Mighty Fists of Ham
Look, I enjoyed Solo. I did. But, well, I didn’t enjoy Solo enough. That movie was a slam-dunk waiting to
happen. It was a gimmie, a freebie – a “no way you can screw this up” sandwich. And yet, somehow…
This phenomenon is not constrained to Solo, either. For long ages it was the province of just about every single superhero movie. It plagued enormous swathes of scifi and fantasy cinema. It even happens in books, in video games – in everything. Somebody brings up a high-concept idea featuring characters we already love, slaps a huge budget on it, and releases it. And then you go to the theater, all excited, and…
Meh. It was okay.
That’s a weird feeling, right? Like, I really wanted to love Solo in the same way I wanted to love the original Hulk movie (Eric Bana! ANG LEE!) and was really excited to see Will Smith in The Wild Wild West and Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and then I saw these things and it just didn’t happen. The more I thought about the movies, the more I got pissed off. They had everything going for them! Why don’t I love them?
Now, of course, there’s no magic bullet here – each of these films wasn’t that great on its own merits. Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was actively terrible. Some other movies fall into this category that I actually liked quite a bit – JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot comes to mind – but, despite my enjoyment, I recognize as deeply flawed works that fall short of their potential. In any event, I do think there’s a common thread to a lot of them that’s worth teasing out and discussing: most of them are ham-fisted.
Ham-fisted is a slightly more intense version of “ham-handed” and it basically means the films lack subtlety, grace, or wit. They are dull, meat-headed slogs that fail to understand what it is they’re doing. They are, in a word, stupid movies made about a smart premise. See, stupid movies made about a stupid idea are a whole other category of thing – they are B-movie thrillers and brainless entertainment. Smart movies made about stupid ideas are your cult classics and secret masterpieces. But stupid movies made about smart ideas are ham-fisted. And there’s a hell of a lot of them out there, with Solo as the most recent example.
To discuss Solo specifically, here’s what I feel like happened (outside of the directorial hell the movie went through, which is very likely why it wound up doing this). In order for this movie to be a glorious romp all you needed to do was have Han meet Chewie, put them in the Falcon, and have them run their first smuggling run. That’s. It. It isn’t complicated, it isn’t flashy – we want to see Han, we want to see Chewie, and we also want the Falcon and Lando. Then we want a heist story.
And…we kinda got that? Sort of. But the movie overreacted. Not only did we meet Chewie and Lando and get the Falcon, we had to have Han get his last name and his blaster and the Falcon to get its nav-computer and have another asteroid chase scene (with the same damned music!) and see the Kessel Run and have a robot uprising and talk about the Rebellion and have Han Shoot First and see stupid Darth Maul. And it was all graceless and blunt and so obviously forced. And all of this was done because the filmmakers really wanted to give us the entire “Solo” experience which they interpreted as meaning “giving the fans what they want.” They seem to have had a storyboard somewhere that had a checklist of winks/nods to the audience and you literally couldn’t go five minutes in that movie without somebody cramming another reference down your throat.
Darth Maul’s cameo is a great example of this. “Hey,” says the filmmakers, “you know what these nerds like? Darth Maul!” “But he’s dead,” says a guy and then some other, nerdier guy in a sarcastic T-shirt explains a subplot from Star Wars Rebels and everybody’s like “Oh, so it’s canon!” and bam – Facetime with Darth Maul. And then, while we’re all looking at Darth Maul thinking to ourselves “is that really him or some other guy of the same species” he ignites his lightsaber (so we know he’s serious) and we all kind of blink and wonder “did he just ignite his lightsaber while on a phone call?” That, friends, is the epitome of ham-fisted storytelling. Just cramming shit in there that they think we’d like, but lacking any grace or rationale.
And there’s one thing that the ham-fisted story forgets every single time. They always assume that characters are a summation of their clothes and their stuff and their fight scenes and forgets entirely that what really makes a story work is the deep character foundations you lay down that you can build conflict on top of. To that end, the Solo and Kira relationship worked. The Chewie and Han worked, too, if somewhat less well (they don’t really have a good moment together). But you know what was squandered? The Han/Lando relationship doesn’t go anywhere. Nor does the Han/Beckett relationship. Nor does really any other relationship. We are too busy with the heist and picking out the signposts that tell us it’s a Solo movie to notice that we’re actually watching a Solo movie. We have missed the forest for the trees.
All of that doesn’t mean Solo was a bad time. But it does mean Solo could have been a much better time. And I wouldn’t even say this is a result of people not caring what they produced – I think they gave it an honest shot. But they didn’t do it with grace or subtlety. I know, I know – a bunch of you out there just yelled “but Han lacks grace and subtlety!” I don’t mean that – I’m not talking about the exact plot, just about how that plot was conveyed. Look we all know Inigo Montoya is going to fight the six-fingered man. We know it. But what does the Princess Bride do the moment they face on another? He runs away! Why? Because it is totally in keeping with his character and, no matter how much the audience wants a duel, the filmmakers knew that the audience is not always right. If you give the people what they want, when they want it, all the time, the people become bored. Very very bored.
We all know Han is going to get the Falcon. We all know he’s going to win at cards. We all know they need the Falcon to complete their mission. So when Han loses at cards, we are surprised, yeah, but we also know that nothing has been settled because that’s not how it happens anyway and because the movie is mismanaging the Han/Lando relationship, nothing comes of it, and Han winds up flying the ship everywhere anyway and so, in the end, that whole card scene was a waste of time. No build. No dramatic tension. All we get is why Lando pronounces Han’s name wrong. Ham-fisted.
And it could have been so much better.