Why It Matters Whether Han Shot First

“Actions speak louder than words.” It’s a phrase that’s become ubiquitous, and for good reason. People can say whatever they want about themselves, but how they act and react, especially under pressure, is substantially harder to disguise, and tells us a lot about them. The same holds true for characters in any work of art, whether film or theater or writing. Monologues are all well and good for getting inside their minds, but if you really want to show an audience who they are, let them respond to the world around them in their own unique way. Action reveals thought to an attentive audience, and thought in turn reveals character.

Now that we've discussed action and thought, let's turn to the real point of this blog post: whether Han shot first. For anyone unfamiliar with the debate, it revolves around our first encounter with the smuggler Han Solo in “Star Wars: A New Hope.” In the scene, Han is confronted by bounty hunter, Greedo, about the debts he owes to their kingpin, Jabba the Hutt. Han assures Greedo the he will pay Jabba eventually, but the alien doesn’t believe him, and their conversation escalates. In a shootout-like scene, they both fire on each other. Han’s shot (taken with gun under the table) kills Greedo, whose own shot doesn’t even Make Han flinch as it scorches the wall next to his head. But since both shorts occurred so close together, and since the "New Hope" re-realese edited the scene to change the action a little bit, a fierce debate arose over the scene's central question: who shot first? It's a debate that's consumed people for decades, and about which you can easily find passionate (and long) arguments online. To those less dedicated to Star Wars, however, it can seem a bit silly. Why should we care about who shot first? The result is still the same, isn't it?

Well, no. The question of whether Han shot first matters so much because of what I mentioned in the opening: actions reveal character. If Han shoots second, for example, he's shooting in self-defense after already being shot at. Therefore, we know he abides by some kind of “rules of engagement.” He has a moral code that prevents him from killing in cold blood, and only fires when someone has fired upon him. He’s something of a more principled smuggler, who’s completely fine with working outside of the law, but won’t kill someone unless they’re already trying to kill him. He’s perhaps a little easier to swallow, and it's easier to paint him as a noble criminal.

If Han shoots first, on the other hand, we see some ruthlessness in him. If he shoots Greedo first, we watch a man murder someone with a gun he’d hidden under the table the whole time before he’s even been attacked. He also does this in the middle of a crowded bar, and shows no remorse or anxiety about his actions. Now Han lives by a drastically different code: do whatever it takes to stay alive and ahead of the game. This is a smuggler willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, a man for whom morality is dangerous baggage, a man who won't hesitate to kill to get his way. 

I wont make this blog post unreadably long by going into detail about which version I prefer and my thoughts about the change (long story short, I think making him shoot second compromises his personality and development just to make him more family-friendly, which is disappointing). But I did want to address the question of why we should care. Han is one of the most complex and beloved characters in the whole series, and his shootout does a lot to construct his character. The fight over it is, in a very real way, a fight over who Han Solo is in Star Wars. So what side are you on?

With Excitement and Optimism,

Alex