WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story, in theaters now.
Solo is the second Star Wars anthology film that pits a sometimes-reluctant, always ragtag-team of crooks and rebels against the Imperial war machine. But where 2016's Rogue One puts Jyn Erso and company in direct conflict with the Empire, to secure Death Star plans for the Rebel Alliance, Han Solo and friends are busy trying to outsmart the cartels that have sprung up in the Empire’s shadow. The ethical hinge of Solo’s third act, to serve only yourself or to oppose the Empire, is the same question Jyn faces in Rogue One. But Solo understands its protagonist and his place in the galaxy much better than did Rogue One, and it answers this question far more satisfyingly. With better heists and better commentary on the evils of war, Solo is the movie Rogue One wanted to be ... only fun.
What divides Solo and Rogue One is their endings -- one is a bittersweet adventure, the other is a tragedy -- and their effectiveness, but the plots of both are defined by a series of capers, each one more dramatically and ethically complicated than the last. The team is made and remade, characters are tested, plans are hatched, and everything comes together somehow for that final heist. Both rely on the chemistry of the group, the charm of the characters and our investment in their struggle, but only one pulls it off. Rogue One, in trying to shoehorn in more political factions, neglects its core characters. It skimps on building the team in favor of grand speeches from Rebel leaders, Imperial leaders, and other Rebel leaders, even giving otherwise sullen Jyn a moment on the dais. The effect is a lesser heist movie inside a lesser war epic, with one halfway-decent infiltration scene and a brief but explosive space battle. The movie is confused, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its lead.
In Solo: A Star Wars Story, we meet younger Han in the middle of a caper, double-crossing a Corellian crime lord to keep the prize for himself: enough refined hyperfuel, or coaxium, to get him and his girlfriend Qi’ra, off the planet for good. Director Ron Howard and the production team tell us all we need to know about Corellia with lingering shots of the planet’s vast shipyards reveal them to be dirty and crowded, huddled beneath the shadows of mammoth Imperial ships. When Han and Qi’ra try to escape through the spaceport, the building is a drab, fascist nightmare. Similarly, they want you to know Han through his actions and his presence. This first, quick-moving sequence tells us all about Han and what he can do: He’s a fast-talking, faster-driving survivor who’s too sentimental for his own good. It ends in Han’s first compromise with the Empire, as he signs up for the Naval Academy in hopes of becoming a pilot and returning to rescue Qi’ra.