Han Solo, most people will tell you, is the perfect everyman hero. He’s handsome, but approachably so. He’s an ordinary human who holds his own among Force-wielders and giant space slugs. He’s charming, but only despite his gruffest intentions. And, of course, he’s relentlessly quotable. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid,” he shrugs. “Never tell me the odds!” he barks. But there’s a less capable, more insecure man lurking behind the myth, and he’s a far cry from the swaggy action hero this character has been made out to be in the years since A New Hope premiered. If you rewatch the original Star Wars movies, it’s a rude awakening: Han Solo is not a sex symbol. He’s a goober.
By “goober,” I mean he is anti-everything “sex symbol” entails: He is unsmooth, insecure, and seduces women essentially despite his best efforts. His goofy lopsided grin arrives like a cymbal clash to punctuate his jokes. Han makes countless questionable choices that endanger his friends and sometimes land him in serious trouble. Take his tendency toward ill-advised, impulsive moves like firing a blaster in a garbage chute. Sometimes these moves work out, and it’s tempting to call them gut decisions. But if Chewbacca, Luke, and Leia weren’t there to bail him out, Han would probably still be hanging frozen in Jabba’s palace. After he made the misguided decision to trust Lando Calrissian, despite Leia’s misgivings, things worked out in the end, of course—but not before Lando turned him and his friends over to the Empire. When it comes to decision-making, he’s no badass. He’s just pretty bad.
Even his legendarily tough attitude is mostly a product of ex post facto mythologizing. In reviews for the original film, descriptions of Han Solo focused on two things almost unanimously: piracy and money. By the time The Empire Strikes Back rolled out, Han had been cemented in the public imagination as a scrappy, seductive antihero. Particularly, his relationship with Leia is often treated as the prime evidence of his cocky charm: He got the girl. But Han’s famed powers of seduction are vastly overrated. Consider this excerpt from a 1980 Rolling Stone piece, which suggests that even Han Solo’s most famously lothario-esque moment was really just a Harrison Ford ad lib:
“I love you!” the forlorn Leia divulges desperately to her hero.
“I know,” Solo replies with a crowd-pleasing arrogance.
With a little coaxing, Ford admits that “to a certain degree,” Solo’s cachet is his own. “In the script,” he explains with a smirk, “it read, ‘I love you too!’ But that was too much on the nose. If you didn't have something else there at that point you would not get your full payoff in that scene. You know, there’s a sense of dread and mystery there, and there's no satisfying conclusion in ‘I love you too!’ I wanted the moment to have another complexion. Kershner agreed, and that’s the way we shot it.”
In A New Hope, Han spends most of his time bickering with and griping at Princess Leia. Aside from Han’s plentiful nicknames for Leia—which include “Princess,” “Your Worship,” “Your Worshipfulness,” and “Sister”—there isn’t much legible flirting in A New Hope. In fact, his attitude toward Leia is mostly straightforwardly hostile. After they escape the garbage chute Han pointedly hopes they can “avoid any more female advice.” Broaching the subject of why he is saving her, he says: “I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money!” In Empire Strikes Back, things change, of course; Han continues to annoy Leia, but now she is mysteriously smitten. He spends a lot of time badgering her to admit it.
In a frozen hallway, for instance:
LEIA: Han, we need you!
HAN: We need?
HAN: Well, what about you need?
LEIA: I need? I don't know what you're talking about.
HAN: You probably don't.
LEIA: And what precisely am I supposed to know?
HAN: Come on! You want me to stay because of the way you feel about me.
In Luke’s recovery room:
HAN: Well your Worship, looks like you managed to keep me around for a little while longer.
LEIA: I had nothing to do with it. General Rieekan thinks it's dangerous for any ships to leave the system until we've activated the energy shield.
HAN: That's a good story. I think you just can’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.
LEIA: I don't know where you get your delusions, laser brain.
When Leia finally relents and kisses him, it’s a true testament to Leia’s magical ability to look past Han’s overcompensation for his many insecurities. When Leia finally admits her feelings aloud and Han replies to her “I love you” with “I know,” it is less an expression of supreme confidence than of forgiveness for how long it took her to admit her feelings. “The point is, I’m not worried about myself anymore; I’m worried about her,” Ford has said about that scene. It’s actually one of his tenderest moments in the entire trilogy, not yet another instance of classic Han “coolness.”
Why has our cultural memory sanctified Han Solo as a model of effortless, macho sexiness? Perhaps it’s because historically, male sex appeal has fallen into one of two buckets: hero and, more recently, antihero. Being a male sex symbol generally requires not caring whether anyone thinks you are sexy or capable or cool. So it's tempting to recall Han as an irresistible, swashbuckling scoundrel. And Han certainly would like that. But the real Han cares a lot what people think. His need for approval peeks through his tough facade with each carefully flippant remark and every laughable self-contradiction. His appeal is rooted in his insecurity and vulernability. So Ford's Han is actually something a lot more interesting than today’s much-publicized “antiheroes”: he is someone who desperately wants to be seen as the sexy antihero, but is in fact just human—a fumbling, sweet, earnest goober.