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Character Study: Did ‘Solo’ Do Right by Lando Calrissian?

Donald Glover portrays one of the most well-known but mysterious figures in the ‘Star Wars’ universe. But Ron Howard’s new movie gives us a little more than we needed.

Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration

In The Empire Strikes Back — which premiered in May 1980 — Lando Calrissian introduces himself by upstaging his fellow smuggler Han Solo, punking his old friend with a ready fist and then flirting with Han’s future ex-wife, the Princess Leia Organa. In Solo: A Star Wars Story, released on Friday, the rivalrous upstaging continues — on screen and in the press. Alden Ehrenreich stars as Han Solo, but Donald Glover has starred all throughout the publicity campaign, with so many stills lingering on his character, the space captain Lando Calrissian. Thus, Solo is a singular character backstory that has somehow made room for two Star Wars characters from the original trilogy: the titular Han and the dashing Lando. Given Donald Glover’s rising star, which now outshines the rest of the cast, Lando seems to have overtaken Han in the intrigue markets. The film’s co-writer, Jonathan Kasdan, has stoked interest in Lando’s sexual identity, and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has, at turns, indulged and discouraged reports of a Lando origins movie in the works. With the release of Solo, Lando’s stock is at an all-time high, exceeding even that of Han.

Glover’s star turn notwithstanding, so much of the excitement surrounding Lando owes to Billy Dee Williams’s original take on Calrissian, the mayor of Cloud City, and, yes, the first black man in Star Wars. In Empire, Lando was a new, enigmatic figure; a friendly face and a helpful hand who reveals himself to be a compromised agent, working with Darth Vader to capture Luke Skywalker. A peaceful player in a cruel galaxy, Lando proves to be as pragmatic and treacherous as galactic tyranny requires. He’s achieved a much loftier station than Han, and he trumps him in so many respects. Han Solo is a gorgeous gunslinger with an edge, and yet Lando Calrissian is prettier, darker, and far more mysterious. Indeed, his backstory begs for elaboration, though the following Star Wars episode, Return of the Jedi, oversimplifies him: Lando plays a bit part in Luke’s plot to rescue Han from Jabba’s palace, and then he leads the Rebel Alliance’s victorious bombing run against the second Death Star. By the end of the original Star Wars trilogy, Lando is the main cast’s one unresolved enigma.

In Solo, Donald Glover plays the younger, hungrier Lando, a shady captain whom Han first encounters at a crowded sabacc table. Lando’s debut scene is a hasty mash-up of all his topline qualities — gambling, womanizing, underworld intrigue, and that smirk. In general, Solo exploits character tropes and series nostalgia to a fault. As Han, Ehrenreich channels Solo through a series of quips, smirks, and physical postures, all studious callbacks to Harrison Ford’s screen presence in the original trilogy. Likewise, Glover isn’t playing a character that belongs to him so much as he’s impersonating a character who clearly belongs to someone else: Glover triples down on every trope that Lando’s few Empire scenes even vaguely suggest, like the smuggler’s love of gambling, menswear, and sex. In Solo, Lando is young and vain. His unrelenting frivolity is the one youthful touch that distinguishes the Lando of Solo from the Lando of Empire, the younger man a dandy with no substantial commitments or concerns. In Solo, Han is driven by so many great pangs of altruism that a Star Wars fan should begin to wonder whether Ron Howard has ever even seen A New Hope, which introduces Han Solo as a hungry fuckboy. But Lando is true, if also a bit crude. In Solo, Lando hasn’t a care in the galaxy.

Solo complicates Lando in seemingly unintentional ways. He accompanies a droid, L3-37, an expert navigator and also an agitator for droid civil rights. The movie posits some manner of intimacy between Lando and L3, the cantankerous droid worrying that her owner has grown too fond of her; that said, L3’s longing tone at one point suggests she indeed loves him. L3’s discussion of her and Lando’s romantic potential is a bit of a joke, but it also serves the movie’s broader ruminations on droid autonomy. It’s an odd political theme for Solo to introduce, considering that none of the (chronologically) subsequent Star Wars movies bear it out, not even in Lando’s microcosm, Cloud City. Seemingly, L3 makes no lasting impression on Lando or the later events in these movies. It is as if Solo — a $250 million Lucasfilm movie — is dutiful fanfiction, but not canon.

For all the interest in Lando that the Solo hype machine has stoked, the movie itself undermines his mythology to a degree that should serve as a warning about the other Star Wars character features — including that Lando solo movie — that Lucasfilm is reportedly developing. In Solo, Star Wars fans finally sees Lando losing the Millennium Falcon to Han in that fateful round of sabacc, but then they’re still left wondering who, exactly, this guy is, and what manner of livelihood, exactly, brought Lando to the table to begin with. Solo answers few crucial questions about Lando in particular, and yet the movie does manage to generally ruin Lando’s mystique. Previously, he was a mysterious double agent who led a dark and complicated life. Now, he’s just some horny loungewear enthusiast whose gambling habit is no more or less enigmatic than Drake’s interest in Fortnite. Han Solo was never really a mystery — he was a young, ambitious smuggler who fell into an armed resistance movement. Simple enough. Lando is an oversexed hypebeast who becomes a mayor and then a general. The less we know about the stranger — fateful turns in Lando’s backstory, perhaps — the better.