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Disney's Star Wars Scoundrel™ Problem

😈 He's a Tramp, But I Love Him...

Since taking over LucasFilm, Disney has developed a bit of a scoundrel problem. Not that there's too many, per se--scoundrels make for great characters. Han Solo is one of the most iconic scoundrels in all of cinema. But since they started making Star Wars content, Disney has gone all-in on anti-heroes, scamps, and ne'er-do-wells. The problem is, though... they kind of suck at writing them.

I mentioned this being one of the main problems plaguing The Book of Boba Fett, but it's endemic to the franchise at this point and goes back at least as far as Rogue One. Now, don't get me wrong, I liked Rogue One quite a bit, and not just because I was crushing super hard on Felicity Jones at the time. But think about Jyn Erso's character progression in that movie. And if your immediate reaction to that question is "What character progression?" then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Jyn makes practically no decisions for the entire film. She starts out in a bad situation and then spends the rest of the story fighting because... it's just the thing she does I guess, biding her time until the Episode IV fan service can drop during the finale.

I want to reiterate that I like this movie. It gives us a unique perspective and feels the most like a gritty war story--and the fact that it ends on such a tragic note is heart-breaking and beautiful. But the movie works in spite of Jyn Erso, not because of her. Felicity Jones's on-screen charisma is able to make up for a lot of what's missing on the page, but at the end of the day, this character has no agency and, sadly, is the template that has been copy-pasted into the rest of the franchise whenever they want another charming rogue.

This is terrible writing and it has to stop. I think part of it has to do with Disney's family-friendly nature and how that bleeds down into the properties they manage. The post-Disney-acquisition Star Wars Scoundrel™ is as inoffensively bad as possible. Instead of being a character who makes selfish choices, they are noble souls who are ultimately victims of circumstance forced to do bad things in order to survive. And in order to preserve this, they are never allowed to make any decisions whatsoever, lest they accidentally make a good one.

The comparison to classic Han Solo is an apt one. In the original Star Wars, Han is effectively a mercenary. He's willing to fight the good fight only insofar as it will put money in his pocket. He lies, he intimidates, he straight up murders Greedo in order to save his own skin. Hell, he is introduced to us in a "wretched hive of scum and villainy". And then he bails as soon as his reward has been secured. Yes, he does a face-turn at the last possible second, but for 97% of the movie, he's not being good. This works for the story because a) he's not the protagonist, and b) him being a cynic makes him an audience surrogate, because in 1977 nobody knew or cared what "The Force" was. The modern Scoundrel™ doesn't fit this mold at all. They only make good choices--when they're even allowed to make choices--and their cynicism serves no story purpose, because in 2023 everyone knows what "The Force" is. And being cynical is a hard character trait to sell in a protagonist anyway, but Disney keeps making these people protagonists.

I want to dwell on that last point a little bit. One of the main reasons Han Solo worked is because he was not a focal character in the first movie--which is very much about Luke--and he was not a scoundrel in the sequels, which are a bit more of ensemble pieces. As anyone who saw Cars 2 can attest, the characteristics of a compelling sidekick are not necessarily going to make for a compelling hero. For one thing, a side character can be a little more extreme, but having that extreme personality front-and-center can be exhausting. You wind up with... well... Cars 2.

To that end, very cynical protagonists are tricky to pull off. Oh, sure, it can be done. Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, a character who was cut directly from the Han Solo cloth, is the obvious example that comes to mind. His character was made compelling by contrasting him against other things. Sure, he was a bad guy, but it was a whole 'verse full of bad guys, and at least he was loyal to his crew. In fact, we liked Mal because we got to see him outsmart the even worse bad guys and because every now and then we got a glimpse of his humanity. We didn't drown in his negativity because Firefly was an ensemble and Mal was offset by other characters who were shining beacons of optimism, and by "other characters" I mean Kaylee.

One of the things that Solo: A Star Wars Story did correctly was make young Han a scruffy idealist instead of a bitter cynic. That's a smart move if you're going to make him more focal. And then they did many things wrong. In fact, that movie is perhaps the most egregious example of taking away the protagonist's agency in order to make them have zero responsibility for their badness. Consider: there are two character-defining moments for Han that bookend the film, both involving his love interest, Qy'ra, that seem intended to encapsulate his trajectory. The first moment is when he abandons her at the starport on wherever and joins the Empire as cannon fodder. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to get back to her. When he finally does, he finds her doing rather well actually, but she has ties to a criminal syndicate. In the end, he's intending to run away with her, but she abandons him. This is the second big moment for his character, leaving him a bitter, cynical wreck who will win our hearts in Episode IV.

None of it works. These allegedly character-defining moments are things that happen to him, not things that he has any say in at all. As a result, the movie has no narrative drive for the entire middle. They're just running from set-piece to set-piece while Han tries to keep himself alive. Which is in character for him, but doesn't really jibe with the plucky idealist they're trying to paint him as in his youth.

Just play out the counter-factual in your head. What if Han were the one driving the story? What if, for example, at the starport, Qy'ra is begging him to save her, but he leaves anyway. He sees that the situation is hopeless and he bolts. He yells that he's sorry and that he'll come back for her, but he runs away of his own volition rather than being instructed to do so by her. That changes everything. Now his struggle has something rooted in character. He's racked with guilt. Then, when they meet back up and she's all "oh, no hard feelings", that has some impact because it was clearly such a big deal to him. Then in the finale, you reverse the decisions. Qy'ra wants him to join her criminal syndicate and have him be the one to walk away. You still have issues with the ending, where he's there helping out revolutionaries and they succeed. Like, none of that really works in the broader context, but that's actually a really easy fix. Just... have the rebels lose. That actually solves a lot of the problems with the story. It's why Han can't bring himself to join Qy'ra, it's why he sheds the last of his optimism, and it informs why he wants nothing to do with the Rebellion years later.

All of this is to say that there are ways to make these stories work. But the conflict has to be tied to character choice and these supposedly bad guys need to actually do bad things. Scoundrel™ is not just an aesthetic. It's a phase of a character journey.

At least, it's supposed to be.