How Ron Howard Could Change the 'Star Wars' Han Solo Movie — for Better or Worse

What do audiences love about Han Solo? In his own words to Princess Leia: “You like me because I’m a scoundrel.” Harrison Ford’s fan-favorite character never set out to be a hero. From A New Hope straight through to The Force Awakens, he’s a smuggler, a hustler, and a wise-cracking pessimist. He’s loyal to his friends, but unlike other Star Wars movie protagonists, he’s not Jedi material. And that’s why Phil Lord and Christopher Miller seemed like the perfect directors for a Han Solo standalone film: like the character, they don’t fit the traditional mold. Today, Lucasfilm announced Ron Howard as the new director of the Han Solo film, after Lord and Miller were abruptly fired mid-production. Lucasfilm boss and Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy wouldn’t make so drastic a decision unless she believed it was necessary to save the picture, and she has proven herself an excellent judge of these things. (Witness the massive success of Rogue One, even though all the omens seemed to spell disaster.) But it’s hard not to wonder what will be lost in the transition from Lord and Miller to Howard.

To be sure, Howard is one of the most respected directors and producers in Hollywood. Having spent his formative years in front of the camera, he’s known to be wonderful with actors; he’s an Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind (which took home both Best Director and Best Picture in 2002); and his four decades of work show proficiency across genres. He’s done sci-fi (Cocoon), action (Rush), and comedy (Splash), and helmed expensive blockbusters with plenty of moving parts (The Da Vinci Code). He also has a longstanding relationship with Star Wars creator George Lucas, having starred in Lucas’s American Graffiti and directed his script for Willow. For all of these reasons, it makes sense that Lucasfilm would knock on Howard’s door.

More than anything else, though, Howard seems like a reliable choice. In comparison, Lord and Miller were exciting. The duo rose to fame with the off-kilter animated hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which they followed with the balls-to-the-wall satire 21 Jump Street and the even bigger animated hit The Lego Movie. In each case, they took well-known but dubious source material and elevated it into a weird, wonderful confection. Their unique, self-aware humor turned The Lego Movie from Hollywood’s most blatant example of product placement into a grand, hilarious riff on capitalism and conformity. Cloudy transformed a relatively plotless, dated picture book into a contemporary fantasy that put Pixar on notice; Jump Street (and its sequel, which they also directed) turned the ’80s TV series into a wicked, irreverent twist on the buddy-cop genre.

It was exciting to contemplate what Lord and Miller would do with a property that didn’t make people say, “You’re making a movie of that?” Giving Han Solo his own prequel film seemed like a no-brainer for fans. But the execution of that film won’t come so easily. It can’t be a typical Star Wars movie because Han Solo isn’t a typical hero. And yet, he still has to be the Han that everyone loved from the original films sly and funny, deceptive and selfish, but secretly a big softie. How will Han’s cynical one-liners land with no Luke, Rey, or Leia to volley them back? And how will the film explain how Han became the man he is in A New Hope (of whom Leia says, “I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.”) without going down an unpleasantly dark path?

That’s the kind of tricky balancing act that Lord and Miller seemed uniquely equipped to handle. Their Han Solo film would most likely have been odd, rough around the edges, and very funny. That’s a major contrast to the slick, hitting-all-the-notes productions that Lucasfilm prides itself on. And it’s probably the reason that they were ultimately fired. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the tone of Lord and Miller’s work, with its improvisational bent, felt entirely wrong to Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. A source said that Lord and Miller failed to understand “that Han Solo is not a comedic personality. He’s sarcastic and selfish.” But as dark and ultimately tragic as the character can be, “funny” is how fans think of Han. And “improvisational” is the approach the character takes to his entire life.

Maybe Howard gets that. He’s a smart director who might be able to use Lord and Miller’s vision as a starting point for a more streamlined, crowd-pleasing film. But there’s also a missed opportunity here: a chance for the Star Wars movie universe to expand in an entirely unexpected direction. Lucasfilm has never produced a straight-up Star Wars comedy. Given the public’s apparently endless appetite for all things Sith and Jedi, pushing the spinoff films outside of their established comfort zone is a risk worth taking. The Star Wars galaxy has always seemed limitless — but now, a little less so.

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