With one of the most corrupt, autocratic and cruel administrations in memory ensconced in Washington, and with the chances of dislodging it in 2020 hardly a sure thing, you’d think Hollywood would be celebrating the virtues of defiance and rebellion. “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” released Friday for the Memorial Day weekend, seems particularly suited to championing a heroic resistance. Set early in the life of pilot Han Solo, at a time when the evil Empire ruled the galaxy, viewers could reasonably expect the film to depict a battle against authoritarianism and state violence.
But that’s not what the movie’s about really. Instead, “Solo,” like most recent Hollywood tent-pole films, is nervous about revolution. Conservatives claim that Hollywood is hopelessly liberal, constantly pushing feminism and LGBTQ rights and other subversive agendas. But when it comes to portraying actual subversives, Hollywood isn’t enthusiastic. On the contrary, big-budget action films often go out of their way to show that radicals are corrupt, misguided or ridiculous, and to insist that the status quo, whatever its faults, is the thing worth fighting for.
Part of Hollywood’s current antipathy toward revolution is tied to the ascendance of the superhero genre. Superheroes are crime fighters, who use their amazing powers to preserve rather than upend social order. Sure enough, the last two major Marvel Cinematic Universe films are built around villainous revolutionaries.
Thanos, in “Avengers: Infinity War” is a radical, giant, grape-colored cosmic environmentalist. He’s worried that overpopulation will lead to resource depletion and catastrophe. Of course, Malthusian paranoia doesn’t make a lot of sense on a galaxy-wide scale. There are admittedly a lot of characters in “Infinity War,” but even the crowded Marvel universe doesn’t seem nearly crowded enough to pollute the vast spaces between the stars.
Gigantic corporate fantasies can be entertaining and even on occasion thoughtful, but they rarely advocate for the overthrow of a system that benefits them.
Thanos’ environmental concerns are nonsense, and his solution — killing half the people in the universe — is simply genocide. The film has some sympathy for his trauma and his passion. But, ultimately, he’s a caricature of an activist, propounding monstrous solutions for problems that don’t exist. If climate-change deniers wanted to come up with the most unflattering possible portrait of environmentalists, they might draw something like Thanos (though possibly with less purple).
“Black Panther’s” villainous radical makes a better case for himself. Killmonger, who tries to seize the Wakanda throne from T’Challa, believes the resources of the hidden African nation should be used to overthrow white supremacy worldwide. The film agrees with Killmonger that racism and imperialism are a scourge, but it takes care to present him as ruthless and misguided, most egregiously when he coldly murders his girlfriend. Revolutionaries may identify real problems in comic book films, but they aren’t to be trusted to remedy them. Better to leave that to the forces of order, which in this case means the Black Panther, a hereditary monarch.
“Solo” isn’t a superhero film and it takes a somewhat different approach. The villain isn’t a revolutionary, but a crime boss. As that suggests, the movie isn’t centered on fighting against the Empire. It’s a heist film, and while it has sympathy for rebels, the plot is mostly focused on stealing and smuggling, not on revolution.
There is one major exception. The droid L3 is consciously trying to get her fellow robots to cast off their restraining bolts and make a bid for freedom. But L3 is treated as a joke; one scene mocks her for having romantic feelings for her captain, Lando Calrissian. Similarly, her robot rebellion isn’t central to the plot, but a diversion distracting the authorities from the heist — much as a slave rebellion serves as a light-hearted diversion in last summer’s “Thor: Ragnarok.” L3 is eventually killed and turned into part of Han’s ship, the Millenium Falcon. She is stripped of consciousness and her voice, but has to continue to work for her owners — a particularly grim fate for a character defined by her dreams of autonomy.
Hollywood sometimes cheers for rebels. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was about a suicide mission to bring down the quasi-fascist Empire. Captain America was pitted against the government in “Captain America: Civil War.” The protagonists in “Rogue One,” though, are fighting to restore an earlier order on behalf of a princess and a cabal of mystical warriors. Captain America is fighting to allow an American super team to operate outside the purview of global accountability. Neither is really making the kind of social critique that Killmonger, Thanos and L3 arguably are. Resisters can be protagonists as long as they aren’t radicals.
None of this is surprising. Big-budget tent-pole movies are multimillion-dollar undertakings, financed by wealthy, successful, comfortable people. Killmonger and L3 are seeking a sweeping redistribution of resources and power. That’s not a message big-time movie producers are likely to find appealing. Gigantic corporate fantasies can be entertaining and even on occasion thoughtful, but they rarely advocate for the overthrow of a system that benefits gigantic corporations. To paraphrase musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution will not be Hollywoodized.
Noah Berlatsky is the author, most recently, of “The Consequences of Feminism: Women Film Directors.”