Much has been written about Star Wars as mythology. In the 1988 documentary The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell himself, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces uses Luke’s journey in the first film as an example of the heroic “monomyth” as it occurs throughout human history. But although the plot, and the myth, follows his adventure, Luke is far from the most popular Star Wars character. If Luke is the universal hero, however, than the question becomes – why does everyone want to be Han Solo?
Han ranks number 14 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest Movie characters of all time. Luke doesn’t make the cut. Empire magazine listed him as the 4th greatest movie character of all time – Luke came in at 54. Perhaps more telling than all the accolades was the fan response when a re-edit in the special edition cast aspersions on Han’s badassery (Lucas changed the footage so that Han shot the Bounty hunter Greedo in self defense, rather than, shall we say, pre-emptive self-defense.). But the “Han Shot First” debacle really gets at the heart of why Solo resonates so much more with audiences than the film’s so-called star.
Han is not the only anti-hero who’s popularity eclipses the “hero” of his saga. Wolverine didn’t join the X-men until a decade into their run, but his grizzled past and kill-or-be-killed attitude made him the face of the franchise almost overnight. And while Orlando Bloom does have a certain sex appeal, Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t become a box office megahit because of Will Turner. Something about these soldier-of-fortune characters resonates with audiences in a unique way – women want them, men want to be them. But what is it? And how has Han Solo come to be the character who defines this archetype?
Lucas has stated that Han’s character is partially inspired by the character of Kukuchiyo, from the Akira Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai. The film’s heroes are a group of Ronin who come together to defend a village from bandits. Kukuchiyo, however, is not a Samurai at all, but a scheming con-artist who stole the armor off a dead Samurai. The others are shocked and offended, but as the film goes on his charismatic trickery saves several of the villagers and they come to accept him. Like Han, Kukuchiyo abandons the others when the odds look impossible. And like Han, his moment of redemption comes when he is willing to sacrifice himself to save the villagers.
The qualities that define these characters are largely negative ones – they appear appear amoral, motivated primarily by greed and personal gain, have a tendency to push the world away and appear unwilling to form real relationships with other people. They have serious trust issues. Over the course of their respective films, however, these characters break down the mental walls which keep them from fully participating in society.
Often this transformation comes through a romantic relationship – Han and Leia are fine example, as is Jack’s infatuation with Elizabeth Swann. More often, though, it can come from an almost father-like mentor relationship with the naïve young hero. Jack experiences this to some extent with Will, and it is Wolverine’s concern for the young Rogue which motivates him to become involved with the X-men in the 2000 Bryan Singer film. This culminates in a moment of redemption when the character puts aside his selfish needs to better serve the needs of the group. Han’s turning point comes when he comes back to rescue Luke from Vader’s TIE fighter, showing that their time together has caused him to develop something of a conscious. I would argue that it is these moments, and these relationships which account for much of the popularity of the archetype.
On the whole, we tend to gravitate towards characters who are easy to relate to, but who become powerful over the course of the series, since we can vicariously live out this fantasy with them. Luke, the humble farm boy, fits this archetype, developing his Jedi powers as the series goes on. But Han, like Jack Sparrow, Wolverine, and Kukuchiyo, is a badass from his first scene. His journey is learning how to be a better human being, how to care about a higher cause and live in community with others..
It goes without saying that all good characters grow. But this particular kind of growth gets at human needs in two ways. We all want to have that tough exterior, that survivor mentality, but ultimately we realize that no one is an island. Perhaps that is the reason these characters resonate so strongly with us. At the beginning they fulfill our need to be the masters of our own destinies, and by the end they become stand-ins for our own desire to become part of something larger than ourselves.
The Mercenary antihero isn’t going anywhere. Examples abound throughout fiction because these characters fill an important need in our psyches. Despite his early assertion that he looks out only for himself, Han Solo reassures us that it’s okay to need other people – and that’s something that never goes out of style.