han Solo developments is a result of our continued (and growing) complacency, or comfort, with corporate interests in our daily lives. When we engage with corporations like Disney on a personal level through Twitter and Facebook, or share and discuss advertising campaigns on sites like Reddit, when we identify so closely with the products they create and market on an intimate level, we forget that the primary goal of any corporation of this scale is growth through capital accumulation. The qualifiers in phrases like “movie business” or “music business” lead us away from the fact that “business” is the operative word here, and that the entertainment or artistic side is tangential. Movies are products designed to be sold, like any other product.

The executives at Disney literally confirmed as much when they discussed the new movies in development:

The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise.

So, no, I do not believe the production of Young Han Solo is a move made out of desperation. It’s the kind of move other film industry conglomerates would love to make if they had the opportunity. Most of them are in the process of creating their own franchises to better position themselves to make movies exactly like Young Han Solo when the time is right.

The author at The Atlantic makes another note that I think is worth discussing when he points out that the list of actors being considered for the Han Solo prequel is “a grab-bag of semi-famous white actors in their late 20s and early 30s.” This reflects the very valid concern that a movie like Young Han Solo just takes production and marketing resources away from other films Disney could produce that could offer more diverse casting opportunities – roles for nonwhite, nonmale actors.

This is a problem that absolutely deserves to be addressed, but again, I’m not sure where our collective disbelief originates from. Disney did not make itself known for its commitment to diversity, and its projected release schedule does not look markedly different from its past releases. The Marvel film franchise will feature its first nonwhite lead with the release of “Black Panther” in 2018 – 10 years and 17 films after the launch of the franchise with the original Iron Man in 2008. Another year and 3 films after that, “Captain Marvel” will feature the franchise’s first woman in a leading role. Similarly, Star Wars built an entertainment behemoth in the 1970′s and cultivated it for over 35 years while remaining entirely within the boundaries of an incredibly narrow, exclusionary sociocultural worldview.

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“The Force Awakens” is not, I don’t think, a symbol of a drastic philosophical overhaul at Disney in terms of casting diversity. That the film features a more diverse cast is notable and commendable, and its true significance will likely only become more apparent as time goes on. It’s exciting. But a great deal of this cultural impact is due to the marketing machine Disney put to work for the franchise’s reintroduction. The film grounds itself in a conservative set of characters, despite the marketing materials suggesting otherwise.

I think Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, and the rest of the new cast members do a great job with their roles in “Episode VII,” and I think their characters have great potential. But that potential is not really activated in this movie. “The Force Awakens’” main dramatic arc focuses mostly on Han Solo and his family. While we may be rooting for Rey, Finn, and Poe, the highest emotional stakes are reserved for Han and his kid, both white men. Their experiences are at the center of the movie. Beyond that, the overarching expository device, the great mystery that propels the entire thing into motion for 130 minutes, concerns Luke. We spend over two hours waiting for a glimpse of the same white guy we met back when Carter was in office.

Some, including the author of the Young Han Solo essay at The Atlantic, refer to this as a sort of “passing of the torch” onto the new cast. A more pessimistic observer might characterize it as Disney hedging their bets. It’s true that this incorporation of the old cast is a clever way to introduce stubborn or apprehensive (or, perhaps, racist and sexist) audiences to the nonwhite, nonmale characters that will presumably take over the series, but it’s also remarkably cynical. It’s a form of appeasement, an insurance plan in case the film underperformed or didn’t sit right with the proper demographics.

Of course, “The Force Awakens” didn’t underperform. Hopefully, this will help lead to a more inclusive and representative set of actors, writers, directors, producers, composers, editors, and filmmakers of all trades over at Disney and other industry giants. If that result begins to materialize, though, it will be important to remember that those casting and production decisions are eventually, fundamentally, business decisions made only when the financial benefits for those choices become most obvious and actionable. Disney is not a staunch ally in the struggle for a more equitable society.

And really, for the executives at Disney, the discussions currently happening around the Young Han Solo movie must be confusing. They essentially just made half of a Han Solo movie and were handsomely rewarded for it, and their audiences pushed them to record-breaking box office numbers. Those are the numbers they privilege. Those are the numbers that lead to a greenlight and a probable nine-figure budget for a Han Solo prequel.

I understand being frustrated or disappointed by the Young Han Solo news. But a sense of surprise or incredulousness just indicates that we haven’t been paying enough honest attention. The Star Wars renaissance is a lot of fun, sure, but we should be aware of what we’re enjoying.

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