You're All Clear, Kid: The Moral Compass of Han Solo
Han Solo utters several extremely quotable lines in the Star Wars films, but for me, his greatest line by far is “You’re all clear, kid!” He bellows it out like a freewheelin’ cowboy as he swoops in to assist young Luke Skywalker in the finale of Star Wars: A New Hope. With his heroic line, Han Solo proved that his personal philosophy, or more to the point, his moral compass, had changed. And I was convinced to side with Han Solo for the rest of time.
What’s compelling about Han Solo is that he functions in A New Hope as a philosophical antagonist to the moral values of the rebellion, which are altruism, bravery, and self-sacrifice. In Han’s worldview, his needs to trump everything else. Despite being an ally to the side of the good, he often embraces the negative side of the film’s thematic stakes. He epitomizes greed over social conscience. This is why Han Solo is much more fascinating than any of the other characters in Star Wars: A New Hope, even Darth Vader. (Vader also behaves selfishly, placing him on the same side of the thematic stakes as Han, but he’s not going to change his worldview… at least not just yet.) In the 1977 film, Han gets to act like he doesn’t care about being selfless and heroic, until at the final moment, when he finally shows his true colors. When Han Solo returns to the battle to blow up the TIE fighters, he risks his life for the betterment of the galaxy and allows Luke to take his one-in-a-million shot to destroy the Death Star. It proves that we can trust him now – he’s on our side. This precise moment elevates the story, launching us into an ending that is simply cathartic.
Han Solo differs from many anti-heroes because George Lucas protected him as he developed his character. Han never crosses that line where the audience feels that he’s too far gone to be saved. In fact, he’s a hero in many ways, just with a few carefully placed red flags: he shot Greedo, he’s a dick to C-3PO, and he previously got himself into a bad business arrangement with Jabba the Hutt. Still, his relationship with Princess Leia lightens him up and makes us want to root for him (even more so since Lucas notoriously changed Greedo’s death so that Greedo shot first).
So, why do we want Han to shoot Greedo first? Because it was in the original or because it means that he has a longer road to travel to achieve redemption? I think it’s the latter. What’s interesting about the structure of Star Wars: A New Hope is that Han Solo has a steep mountain to climb in his character arc while Luke really just has to stop using his targeting computer and trust in the Force. Once Han Solo has his big payday and he tells Luke goodbye, he’s at peak “dark” Han – a greedy scoundrel with no allegiances. Joining the Rebels would be suicidal at that point; we know that and he knows that. Yet even as he takes his fee and abandons his friends, the higher moral values of courage and loyalty begin to pull Han back to them.
So much of the character of Han Solo is obviously benefitted by the performance of Harrison Ford. Han Solo could have been a disaster if an actor would have played the character too seriously or cared too much. Han would have been abrasive, unlikable, and a bore. But in Ford’s portrayal, he’s both slightly dim-witted and selfish, and the charming guy everyone wants to hang out with at the Mos Eisley Cantina.
There have been dozens of protagonists that have been inspired by Han Solo – most notably, Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy and oddly enough, Chris Pine’s interpretation of Captain Kirk in the reboot of the Star Trek films. However, I feel it’s more interesting for the story to have a character like Han Solo as a supporting character. He’s a blast to watch in Star Wars because he’s caught between two worlds, yet the story doesn’t completely hinge on his actions. We know he wants to be good, but is he strong enough to be? By making the story not directly about him, it gives the audience the feeling that anything could happen. The story won’t topple like a house of cards if he’s out of the picture (our hearts will be broken, but that’s just collateral damage).
Han’s reach extends beyond the galaxy as well. I’m a father of a toddler, so forgive me for making a Disney Animation reference, but Maui in Moana functions exactly like Han Solo in A New Hope. Maui doesn’t believe Moana’s mission has any merit; he’s on the wrong side of the thematic stakes of altruism vs. glory for oneself; he selfishly leaves Moana in her time of need; and (SPOILER ALERT) he swoops in heroically at the last possible moment to help take out the TIE fighters… er, the volcano monster Moana is battling.
Han Solo is now so woven into the fabric of the Star Wars universe that his moral compass will probably be more of an afterthought as the films continue to be made. The people have spoken: Han Solo is a scruffy hero with some rough edges, but he doesn’t truly believe the world should be run by greed - it should be protected by heroes.
Apparently that’s the power of yelling out, “You’re all clear, kid” at the perfect moment.