Despite how efficiently Star Wars: The Force Awakens manipulates nostalgia, much of the success of the movie—now the highest-grossing film ever made—can be ascribed to what’s fresh about it. Fans seem to be most excited by the new characters Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren, and the diverse faces in the young cast are being touted as a model for big-budget Hollywood filmmaking going forward. So the Star Wars franchise, diminished by George Lucas’s prequels, is now guaranteed to chug along for years as Disney prepares a slate of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, and today a shortlist of actors being considered to play a young Han Solo leaked online. It couldn’t have felt more anticlimactic.
The names on the list are a grab-bag of semi-famous white actors in their late 20s and early 30s, including Dave Franco of Neighbors, Miles Teller of Whiplash, Ansel Elgort of The Fault in Our Stars, and Brooklyn’s Emory Cohen. Disney has hired the talented director/writer team Phil Lord and Chris Miller to helm its “Young Han Solo” movie, which is slated for release in 2018. Lord and Miller have taken tough media properties and adapted them well—they made 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie—but this project is much more daunting.
The Force Awakens mined familiar motifs (the Death Star, the lonely soul on a desert planet, the transformative death of a mentor) from George Lucas’s original work to position its new characters. Yes, the critical backlash eventually focused on how familiar everything felt, but few could discount the thrill of seeing Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega as the new faces of the franchise. Harrison Ford was involved, of course, playing an aging Solo, but he was there to pass the torch more than anything, and he did his work well. Elgort, or Franco, or whomever is cast in this upcoming film won’t be so lucky— they’ll have to live up to the memory of a character who’s almost universally adored by audiences, and do it in a film that can’t have any bearing on the future of the Star Wars franchise, given that it’s set before Lucas’s original films.
Perhaps it’ll concern Solo acquiring the Millennium Falcon, or meeting his pal Chewbacca, or making that infamous Kessel Run he keeps talking about. Guess who tried this kind of story-mining before? George Lucas, whose prequel trilogy tripped over itself trying to explain every famed original character’s background, unfortunately getting in the way of a coherent story in the process. Why do audiences need to see the events that made Han Solo who he is? He’s a complete package the second he’s introduced—rebellious, charming, with just enough bravado to disguise that he’s making it up as he goes along—and so much of that is down to Ford’s performance. Any new actor in the role will be saddled with the choice between trying to imitate Ford or creating their own take on the character, and both will be a tough sell.
The most depressing thing is that Star Wars doesn’t need any of this. By 2018, Episode VIII will have been released and a whole other generation will be firmly invested in the series’s new characters. Where will the appetite for a young Han Solo be? Older viewers raised on Harrison Ford will be predisposed to cynicism. Younger viewers will be waiting for the return of Finn and Rey. Another upcoming spinoff, Rogue One, will also explain a past bit of Star Wars marginalia—the theft of the original Death Star plans—but it at least has an exciting ensemble of character actors playing entirely novel characters.
Young Han Solo feels like a desperation move, and with The Force Awakens making close to $2 billion worldwide within a month, Disney should be the furthest thing from desperate. The hard part already happened—throwing new characters into an established universe and building a franchise around them. But it worked. And it emphasized that Han Solo should be left alone, rather than used as a peg to shore up yet another franchise tentpole.