Spoilers for all Star Wars movies throughout. This includes Solo.
A couple years ago, I was doing a roundtable interview with filmmaker Paul Rust, who had co-written Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, which had just premiered on Netflix. He was talking about the freedom from continuity for which the Pee Wee film series allowed. Big Holiday wasn’t connected to Big Top or Big Adventure in any way, so he could tell whatever story he wanted without being confined. He compared it to working on big franchise movies like Star Wars, which he referred to as less a story and more a “math problem.”
This was in the spring of 2016, a time when The Force Awakens was our only exposure to Disney’s resurrection of the franchise. Rogue One was still nine months away, and as a stand-alone movie with (mostly) all-new characters, it allowed for certain narrative liberties. But it also took place in a very specific window of time that was previously mapped out by 1977’s A New Hope, so no matter what happened, we all knew where it would end up. More or less.
Now with Solo: A Star Wars Story in theaters, the second stand-alone film in what’s to be an annual occurrence, it’s obviously got to follow the rules enough that it fits into its chosen point in the pre-existing timeline. Given it was about the young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), it would make more than a few references to remind viewers that we are, in fact, watching a Star Wars movie.
First, there’s the unexpected cameo from Darth Maul (Ray Park, voiced by Samuel Witwer) at the very end. In the brief amount of screentime Maul has, he fills it with enough exposition to give you the idea that he’s at the center of this intergalactic crime syndicate. With Han looking to set up his next score with a gangster on Tattooine, it puts in place a big bad for the mini-franchise everyone assumes Solo will spawn.
After all, we already know we’ll be getting a stand-alone Boba Fett movie, and Donald Glover has been open to the idea of returning to the role of Lando — possibly even penning the script. With Maul in place, there’s something to thread all these stories together, creating franchises within franchises like little Star Wars nesting dolls. Hell, it does all this and still allows Solo some sequels of its own.
There’s another moment near the end that almost does a disservice to Solo’s larger story, however. Early on, we meet a group of masked marauders referred to as Enfys Nest — though it turns out they’re really known as the Cloud-Riders and Enfys Nest is their leader, thanks Wookieepedia. Wearing a mix of Star Wars-style space helmets and tribal accouterments, they brought a unique, Mad Max aesthetic to the franchise’s ever-growing canon.
In the end, once Han manages to outwit both Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and his mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), he brings his big score back to the impoverished tribe at the refinery. After handing it over to Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), she tells him that this would help spark a great rebellion, even using language reminiscent of The Last Jedi’s rhetoric. Han politely takes a pass, but Enfys replies with an eye-rolling “maybe someday,” a blatant nod to Han’s first-ever character arc.
This is where these so-called stand-alone films really fall short. It’s not enough that they take place within the Star Wars universe, and they constantly remind us of that fact, but every installment has to clearly map out its path to the larger narratives. And that’s going to get fucking exhausting.
Part of the appeal to the idea that we’ll be getting a stand-alone Star Wars movie every 12 months is that there’s so much to explore beyond the characters — and conflicts — that we’re already familiar with. Despite its faults, Rogue One managed to be a small-scale story with far-reaching implications that wasn’t low-key trying to launch its own franchise. If anything, it helped bridge the worlds of the prequel and classic trilogies, thanks to an appearance by Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and a slightly more temperamental Darth Vader.
While the franchise will continue long after Star Wars wraps up the Skywalker Saga in 2019 with Episode IX, these stand-alone films are likely to continue suffering from these narrative pitfalls. Even if Rian Johnson or Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss get a trilogy set thousands of years from the classic trilogy’s timeline, there’s bound to be at least one moment that draws attention to itself simply to point out its own self-referential existence.
Obviously, no Star Wars film will exist in a vacuum, nor should it. But it wouldn’t hurt to explore other stories that could be told without needing to conspicuously connect themselves to the Skywalker saga. Otherwise, these stop being stories from our pop-culture mythology and start becoming an exercise in solving for narrative ‘X.’ Not stories, but math problems.