'Solo' is more of the same from the Star Wars universe, and that’s a good thing

A few weeks ago, Avengers: Infinity War had the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time, earning more than $250 million. It also had the second-highest second weekend in film history. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is unquestionably the most successful undertaking in Hollywood history: 19 films, nearly all major hits, with more hits to come. The momentum is not slowing at all; in fact, it’s picking up.

But as I’ve written recently, the sprawling Marvel empire has become too bloated for its own good. Each installment is forced to be concerned with the installments that follow it, and thus become less stories on their own terms than pieces of a bigger puzzle.

This is the path I feared the Star Wars universe, another Disney behemoth, would go down when it was announced there would be a new trilogy, plus spin-off stories in the years between the main trilogy installments. Star Wars is one of the most beloved franchises in film history, adored by fans and critics alike (well, as long as we block Jar-Jar out of our memories). Why not turn it into an ever-expanding universe? Star Wars loyalists would lap it up, and folks like me who get exhausted at the thought would probably still see the films anyway.

Four movies into this new generation of Star Wars films, though, my concerns have been almost completely washed away. These Star Wars movies are vastly superior to the Marvel episodes, because they have been structured to do just the opposite of those superhero flicks: each Star Wars film tells a full story, on its own terms.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, like Rogue One, operates independently of the main trilogy, and is perhaps the most independent of the new Star Wars films thus far. The film is completely dedicated to telling the backstory of Han Solo, the cocky Millennium Falcon pilot played in the original trilogy by Harrison Ford. Alden Ehrenreich, who plays young Solo, is on screen in just about every scene.

The film opens with Han, captive to a slumlord on the impoverished planet of Corellia, escaping with the woman he loves, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), in order to join the Imperial Army. Only Han is able to make it out of Corellia, though, and after three years of fighting for the Empire, he finds himself mixed up in a mission with a band of misfit thieves, hoping to scrum together enough cash to bring himself back to Qi’ra. It’s essentially The Odyssey, Star Wars-style, as Han embarks on an epic of self-discovery.

This all takes place without needing to forward the plot of future Star Wars films, because Solo is set in the past. And so there is a real development of new characters, and a real sense of stakes. Just like in Rogue One, key characters can die, and that possibility heightens the suspense. There had been buzz for years that the script for Solo was stellar, and it does not disappoint. It’s a compelling, tight story, giving depth to the Han Solo character while introduction a slew of interesting newer characters as well.

The other major press the film got leading up to its release was not as positive. There were numerous reports about Ehrenreich’s acting struggles on-set; going into the film’s release, it felt as if it was a foregone conclusion that Solo would have to succeed in spite of Ehrenreich, not because of him. But Ehrenreich was really good! There were evident growing pains to be sure, but the relatively unknown actor is charismatic and genuinely funny (the gimmick where Chewbacca does that growl-purr-scream thing and Han responds back as if he knew what he said will never get old). The early rumors have become destiny at this point, but they shouldn’t be: it’s a good performance.

It also helps that Ehrenreich is surrounded by a deep bench of excellent supporting performers. Woody Harrelson is fantastic as always, and Emilia Clarke, an unknown to a non-Game of Thrones fan like me, was beguiling. Donald Glover, playing Lando Calrissian in a role with much less screen time than I expected, was also good, although an implacable airy cadence he lends to Lando’s voice is a bit odd. The standout performance might have been that of L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a sassy, proletarian robot who delivers many of the film’s funniest lines.

In the end, what it all adds up to is what every Star Wars movie adds up to: a heartfelt tale of resistance, transcending expectations, and the ambiguity of what it means to be a hero or a villain. It’s a story about someone who came from nothing, and had the choice to do good or bad laid out in front of them, and chose their own path. Solo also has a refreshing focus, as all of these new Star Wars films have had, toward systematic and historical injustice, and not only individual choice.

Solo isn’t on the same level as the films in the main Star Wars trilogy. It doesn’t have the radical departure from Star Wars tropes that made The Last Jedi unique, or the embrace of cinematic nostalgia that made The Force Awakens totally joyous. But it has a cocky pilot, and a Wookie, and a story all to its own, in a galaxy far, far away. Give me one of these a year, and I’ll be satisfied.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: 3 stars