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Han Solo and why we love flawed, selfish, and cynical heroes


Lucasfilm Ltd. | Fair Use

Paul Asay - published on 05/19/18

The rogue Stars Wars pilot now has his very own prequel, but he's not the only flawed movie hero we love to love.

When Han Solo introduced himself to America, he sat in the shadows in Mos Eisley’s seediest bar. In a place that Obi Wan Kenobi called a “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” the pilot (played by Harrison Ford) looked right at home. He’s a smuggler and cynic, a guy whose definition of idealism ends with the letter “I”. And when a bounty hunter sidles up to the guy pointing a gun and demanding cash for his client, we all know exactly who shoots first.

But for all of his talk and swagger, we knew — like Princess Leia did — that there was more to him than money. Underneath all the wisecracks and sneers lurked a real hero with a heart of gold.

Now Han Solo is back with a new skin (actor Alden Ehrenreich), a new story, and a shiny new movie — Solo: A Star Wars Story, to be released May 25. But the swagger’s still there: The coolest cat in the Star Wars universe is back for his prequel, bringing with him all the charisma and complexity that made him Empire Magazine’s third-greatest movie character.

Why is Han Solo so popular? I think he taps into a certain spiritual undercurrent that represents us all. We’re fallen people, selfish and cynical, and only halfway aware of our own flaws. But we long to be better. We yearn to find a higher calling, a purpose in life that goes beyond ourselves.

Solo is hardly alone in his scruffy appeal, and he’s in no way the first. America’s love affair with flawed heroes and loveable rogues goes way back. Take a look at some seminal characters from American cinema that we love to love … in spite of their flaws.

Rick Blaine, Casablanca (1942)

Warner Brothers | Fair Use

Nazis. Everyone hates those guys. But hey, they have to drink beer like everyone else, and who serves it to them in Casablanca? Why, Rick does, at his eponymous club. The grizzled American (Humphrey Bogart) had his idealism kicked to the curb a long time ago … until his old flame, Ilsa, walks into his club and back into his life. It’s not long before Rick feels an unexpected surge of goodness in his cynical old heart — first leading patrons in a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” and eventually helping Ilsa and her new beau, Victor Lazlo, escape the closing Nazi net.

“I’m no good at being noble,” Rick says, “but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

You can almost picture Han Solo drawling that line himself.

Jim Stark, Rebel Without a Cause (1955)


Star Wars creator George Lucas originally wanted Solo to be a green alien with gills, but he eventually settled on the character being a “tough James Dean style starpilot.” Indeed, Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause was the template for many a troubled, tough-talking hero — though Jim’s story doesn’t lend itself to a lot of wisecracking. Jim gets into plenty of trouble, from getting arrested for drunkenness to his involvement in a deadly car race to the tragic finale. Throughout the spiraling story, you see Jim pulled between trying to do what’s right and a curious sense of fatalism. Eventually he chooses the former, much to both his, and our, relief.

Rooster Cogburn, True Grit (1969)

MovieClips | YouTube

When young Mattie Ross hires Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to track down his father’s killer, Rooster’s seen better days. He may have had “true grit,” as Mattie says, a couple of decades ago, but now he’s old, fat, mostly drunk, and would have little interest in helping a little girl get revenge if it wasn’t for all the money she waved in front of his nose. (And even then, he tries to lose her at one point.) But when Mattie’s captured by the killer’s new gang led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper, Rooster and a young Texas Ranger named La Boeuf pull out all the stops to rescue her — Rooster single-handedly taking on four members of Pepper’s gang (including Pepper himself) with his guns a-blazing and the reins clenched in his mouth. Not too bad for a fat, old man.

Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Lucasfilm Ltd. | Fair Use

Sure, Indiana (Harrison Ford) selflessly wants all the artifacts he recovers to find their way to a museum. But it’s pretty clear in his first movie that the archaeologist is no saint. Marion is none too thrilled to see Indie when he shows up in her own Nepalese gin joint. He drinks more than is good for him, and he seems rather skeptical about the powers of a certain ancient Jewish artifact. “You and I are very much alike,” his rival, Belloq, tells him. “Archaeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend.” Belloq may have a point… but then again, only Belloq chooses to work with the Nazis.

Peter Quill, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Marvel Studios | Fair Use

Before Quill, alias Star-Lord (and played by Chris Pratt), challenged a galactic terrorist to a winner-take-all dance off, he was a space pirate, plain and simple. He stole things for himself and his not-so-merry band of Ravagers, and the only thing he was guardian of was his own semi-pathetic life. But when he falls in with, as he says, “two thugs, an assassin and a maniac” and comes into temporary possession of an Infinity Stone — one pursued by afore-mentioned galactic terrorist — he realizes he has a galaxy to guard. “What did the galaxy ever do for you?” Rocket, one of his new compatriots, challenges him. “Why would you want to save it?” “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!” Quill says. He’s willing to risk his life for the galaxy and a whole bunch of other “idiots,” and he inspires his teammates to help him.


Han Solo clearly has a lot of company when it comes to rough-around-the-edges heroes. But you know what we say to these characters, despite their flaws? We love you.

And what do they say back to us? We know.

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