How Han Solo became the most popular 'Star Wars' character — and why that might be changing

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in <em>The Empire Strikes Back.</em> (Photo: 20th Century Fox c/o Everett Collection)
Harrison Ford as Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. (Photo: 20th Century Fox c/o Everett Collection)

When Disney announced in 2013 that new origin films about classic Star Wars characters were in development, fans quickly guessed that Han Solo was at the top of the list. The cocky outlaw turned passionate Rebellion leader, the man who seduced Princess Leia by telling her “there aren’t enough scoundrels in your life,” the skeptical loner hopelessly devoted to a Wookiee: Han was the most universally beloved character in the Star Wars universe. But it wasn’t always that way. Here’s how Harrison Ford’s space cowboy turned from supporting character to cultural sensation — and why his popularity, ironically, may be waning just as Solo: A Star Wars Story is finally in theaters.

One thing’s for sure: From the very beginning, Han was the cool one. The character was conceived by Star Wars creator George Lucas as a combination of James Dean and John Wayne, with a spaceship in place of a horse or classic coupe. And Ford, although still a relative unknown, approached the role with a hefty dose of the swagger he had road-tested in Lucas’s previous film, American Graffiti.

“Of all the humans in the show, Harrison Ford comes closest to stealing it,” Ford’s co-star Mark Hamill told People in a 1977 article about the Star Wars phenomenon. “When I heard him say, ‘Keed, I been from one sida this galaxy to the other,’ I said, ‘Oh, jeez, this guy’s got every good line.”

Hamill was right (even though Ford doesn’t talk like a bandit from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). However, in most other respects, Han Solo took a back seat to hero Luke Skywalker. Luke inspired more Kenner Star Wars action figures (seven) than any other character. (Han and Leia had five each.) Until Return of the Jedi’s big reveal, Luke was widely speculated to be the guy who would win Leia’s heart. Former soap-opera actor Hamill became an instant teen heartthrob, and not incidentally, he was paid substantially more than Ford for the first film.

Harrison Ford in <em>Star Wars</em>. The original 1977 print caption for this photo says, “In a scene from George Lucas’s epic space opera <em>Star Wars</em>, the American actor Harrison Ford as rebel smuggler Han Solo draws a gun against enemies; behind him can be seen a fantastic space shuttle.” (Photo: Everett Collection/Mondadori Portfolio)
Harrison Ford in Star Wars. The original 1977 print caption for this photo says, “In a scene from George Lucas’s epic space opera Star Wars, the American actor Harrison Ford as rebel smuggler Han Solo draws a gun against enemies; behind him can be seen a fantastic space shuttle.” (Photo: Everett Collection/Mondadori Portfolio)

Though Leia was in a different category, being the only major female character in Star Wars, Carrie Fisher also experienced a massive surge of fame. The daughter of a celebrity marriage, the beautiful and quick-witted Fisher was a natural at doing press, spoofing herself on Saturday Night Live and delivering flawless TV interviews (occasionally in French).

Meanwhile, Ford had a surprisingly slow crawl to stardom. A decade older than co-stars Hamill and Fisher, who called him “Dad” on the press tour, Ford didn’t click in the same way with the films’ core audience of young adults and children. And his 10 years of pre-Star Wars film and TV roles had done nothing to raise his profile. As late as June 1977, a month into Star Wars’ theatrical run, Ford told an interviewer that he had never been recognized by a fan in public.

Even after he made his debut as Indiana Jones in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (two years before concluding his run as Han Solo in Return of the Jedi), Ford wasn’t the powerhouse star he appears to be in retrospect. A 1981 article in People declared Ford an “interchangeable” action star, who “cannot be hailed as a new Bogie or Duke, or even the next Newman or Eastwood.” No one, the article states, refers to Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark as “Harrison Ford films” — less a knock on Ford than an observation on the changing nature of stardom in the blockbuster era, but still, the man who played Han is the article’s prime example.

Perhaps most telling of all is what Mel Brooks did with the character of Han Solo in his 1987 Star Wars spoof Spaceballs: He combined the character with Luke Skywalker, having Bill Pullman play a lightsaber-wielding space pilot named Lone Starr. From an audience standpoint, Star Wars’ two leading men were on equal footing: two sides of the same coin. As Fisher declared in a 1980 interview, Luke and Han combined would be “the perfect mesh of a guy.”

So when, and how, did Han sail past Luke to become the most popular Star Wars character? The shift seems to have happened between the late 1990s and early 2000s, thanks to a confluence of factors. For one thing, Ford’s action-hero stardom, and sex appeal, proved surprisingly enduring. On top of the Indiana Jones films (each of which made more money than the last), Ford starred in some of the biggest movies of the 1990s: The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, and Air Force One. In 1998, Ford was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive: the oldest celebrity ever to be given the title. In retrospect, then, his breakout role in Star Wars seemed less like a wisecracking sidekick and more like the awakening of a leading man.

