What Han Solo tells us about American heroes

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on May 27, 2018. It can also be found online here.

Han Solo is an American hero. Across Colorado, the country and the world, millions will flock this Memorial Day weekend to see “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and the young Alden Ehrenreich take on the character Harrison Ford made into a legend over the past four decades. Each ticket sold cements the reckless-rogue-turned-reluctant-rebel’s status as the quintessential (accidental) American hero.

But this film matters more than just giving rabid fans Han Solo’s backstory – this character provides an important insight into how Americans think about heroes and heroism. He’s near the top of the American Film Institute’s top heroes list – but why? And why does he matter so much?

In the beginning – 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope – Han was a selfish smuggler. He’d do about anything for money, from moving rebels to murdering other rogues.

Sitting in a bar full of scummy villains, Han and his furry sidekick, Chewbacca, would transport anyone, anywhere, for a price. Jedi or not, Rebellion or not, it was all cargo, and cargo meant money. That’s where we also see Han cornered by Greedo, a bounty hunter who wanted to snatch and turn Han in to a local gangster for a payday. Instead of allowing his own capture, or to pay his debts, Han shot Greedo in cold blood.

But then Han evolved, shed his greed, and went on to care for others, learn to sacrifice, and to act in a truly heroic fashion.

A hero’s journey overcomes the “dark passions” and “irrational savage” inside ourselves, says the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Heroes serve “something bigger than oneself” and sometimes, a hero even “performs a courageous act in battle or saves a life.”

During that first film, we saw Han transform from a self-interested smuggler into a selfless servant to the Rebellion. He gave up his smuggling fee. And in Solo’s most famous moment, during A New Hope’s climax, he swooped in with his ship to clear the path that enabled Luke to destroy the evil, planet-killing Death Star. These Han did, not for money, not for fame – but for his friends. And a cause.

Even if Han Solo is a hero, why do Americans love him so much more than Obi Wan Kenobi? The American Film Institute top heroes list places the old Jedi Kenobi in 37th, far behind Solo (at 14th). Doesn’t an elegant lightsaber beat an old blaster any day? Didn’t Kenobi sacrifice his life to enable Luke Skywalker and company to escape – while Solo merely refunded some money and showed up at the right time?

Yet, we expect such sacrifice from Obi Wan. He’s a Jedi. He’s dedicated, by profession. That’s not to say we dismiss his efforts. But Obi Wan’s heroism is not as striking and not as relatable to us as Han’s transformation. Obi Wan may be a hero, but he’s not as heroic as Han.

Han is imperfect, makes mistakes, doesn’t possess muscles or superpowers, and occasionally just flat out runs away instead of standing and fighting. He’s the hero-that-didn’t-know-it-yet, and it’s an on-screen redemption story that shows us a hero might be inside all of us.

We need more characters like Han Solo, a hero whose journey, during film promotion, Harrison Ford once called a “real American story” with a “mythological quality.” Such myths can teach real lessons about life.

Han’s is a not-always-pretty story about the one that chose to serve the many. As Americans, the people that stamp E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) on our money, that message matters, particularly in divided times.

Solo shows us we can be better. We can grow beyond our selfish impulses. We can care about others more than ourselves. We can give more than we think possible.

Joseph Campbell once said it was “too bad” that we spend so much more time on our celebrities and not enough on our heroes. He was right. We need less Kanye and more King. Less Lauer and more Lincoln. Less Miley and more Malala.

And more of Han Solo. The selfish smuggler. The selfless space-pirate. The American hero.

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