Warning: This story contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.
It's a shame really, because the movie is great fun, and I've come to expect more from a franchise that recently appeared to be committed to diversity, and giving its women narrative space to shine. The Force Awakens introduced its first true woman protagonist — Daisy Ridley as Rey — and promoted Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa to the rank of general. The Last Jedi took a cue from its predecessor, introducing us to Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and winking at female fins with a nice, long look at Kylo Ren's (Adam Driver) sculpted torso. That attitude seeped into the first instalment in The Star Wars Anthology spinoff series, Rogue One, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). And yet, it looks like the buck stops — or at least pauses — with Solo.
In a way, I understand. A movie about the origin story of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a hero with an ego so big it could give the Death Star a run for its money, was always going to be about Han. But then, what to make about Donald Glover, who, as Lando Calrissian, very nearly steals the whole show right from under the title character? Not to mention that, as a supporting lead in the original trilogy, it never felt like Leia was there to serve Han's story. If anything, he was there to serve hers.
Not so for Qi'Ra, however. Emilia Clarke's character is an interesting one — Han's childhood friend and first love, whom he reconnects with later in the film. She has a past and has done some dark things to survive. She's devious, and calculating, and pragmatic. But she's also funny, and enjoys a good cape. (Don't we all?) But all that is obscured by the fact that she is only in this story to teach Han a lesson: never trust those you love.
She's a femme fatale, a point reinforced by a comment Clarke recently made to Vanity Fair about how original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who left the production citing "creative differences" and were replaced with Ron Howard) viewed the character.
"I struggled with Qi’ra quite a lot," she said in the interview. "I was like: ‘Y’all need to stop telling me that she’s 'film noir,' because that ain’t a note.’” Film noir heroines are famous for their seductive attributes and calculating ways — think Lauren Bacall, or Barbra Stanwyck.
Everything about Qi'Ra is meant to lure Han in, and ultimately let him down.
The same goes for Thandie Newton's Val, a stubborn, mercenary smuggler with a smirk who gets far too little screen time for the zest with which she delivers her lines. This is a landmark part, making Newton the first Black woman to get a major role in a Star Wars movie not concealed beneath an alien physique. But again, though Val is certainly intriguing — personally, I would watch an entire movie of just her and Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) bickering over the fact that he doesn't have a musical bone in his body — she's mostly there to just move the story along and give emotional depth to her male partner.
Even L3, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's savagely funny, bow-legged droid on a mission to liberate her fellow bots from digital bondage, doesn't truly escape the pattern. She's a scene-stealer — no small feat when the vast majority of those scenes are shared with Glover — but her presence is (spoiler alert!!!) temporary, and it feels like this potentially fantastic character was only created in order to die, giving Lando a little more complexity than "the hot guy who wears capes." She may be seeking freedom from her human masters, but she's stuck in a movie that's keeping her down. (On the plus side, maybe this will finally convince everyone to watch Fleabag. before it comes back for season 2. Do it!)
There's a tendency for women in film to be portrayed as one of two things: Either they're the lead, and have motivations and drives of their own (à la Wonder Woman), or they're in service to the male character. What's rare is to have a film with an obvious male protagonist who shares his screen time with women who feel whole unto themselves. (Black Panther is a great positive example of this.)
What makes this particular situation all the more disappointing is that there are fascinating kernels within each of these characters. But it's not enough that they exist, or that they have speaking parts. They need to live and breathe for their own sake.
This isn't to say that Solo isn't good. It's a caper, more in line with the light-hearted, adventure-filled moments of the original trilogy than, say, Rogue One. And for a prequel that no one really asked for, and threatened to be lost to utter chaos before it was ever released in cinemas, it hits the mark. Watching Ehrenreich totally surrender to some of Han's dorkiest tendencies while filling in the gaps on some of his most famous anecdotes (The Kessel Run! Chewbacca! That game of Sabaac!) is so enjoyable as to almost make one forget that all the women involved in those stories are just that — a footnote.