While Ford was busy mastering the art of aging, Star Wars fans were also growing up. Luke Skywalker had brought childlike wonder and a dose of post-hippie mysticism to audiences in 1977; 20 years later, fans who attended the 1997 theatrical rerelease of Star Wars no doubt related more to the skeptical Han Solo, his idealism tempered by too many run-ins with the Empire. Han was also the character who everyone left the theater talking about, thanks to both the inclusion of a deleted Han scene (featuring an abysmally animated Jabba the Hutt) and a tweak to the Cantina shootout that made Han fire his weapon in self-defense. The “Han shot first” backlash galvanized fans around Han Solo’s rough edges: Like Leia, they wanted the scoundrel, not the naïve boy from Tatooine.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in a promotional shot for <em>Return of the Jedi.</em> (Photo: Mary Evans/Lucasfilm/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in a promotional shot for Return of the Jedi. (Photo: Mary Evans/Lucasfilm/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

And then, of course, the world changed. In the years following Sept. 11, Hollywood‘s fantasy heroes began to reflect a more violent and uncertain world. Batman, reincarnated as the emotionally tortured Dark Knight in 2005’s Batman Begins, became more popular than the eternally optimistic Superman for the first time in the characters’ history. Iron Man, a cynical wise guy with a heart of gold (sound familiar?), became the hero who launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. Even Star Wars went dark, concluding the prequel trilogy in 2005 with Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil in Revenge of the Sith. Mainstream sci-fi embraced dystopia with films like War of the Worlds and I Am Legend. Heroes’ journeys looked different now; the leading men in genre films needed to be more Han Solo than Luke Skywalker to make it out alive.

In 2003, the American Film Institute announced the results of its “100 Greatest Heroes & Villains” poll. Han Solo came in at No. 14 in the “heroes” ranking. Neither Luke nor Leia (both among the 400 nominated characters) got enough votes to crack the top 100.

That trend continued, as did the media’s obsession with pop-culture rankings. Whatever the list, Han was inevitably near the top and almost always ahead of Luke. In 2009, Han came in No. 2 behind Darth Vader on IGN’s “favorite Star Wars character” poll. (Luke was No. 7.) MTV’s “ultimate Star Wars poll” in 2011 also had Han in second place, this time behind Obi-Wan Kenobi and ahead of Darth Vader. (Luke was No. 6.) When Han returned to the big screen in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he placed No. 3 in Empire magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters feature, ranked by reader votes. (Luke was No. 50.)

Harrison Ford as Han Solo, with Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca, in <em>The Force Awakens.</em> (Photo: Walt Disney/Lucasfilm Ltd c/o Everett Collection)
Harrison Ford as Han Solo, with Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca, in The Force Awakens. (Photo: Walt Disney/Lucasfilm Ltd c/o Everett Collection)

It’s possible that Han Solo’s popularity actually peaked around the time of his comeback in The Force Awakens. Disney’s movie posters featured 73-year-old Ford with nearly the same prominence as the new, younger stars. And when it came to the trailers, it was Han, once again, who had all the good lines (from “Chewie, we’re home” to “It’s true, all of it.”).

For obvious reasons, Han was also the main topic of conversation as Force Awakens audiences exited the theater. At least, he was at first. Between The Force Awakens and Solo, a funny thing happened: Fans became less fixated on Han and more interested in the other characters. Perhaps it was simply the fact that Han’s story was over, tragic though his ending may have been. Or maybe audiences were looking for a new brand of hero. After all, Lucas intended Han to encapsulate a certain kind of 20th century masculinity — one that doesn’t exactly provoke the same kind of nostalgia among Millennials.

That’s not to say that the character is unpopular. Solo will pull in a big audience; it just would have attracted a much bigger one five or 10 years ago. Fan anticipation of the prequel amounts to a tiny fraction of the buzz that greeted Ford in The Force Awakens. That probably has a lot to do with Ford being gone — but it also has to do with audiences moving on.

In advance of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017, a few different outlets polled fans about their favorite characters. Han ranked high in all of these, but it was the rankings of the other characters that were more telling. A Total Film poll asking readers for their “favorite movie character of all time” had a strong showing of Star Wars characters, with Han at No. 3, Leia close behind at No. 10, Luke at No. 47, and even Rey making the top 100 at No. 87. A different poll from Ranker Insights, asking for fans’ favorite Star Wars characters, placed Han Solo at No. 3, but this time behind Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Luke and Leia at No. 7 and No. 8, respectively. Most interesting of all is a Morning Consult poll that asked fans for Star Wars character rankings. This time, Leia was No. 1, followed by Luke at No. 2, with Han trailing at No. 6. Surely, Leia experienced a surge of popularity in the wake of Carrie Fisher’s death, and Luke gained renewed fan attention with his Last Jedi storyline. But in that last poll, original trilogy characters appeared side by side on the list with characters from the prequel trilogy (Anakin, Padmé ) and the Skywalker trilogy (Finn, Rey, BB-8) and Rogue One (Jyn Erso). To fans growing up with so many films, the Star Wars universe looks much bigger, and Han isn’t necessarily at the center.

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo, with Chewbacca, in <em>Solo: A Star Wars Story.</em> (Photo: Disney)
Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo, with Chewbacca, in Solo: A Star Wars Story. (Photo: Disney)

Based on the early box-office figures, it doesn’t seem like the Alden Ehrenreich-led Solo film has reignited fan interest in Han. The film dramatically unperformed over the holiday weekend, with $103 million for the four-day period in North America — about $50 million lower than original projections and the smallest opening for a Star Wars film since Disney relaunched the franchise.

Regardless, there’s a generation of original Star Wars fans who will always see Harrison Ford’s version as the epitome of cool. As director Peter Jackson once told Star Wars Insider, “Han Solo is the character that we always wished we could be. I think most of us felt like Luke Skywalker, but we would have loved to have been Han Solo.”

Solo: A Star Wars Story is in theaters.

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