Solo: A Star Wars Story debuted on May 24th, delivering an origin story for one of the franchise’s best-known heroes. The film has underperformed at the box office, setting off a wave of questions about the future of the film franchise. But fans might be interested in a different future entirely — the future of the now non-canon expanded universe, which lives on in a new form in Solo.
Some spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story ahead.
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, the company made a controversial decision: it officially ended the long-running expanded universe, a complicated series of novels, comics, and video games that kept interest in the franchise running long after the first film trilogy ended in 1983. While those books and comics are largely still available, they’ve been rebranded as Star Wars Legends, and they aren’t an official part of the continuity that includes the films, TV shows, novels, and comics that have come since.
But a curious thing has happened since then: elements of the beloved expanded universe have begun to crop up in the new canon. The Disney cartoon series Star Wars: Rebels brought back one of the EU’s greatest villains, Grand Admiral Thrawn, in a prominent way. A companion novel (and forthcoming sequel) continued his story as well. And many fans pointed out that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi feature some recognizable elements from the expanded universe: a New Republic replaced the Empire, Han Solo and Leia Organa were married, and their child turned to the dark side of the Force and caused no small amount of problems. Even the events of Rogue One superficially resembled the events in A.C. Crispin’s novel Rebel Dawn.
With Solo, Lucasfilm is explicitly covering ground that’s been picked over by the vast body of lore that came decades beforehand. The film even explicitly references some past expanded universe works.
For years, Star Wars has built up a rich lore that’s informed the main films. As far back as 1983, fans knew from the Return of the Jedi novelization Darth Vader had been horrifically injured during a lightsaber battle on a lava-covered planet, which George Lucas used at the climax of Revenge of the Sith in 2005. (Rogue One later revisited the planet.) Similarly, Han Solo had a number of well-known elements that weren’t explicitly laid down in the films but creators and fans generally agreed on — including that he’d found a shorter, faster way to make the Kessel Run, explaining how he’d managed it in “less than 12 parsecs,” when a parsec is a measurement of distance, not time.
Other elements from Han’s generally accepted backstory included his rough upbringing on the planet Corellia, his entry into the Imperial academy on Carida for flight training, and that he was later booted from the service when he saved an enslaved Wookiee named Chewbacca. Fans also knew from The Empire Strikes Back that Han won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian in a card game. These stories were codified into an official backstory with A.C. Crispin’s 1997 Han Solo trilogy, which covered the origins of the character and some of the more notable elements in his life, such as rescuing Chewbacca, acquiring the Millennium Falcon, flying the Kessel Run in record distance, and ending up in debt to Jabba the Hutt.
Solo includes other direct nods to the expanded universe: the planet Mimban, where Han meets Chewbacca, Tobias Beckett, and Tobias’ crew, came up in Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was originally written as the basis for a low-budget sequel in the event that A New Hope failed in theaters. The film also includes a passing reference to the bounty hunter Bossk, who popped up in The Clone Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. The EU also gave Solo ideas for the galaxy’s larger criminal underworld, including Black Sun, a major criminal syndicate that controlled much of the criminal activity in the galaxy. (It later entered the new canon via The Clone Wars.)
Solo’s writers may have liked the established lore or they may have felt beholden to respect what fans already expected. Either way, they embraced the established backstory: in the film, Han escapes from a bleak life on Corellia, where he was part of a group of young criminals. He joins the Imperial Navy to get offworld and become a pilot. He gets kicked out (reportedly seen in a deleted scene from the film), and he rescues Chewbacca from captivity, starting their long partnership. The film goes on to introduce Lando and the infamous card game that earns Han the Falcon, and even introduces a long-separated flame who ultimately betrays him, as Crispin’s trilogy laid out.
Along the way, there are deep-cut EU references sprinkled throughout the film: while chronicling his adventures, Lando name-drops the Oseon system and the sacred Sharu temple, events covered in L. Neil Smith’s first Lando Calrissian Adventures novel, Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu. Lando also mentions the StarCave nebula, which popped up in another of Smith’s novels, Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka. Ron Howard also teased the appearance of a pair of EU characters, Tag and Bink, although their scene was cut from the final film. Other elements, like spice mines of Kessel and the navigational hazards surrounding it, are tangentially similar in the films and the novels. Novels such as Crispin’s Rebel Dawn and Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy feature a cluster of black holes called the Maw (which was later the site of the Imperial weapons facility that created a prototype Death Star), while in Solo, it was surrounded by an impenetrable nebula, as well as a singular black hole known as the Maw.
Beyond referencing elements from the now non-canon expanded universe, Solo shows off its connections to the new storyline as well. The film’s biggest surprise to moviegoers was the cameo appearance of Darth Maul, who has gone from aspiring Sith Lord to galactic criminal overlord. Maul’s survival after his seemingly fatal fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace has been apparent to fans for a while now: he popped up frequently in the animated Clone Wars series, and eventually met his end when he fought Kenobi again in Star Wars Rebels. Solo includes other minor references that reinforce the larger world and story: Lando thanks Tobias Beckett for killing bounty hunter Aurra Sing (who had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in The Phantom Menace and was featured a bit more prominently in The Clone Wars), while Dryden Voss name-drops the Pyke Syndicate, a prominent crime group featured in The Clone Wars and several Darth Maul comics.
These references are probably the highest-profile confirmation that the expanded universe isn’t dead and gone; it’s being salvaged for the occasional character, planet, or ship. It isn’t being rebooted, exactly. Solo presents a very different origin story for Han, even if many of the base components are recognizable. It makes sense that Lucasfilm would borrow from its own past iterations. Many people put a lot of effort into developing the EU between 1991 and 2014, generating an incredible world. While the expanded universe has a rich story of its own, Lucasfilm opted to reboot the universe to free up the hands of filmmakers for the new generation of films. But while those stories are no longer canon, it’s clear that they’re still an invaluable resource for Lucasfilm. Longtime fans may see more of it coming back in the future, as the Star Wars film franchise continues to delve into the backstories of characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett.