On December 18th something monumental happened, and I haven’t seen much critical discussion about it. It was an event that should have been seismic for an entire generation, yet somehow it has been lost amidst chatter. It’s the death of Han Solo, one of the foundational heroes for modern audiences, and it seems to have passed over us all like a light breeze.
If you grew up with the Original Trilogy as your Star Wars you probably jumped around as to which of the heroes was your favorite. Luke’s journey (and endless whininess) appeals to us when we’re younger, while Leia’s take-no-sass attitude certainly informed many of us in adulthood. But it was Han Solo who taught a whole generation what masculinity was; he existed as one end of the Harrison Ford manhood magnetic pole, with Indiana Jones on the other end. I come from a generation that was beset with historic divorce rates, and for many of us latchkey kids Harrison Ford’s iconic characters were the father figures we didn’t have day-to-day.
That becomes explicit in The Force Awakens, where Han is actually a father as well as a father figure to two fans. Austin Walker wrote what is possibly the best analysis of The Force Awakens I’ve read, and I’m going to steal a bit of his work here:
For Ren, he’s an uncaring father, for Finn, he’s a brilliant war hero, and for Rey he’s a legendary smuggler. Each finds their understanding challenged by a more complicated truth: Han was an absent dad because he cared so much; the great Rebellion war hero is a scoundrel without a plan; even seemingly invincible legends die.
As the son of an absent father I’d probably take some issue with that reading of the Ren/Han situation, but in general I like what Walker is getting at here. And I wonder if this is part of the reason why the death of Han hasn’t become a bigger thing, why all the fan art is almost exclusively about shipping the new characters as opposed to mourning the loss of one of the great characters of 20th century pop cinema. The Force Awakens has removed Han from his position as a story motivator and instead made him a catalyst for the continuing story of the three new leads.
Of course part of the prevalence of Rey/Finn/Ren fan art is that fan artists tend to be younger, and so they’re keying into the characters who are reflecting them. As younger viewers they probably don’t have the same attachment to Han Solo that older viewers do, and they see the OT as inextricably linked with the Prequel Trilogy - and as old-fashioned Star Wars - in a way we don’t. And part of the silence about Han could have been attributed to politeness about spoilers, although the movie is now the highest grossing film in US history so pretty much everyone who gives a shit has seen it already, and multiple times.
But back to Walker’s point: in The Force Awakens Han has been distanced from us. Rather than the heroic male figure that we look up to, he’s now a figure looked up to by other figures that we’re watching. His death scene isn’t for us - it’s for Ren and Rey and Finn. Again and again I have heard people echoing my sentiments about this scene - it didn’t have any impact until Chewbacca became upset. Chewie’s rage and pain resonates in a way that Han’s actual death doesn’t.
Han’s death doesn’t resonate for two strong reasons: it’s the right death but acheived in the wrong way, and it comes at the wrong point of the movie. It’s a death that is unsatisfying in execution and it’s an emotional beat that isn’t allowed to breathe.
Kylo Ren killing Han Solo is the right death. It works, and it’s exactly the sort of death a character like Han Solo should have - it’s personal, it’s up close and it is during an act of emotional heroism. That finishes Han’s arc from the OT: in A New Hope he returns to help his friends, in Empire he never abandons his friends and in Jedi he pulls away, allowing what he thinks will make his friends happy to happen. Of course Luke and Leia can’t get together, but Han’s willingness to step out of the way of their perceived love is the ultimate sacrifice. Dying is easy but living with lost love is harder, and giving up can be the ultimate romantic gesture. It’s muddied by the fact that Luke and Leia simpy cannot be together, but Han doesn’t know that. He’s just doing the right thing.
Giving himself to Ren in a moment of absolute forgiveness is the culmination of that emotional arc - not only is Han willing to sacrifice physically, he’s willing to sacrfice emotionally, bringing together his moments from Empire and Jedi. But here’s the problem - the rest of the movie doesn’t have Han on this journey. The ending is totally correct, it’s every step along the way that is wrong.
One of my major problems with the very premise of The Force Awakens is the idea that Han and Luke would bug out as soon as it got bad. It’s a complete betrayal of their arcs - Luke as the man willing to give up his own life if means sparing the soul of his father and Han as the man who lets go of his enormous ego. I simply don’t believe either of these men react to this trauma this way, at least not without seeing it dramatized. It’s a cheap way to reset Han Solo to the days before he was housebroken.
What’s frustrating is that this didn’t have to happen. The thematic concerns that Walker notes in regards to Han’s relationships to the new leads could still be present if Han is a homebody 30 years after Endor - seeing the Rebel war hero and daring smuggler turned into a retiree is just as much of subversion of their expectations as returning him to his roots are. Seeing the absent dad as actually loving man isa major reversal for Ren. Perhaps it’s an even greater subversion, as viewers already know that their legendary Han Solo has feet of clay - which is part of why we love him so much!
Of course Han as retiree isn’t quite dramatically satisfying. We want him out there in space, shooting blasters, and we don’t want a lengthy sequence where these kids have to convince him to get out of the rocking chair and back into the Falcon. This is where an alternate take would have worked even better than what we see in the film - turn Han into Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, a movie that influenced the people who influenced JJ Abrams.
We are asked to believe that when his son goes bad and butchers a bunch of his fellow students Han Solo just throws up his hands and takes off to smuggle again. I don’t buy it after Return of the Jedi. Hell, I don’t buy it after The Empire Strikes Back. What I do buy is Han Solo scouring the galaxy for signs of his wayward son, spending years tracking down leads, running down the First Order’s criminal contacts, intending to put a stop to the evil he spawned. A driven Han I can believe, a Han who leaves his wife not because he’s worried she hates his face but one who leaves his wife because he has to take care of their unfinished business.
