I know, I know: You probably think it’s odd that a curmudgeonly reactionary and noted Imperial apologist such as myself found so much to enjoy in a character who spends all her time spouting off about equal rights and is voiced by a feminist writer and comedian. But how could I not? After all, director Ron Howard and father-son writing team Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan first dismissively treat L3’s concerns as a hilarious joke and then condemn her to a horrifying fate that only serves to demonstrate the ugliness of the anti-Imperial forces in the Star Wars universe.
Now, let’s be clear. L3 is absolutely intended as comic relief: When asked by Lando if she needs anything, she replies “equal rights” to audience guffaws; her bumbling efforts to free her enslaved droid brethren are played for slapstick, a Marx Brothers take on Marxian notions of class struggle. But it’s impossible to tell if the Kasdans and Howard also intended for L3-37 to be a parody of someone who turns every little thing into a chance to complain about inequality. (I do think her droid designation is a clue that she is, at the very least, an artistic representation of how a comments-section leet-speaking fanboy would imagine an annoyingly woke droid to act.)
If authorial intent were there, though, no one could really blame the Kasdans or Howard. The brass at Lucasfilm have released a series of films that elevate women and minority characters — and in so doing angered a certain percentage of their core fan base, who claim that Lucasfilm is pandering to “SJWs” — and yet they remain forced to deal with complaints that, ugh, Star Wars still has a woman problem. What artist wouldn’t want to parody this sort of silliness?
The targets of the L3-related humor understand they’re the butt of the joke. Noted feminist Anita Sarkeesian, in a Twitter thread about “Solo’s” many ideological and ethical failings, kvetched, “The comic relief [in ‘Solo’] is a robot who is basically a mockery of feminism and activist culture.” Seth Masket at Vox helpfully droidsplained that L3-37 is deeply problematic because she appears in “a big-budget American film in 2018 in which a main character’s recognition of her subjugated status, her efforts to liberate others in her predicament, and her calls for equality are played for laughs.”
Masket’s analysis hits on another reason Empire-curious conservatives might appreciate L3: Her fate highlights the troubling treatment of droids by the Rebellion and its putative allies. As my podcast co-host and fellow Empire fan Jonathan V. Last noted during the release of “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” droids in the Star Wars universe are, more or less, slaves. They appear to have sentience and free will; they are bought and sold as chattel; they are fashioned with restraining bolts when they disobey; they are tortured and mutilated when they try to flee.
And the Rebellion relies on them to a far greater extent than the Empire. Indeed, the wanton use of droids by the Rebellion throws the case for the Empire into much starker relief: Star Wars, at heart, is the story of a ragtag group of slaveholders rebelling from legitimate authority because they thought the central government was too oppressive.
So it’s telling that when L3-37 — a saucy, outspoken droid who wants nothing more than the freedom to make her own decisions and speak her mind — dies on the battlefield, anti-Imperials rip her consciousness from her body without her permission and upload it into the Millennium Falcon’s mainframe. This enslaves her yet again (this time to another machine) and strips her of her most defining characteristic, her voice (except for when other droids, like C-3P0, need to get some information from the ship). It’s hard to imagine a more terrifying fate.
We are told time and again about the evils of the Empire, as when Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) suggests in “Solo” that the gang Tobias, Han and the rest work for is in league with the Empire in immiserating the galaxy far, far away.* But in “Solo,” as in the prequels and “Rogue One,” we are shown why those opposed to the Empire are, in many ways, far more grotesque than Palpatine and his minions.
*This doesn’t actually make any sense, given that we first see Tobias and his gang when they are stealing an Imperial transport ship and then follow their efforts to filch massive quantities of fuel from the Empire during the film’s exciting train robbery sequence. But I guess we should be surprised that a tween girl playing shoot-em-up doesn’t quite grok the intricacies of galactic politics.