I wrote this a year ago and never did anything with it, but real life got crazy this week and I didn't have time to do much else. So this is one of those "in case of emergency break glass" moments.
The Star Wars Hype Machine is on full blast and we're getting all sorts of dumb clickbait clinging to the franchise like remoras. (Still true a year later) Normally I'd ignore it, but the most recent one involves an interview with George Lucas on stuff and it mentions him defending the idea of making Han shoot Greedo first in the cantina, because in a post-Return of the Jedi world, Han and Leia were an item and Han's supposed to be a John Wayne figure and John Wayne always lets the bad guys shoot first (Can't find the article now).
Yes, that's a reason, but one that short-changes Han Solo's character.
Let's say its 1977 and station wagons ruled the Earth. I wasn't there, so I'm just assuming all of the 70s were the same color and texture as a tartan couch. Not important.
Star Wars is out and it features a Hero (Luke), his Mentor (Ben), and two comic relief sidekicks in possession of a plot device (Artoo and Threepio). They're hunted by the bad guys and need to get out of town in a hurry with no questions asked. They go to a shady bar and hire a shady rogue (Han) to get them off world.
We then learn that Han owes Jabba the Hutt a lot of money and feels like this job can clear his debts. He's then confronted by one of Jabba's lackeys who's come to collect the money. Han doesn't have it yet and tries to get Greedo to back off. Greedo doesn't, and Han shoots him dead before Greedo has a chance to do the same.
This tells us several things.
- Han is decisive and crafty. He outwits Greedo by keeping him talking while getting his own blaster ready.
- Self-preservation is Han's first priority. He murders Greedo to save his own skin. At this point he's an unknown factor in Luke's story, and he's desperate for money to pay off Jabba. Who's to say he won't turn on Luke and Ben at the first opportunity to save his own neck? (We know NOW that he doesn't, but that's with the benefit of hindsight.)
This creates added tension to their escape from Tatooine, because Luke and Ben are putting their trust into a selfish rogue and criminal. During the course of the movie, Han is continuously grumpy and uncooperative, with Luke continuously appealing to his better nature. Its telling that he only agrees to help Luke rescue the Princess after Luke mentions that she's rich, not beautiful.
After escaping the Death Star, Han gets his money and as Luke prepares for what is basically a suicide mission, Han ducks out, citing his considerable debt and not wanting to risk his neck for some dumb idealists.
At this point, Han is out of the picture. He fulfilled his contract and got what he wanted. He could've paid off his debt and gone on his way and the ending of the movie could've been tweaked to make it work.
Instead, Han returns at a critical point to give Luke a chance to save the day. Luke's (and Chewie's) constant pestering finally had an effect on Han's conscience, and he finally did something selfless.
By the Empire Strikes Back, Han has been upgraded to a main character. He still complains about the bounty on his head and the need to get money, but at least this time he's sticking around the Rebels and even risks his neck for Luke in a blizzard. He's also developing feelings for the Princess, but he's still a rogue. He still doesn't have much attachment to the Rebellion outside of his personal loyalty to Luke and Leia (and Chewie guilting him into staying). From the start of the movie he's making preparations to leave, but its more non-committal and he keeps finding reasons to stick around this time.
That personal level of loyalty shows itself in the stoicism with which he accepts his Carbonite fate. He can go to his possible death knowing that his friends at least won't face the same fate.
That loyalty is rewarded in Return of the Jedi, when he's rescued by those same friends and made a General in the Rebellion. By now he's been tortured, frozen in a block of Carbonite, and handed over to a ruthless crimelord by the same guy. He's been screwed hard by the Empire, and has a very personal stake in fighting it. He even hands the keys of the Millennium Falcon over to the same guy who handed him over to the Empire in the first place, something unthinkable for the selfish jerk from the first movie. By this point, he's a full-fledged hero, using his marksmanship and cunning for the noble cause of overthrowing tyranny instead of just getting paid and completes a redemption arc that you didn't even know existed the first time you saw Han in the Cantina.
This is called character development and is the reason why Han shooting first is a good thing.