The director’s messily charming fantasy turns 30 this week, just in time for Howard’s return to Lucasfilm.
Ron Howard has a long history with George Lucas. He starred in the wunderkind director’s second film, American Graffiti, and the two maintained an enduring friendship as Howard made his transition from child star to Oscar-winning director. When Lucas finally sat down and began writing his prequel trilogy, he approached Howard about directing the first entry; Howard turned him down, saying in 2015 that “it would’ve been just too daunting.” When Lucasfilm came knocking again 20 years later, in the midst of an unprecedented directorial shakeup on their Han Solo spin-off film, that answer changed. With his Solo: A Star Wars Story dropping this week, it’s worth taking a look back at Howard’s first Lucasfilm production and how it telegraphed his interpretation of Han Solo.
The concept for Willow (initially called Munchkins) originated at around the same time as the original Star Wars. Lucas shelved it in favor of his space saga, then came back around to the idea as his original trilogy was wrapping up. He offered the lead role to Warwick Davis, who had just appeared in Return of the Jedi as Wicket the Ewok. Lucas envisioned the film as a literalization of his recurring “Little people against the world” story structure, and he enlisted budding filmmaker Howard to direct. Fresh off of his first substantial success with Splash and in the midst of making his first effects-supported sci-fi effort with Cocoon, Howard was seen by Lucas as the perfect heir to his filmmaking empire: wholesome, sincere, and technologically savvy.
The plot of Willow is about as simple as they come: A good-natured dwarf named Willow must protect a human child from the machinations of an evil queen, encountering all manner of fiends and magical creatures along the way. The most prominent of those encounters is with Madmartigan, a roving adventurer played by Val Kilmer, who begins the film as a combative scoundrel and ends it as a friendly accomplice. If that archetype sounds familiar, it’s because Madmartigan is essentially a medieval Han Solo, right down to his bumbling sense of overconfidence and mercenary nature. Kilmer gives a fun performance, but he can’t shake the stale surface of the character: we know exactly where Madmartigan will end up, because we’ve seen it all before.
In a vacuum, this doesn’t have to be a movie-killing problem. In the original Star Wars, Han Solo isn’t exactly a tremendously original figure. He finds his roots in reluctant heroes from dozens upon dozens of hero’s journeys, and his own path in the film is about as telegraphed as they come. There’s never a question that Han will return to save Luke from the clutches of Darth Vader, only a question of when that will happen. But in 1977, that development was still relatively new to cinemas. In 1988, Willow was facing a horde of imitators.
Thirty years later, Howard’s officially branded Solo film is being released alongside an even wider array of Solo wannabes. This year’s Avengers: Infinity War alone features no less than five characters clearly inspired by the wisecracking space cowboy, each emerging from their own separate franchise. Some of those characters are even directly imitating the character within the text of the film, with both Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and Tom Holland’s teenage Spider-Man sporting some knowledge of the Star Wars franchise. Elsewhere, the preternaturally quippy Deadpool is like Han Solo on steroids, sacrificing everything that makes the character engaging in favor of a flurry of empty wisecracks.
In the middle of that landscape, an actual Han Solo film has to offer something at least slightly new and different. For a while, it seemed like it might. With a pair of brilliantly subversive filmmakers like Phil Lord and Chris Miller at the helm, Solo could have been something sharp and smart that interrogated its tropes instead of soaking in them. With Howard, it seems clear that the film will be more Willow than LEGO Movie.
To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of Howard’s abilities as a director. It would be unfair and disingenuous to compare his cut of Solo to an imaginary Lord and Miller version that will never exist. And Howard is undeniably skilled; the chorus of boos when he was selected as Solo‘s replacement were deeply unfair. We should never treat the director of a classic like Apollo 13 with such disdain, no matter how many Da Vinci Code sequels he’s churned out in the meantime.
But there is a clear distinction between a steady, classical hand like Howard’s and the more post-modernist sensibilities of directors like Lord and Miller, and it’s a distinction that may lead Solo into time-tested waters that prevent it from truly prospering. Howard’s Han Solo will probably look a lot like Madmartigan, something warm and familiar. Lord and Miller’s, meanwhile, might have been something more challenging.
The division between those two approaches feels a lot like the division within the Star Wars franchise today, with one side (the sequel trilogy) pushing into the future while the other side (the spinoffs) luxuriates in the past. On the surface, that kind of business model seems like a smart one for Lucasfilm, cultivating diehard fans of the original films as well as audiences more interested in leaving the past behind. The polarizing reaction to The Last Jedi, however, indicates that the ride may be a little less smooth than it was initially believed to be. The Star Wars fan community, like most other fanbases, has a toxic, immovable core, one that refuses to accept change and insists on films that pleasure them instead of challenge them. To the people frustrated by Rian Johnson’s daring choices in The Last Jedi, Solo looks like a welcome reprieve; to those who delighted in his freewheeling subversions (a group which I have to admit I myself belong to), Howard’s prequel looks like a dull chore.
But at the end of the day, any choice between these two entities is a false one, because only one of them is sustainable. The fans who hate The Last Jedi and insist it be erased from canon aren’t going to turn around and embrace a new Disney-produced Star Wars film. The #BoycottSolo campaign is already well underway, no matter how foolish and ill-advised it may seem. Faced with that kind of resistance, it’s bewildering to see Lucasfilm continue to appeal to pigheaded nerds who are frustrated with the lack of testosterone in their space fantasies. They won’t be won over, so why even bother? Why not abandon the stale stylings of Ron Howard’s Madmartigan, and embrace something more post-modern? Star Wars is moving towards the future, slowly but surely. If the powers that be insist it must always spend some time in the past, the least they can do is make the past a bit less predictable.