A driven, angry Han lends weight to Kylo Ren’s moaning about his father; we all know that Han Solo is a pretty cool dude, so when Ren complains that his father let him down it rings emo. Hell, most of us grew up wishing we had Han Solo as our dad. But giving Han a bit of an edge, that gives Ren’s complaints an edge of their own. Having Han going through the galaxy, shooting first, intending to put down the rabid dog he spawned - that gives Ren's point of view weight.
That all lends depth to that final scene on the bridge. It lends meaning to Han’s decision to get up close. We would have spent the previous hour and a half thinking that Han was going to kill his own son when he finally found him, and then here, in the actual moment, the anger falls away and he finds forgiveness in himself. He opens himself up, after years of being closed off, and is repaid with a lightsaber.
Mind you, I think that’s some of the effect JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan are going for by having Ren moan about his lame dad, but it doesn’t land, even with the truly exceptional work done by Driver (I cannot overpraise his work here; it’s easy to reduce Ren to a meme, as many have, but I think he’s the most three dimensional Star Wars character ever put on screen, and a lot of that comes from Driver himself). It doesn’t work because the Han we meet in this movie is the exact same Han we loved in 1977, and we know that Han is a good guy. Han earns no final redemption on that bridge because he needs none, his final actions feel so pre-ordained as to be going through the motions. What Han does there is sort of stupid, not a grand gesture where he forgives not only his son but himself. As Anakin Skywalker found redemption in his son’s love, so Han Solo could have found redemption in his son’s hate.
There was another way to salvage that final confrontation - keep Kylo Ren’s face hidden until then. When he asks Han what he thinks he’ll see beneath that mask the audience should be just as unsure as Han Solo is. We should be holding our breath waiting to see what sort of Dark Side-ravaged monster requires that helmet. When we see the soft skin and handsome features of Adam Driver we should be surprised, we should in that moment - for the first time - question whether maybe this kid can be saved. Holding that reveal would strengthen all of the emotions in that scene. It would make the killing of Han hurt all the more.
Of course you would lose the great Rey/Ren scene. I do love that sequence, and I love the tension between them, but this is another example of the old hero being distanced for the sake of the new hero. In fact Han's death is played more as Ren's scene than Han's - a choice I understand, especially as I'm sure the memory of Han's sacrifice will play into Ren's eventual last-minute alignment change in Episode IX, but I don't believe that scene needed to belong to just one of them. The way it plays out is not necessarily a bad thing… except when you hope to have a major death have more resonance in the moment.
But the death barely gets a moment. Han’s death is modeled on the death of Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope, but only in the most surface of ways, ie, that it’s witnessed by the other characters. Obi Wan isn’t just killed by Darth Vader, he offers himself up in sacrifice in order to teach Luke a bigger lesson about The Force. It’s an amazing moment, and an act of ultimate heroism and faith; as I said above, the death of Han, while also sacrificial, doesn’t hit the same way. It doesn't have the depth of Obi Wan's death, despite the similarities. Perhaps because Han's death is mostly furthering Ren's story that everything gets muddled, and maybe it's because he's not a Skywalker and he's doing what Luke did at the end of Jedi in offering himself up. It's a character moment that doesn't work for the character we have been following in this film.
Old Ben’s death is allowed a moment to sink in; we only ever get moments in Star Wars films - they’re too fast-paced for lengthy mope sessions - but the moment we get is powerful. Luke reacts in horror, the heroes scramble to escape and then our young Jedi in training has a beat where he feels the loss. Giving the characters a beat is a way of giving us a beat, and of hammering home the importance of what just happened. Where A New Hope slows down after the death of Ben, The Force Awakens ramps up after the death of Han. We are plunged into a lengthy, multi-front action sequence that is full of explosions and chaos, as opposed to A New Hope's quick TIE battle, which we immediately learn was a feint. By the time we are allowed to feel Han’s death it’s in a very strange scene where half the characters are celebrating.
My friend and fellow critic Jeremy Smith insists that The Force Awakens is a work of powerful melancholy, and while I don’t agree with him this scene is probably his strongest ammunition. The way that the screen is divided between the grieving widow (and also some girl Han just met) and the throngs of happy Rebels must be purposeful, and it must be to show us the sadness that permeates even our victories. But structurally it’s too little too late, happening well after Han has died and we’ve seen a planet turn into a star, as enormous a celestial happening as we have ever witnessed in these films.
It’s almost shocking how little impact Han Solo’s death had, both in the moment and in the weeks since. I sat in a huge convention center when Disney debuted that first Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser and I - like hundreds, if not thousands, around me - actually cried when Han said, “Chewie, we’re home.” In what might end up being the most damning critique of the whole film that moment in the trailer, which hit millions around the world in the same way, was kind of the emotional high point of entire The Force Awakens experience… and it just isn’t as effective in the final film. But the fact that Han saying that line could evoke such enormous emotion even when decontextualized clearly means that many, many people remained emotionally connected to that character. We should have felt something more in those final moments of his life. We should have been talking about the loss of a hero, about the power of the moment, about the meaning of Han's sacrifice. Instead we're talking about that Stormtrooper who says "Traitor!" and shipping Poe and Finn.
Rest in peace, Han Solo. Your weirdly unemotional death will just help us remember what you were like when you were alive.