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Great Geek Debates: Han Solo vs. Mal Reynolds

Saturday 27 February 2010, by Webmaster

As a society, we’ve always idolized the embodiment of the headstrong cowboy gunslinger anti-hero. From John Wayne’s many iterations of Western sheriffs and outlaws to Clint Eastwood showing us the good, the bad and the ugly — we’ve always adored and admired the lone gunslinger. The outlaw. The take no prisoners — ask no questions — shoot-first outlaw hero. The wise-cracking cowboy as quick with a sideways comment as with a six-shooter. Or laser pistol. As our imaginations turned to space, it was only natural that eventually we’d have our share of space cowboys — in the gunslinger good-at-heart outlaw type. The space cowboy evolved from star-cruising heroes such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, who took on strange enemies and toppled space dictators. Where they were closer to the definition of a space pirate, it wasn’t until a certain Enterprise captain came along that we truly got our first glimpse of a space cowboy.

James T. Kirk was brash and emotional. He preferred to fight battles with his fists rather than with words or diplomacy, though knew how to use both when needed. He was a natural-born leader and defied the stereotype of the cowboy loner when he took command of the Enterprise. Kirk took pleasure in doing what any ships’ captain should never do, go straight into battle with only a small posse at his side. The captain’s place is generally at the helm, commanding his troops. Not Kirk, however: Kirk scoffed in the face of danger and laughed in the face of aversion. In the realm of science fiction and geekdom, he was one of the greatest space cowboys. He wasn’t the last, though; he just led the way for two of the greatest. The two that set the tone for this edition of GeekDad’s Great Geek Debate: Han Solo vs. Malcolm Reynolds. Outlaw in Command

When fellow GeekDad writer Chuck Lawton (whom you can yell at on Twitter if you don’t enjoy this particular debate) suggested I do a Han vs. Mal Great Geek Debate, I wondered how to approach it. Both men have very similar traits and, at this point, are endeared in geek culture and beyond. I chose the path of the lone gunslinger, the cowboy outlaw, in the sense that neither men is a cattle herder (the classic definition of a cowboy), but both men are rule-breakers. Both men have reckless streaks and have no problem conning their way to greater profit and personal gain at the expense of their own lives. They are egotistical and commanding. Han and Mal prefer things be done their way, especially on the ships they command. Each member of their crew serves a purpose – if someone isn’t useful, then they have no business on the ship.

Han loved the Millennium Falcon as though it was his child. He had complete faith in the Falcon and her limitations and advantages. Even when the hyperdrive wasn’t working properly, he knew that with a couple of whacks on the instrument panel, it would kick on. Not to mention some spot-on repairs from his trusty companion and sole crew member Chewbacca. Chewbacca’s role on the Falcon was more than just being the repairman, he was the conscience and devil’s advocate as well. This is the same role embodied by Zoe on Serenity as well. She questioned Mal’s authority from time to time, to be sure he was making the right decision and not acting solely on impulse.

Mal had a more complete crew, each member serving a direct purpose and he made it clear on more than one occasion if they don’t pull their weight, they can take leave. Mal even went so far as to kick River and Simon off the ship when he had decided that they were no longer of any purpose to him. Of course, once he realized that River’s existence agitated the Alliance so much, he took them back. His loyalty to the rest of the crew wavered from fierce to precarious. For example, his trust in Jayne as a backup gunslinger was unwavering, but there was no question that outside of that purpose, Jayne was not to be completely trusted.

When it came to straight-up command of their ship and crew, Han had complete control and the easier command. He had the loner lifestyle up until Leia and Luke joined his crew for a short time, but they were more passengers than crew when it came down to it. Mal ran his ship and crew with a common goal, money in their pockets and food on their plates. His crew respected him and listened to him, knowing he would risk his life and theirs for the pursuit of their goals and the survival of the ship. Advantage: Mal Reynolds

Conversely, neither man would abandon his crew without a means to survive. They weren’t cold-hearted. They were profit-driven but protected what was theirs and had a proven soft spot for their crew. This was especially seen via the women in their lives. The Women

There was a great exchange between Han and Leia in A New Hope that pretty much summed up their relationship.

Han Solo: Look, Your Worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me.

Princess Leia: It’s a wonder you’re still alive.

This continued through Return of the Jedi and beyond (based on the novels), after they had married and had children of their own. What this shows is an immediate bond spanning back to the days of pulling on a girls’ hair on the playground. Watching this behavior as an adult, you can immediately spot the sexual tension and the eventual pairing of the two was inevitable. Every outlaw gunslinger has a tough spark of a woman in their life and for Han Solo, his foil came in the form of a young and just-as-brash princess. He never tamed her, and she never tamed him. Instead, they came to a mutual ground, whether based on the adrenaline of the adventure or eventual attraction, it was undeniable. When Leia released Han from the carbonite in Jabba’s palace, you knew that it was true love.

Of course, it all started with the selfish pursuit of profit. Leia was a payday to Han at first, but little did he know that the cost would be falling in love with a princess. He was simply hoping for a bag of gold. This is similar to how it started for Mal and Inara. Having a companion onboard Serenity enabled Mal and his crew to gain access to planets they may not have had access to before, plus she paid her rent. There was always sexual tension between the two, but sadly, it was never truly resolved. We all knew Mal felt for her and wanted to succumb, but his outlaw nature wouldn’t let him. In the end, even though we still felt it — their romance was left unresolved.

So which defines the outlaw cowboy lifestyle better? Falling in love with the romantic foil or denying the love to fully embrace the outlaw and individual lifestyle? Consider the tension and stress that Mal put upon himself by denying his feelings for Inara and her for him. Han had no such stress. Leia annoyed him, but he was aggressive in pursuing her and finally won his prize. Advantage: Han Solo The Outlaw Hero

A great geek sub-debate is whether or not Han shot Greedo first in the famous Mos Eisley bar scene. I think it’s generally agreed that they either both shot at the same time and Han had better aim, or Han did shoot first and Greedo’s shot was a death spasm. Either way, the point is that Han took no chances. As Robert De Niro’s character said in the film Ronin, “I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.” Basically, this implies that while Han’s actions seemed impulsive and reactionary, it was all part of the plan. In fact, several times over the lifespan of his adventures (whether they be movies or books) Han refers numerous times to a “plan,” and things maybe not going according to it.

No matter the failure or who was shooting laser blasters at him (with terrible aim), Han seemed to at least have the outline of a plan. Of course, he wasn’t the one who noticed the garbage chute. He was an outlaw in the greatest sense of deception and cunning. He tricked the Empire (under Vader’s Sith-enhanced nose nonetheless) more than once and took a freezing in carbonite to spare the lives of his friends, but most importantly because he didn’t pay back a debt.

While Han liked to believe he had a plan, Mal Reynolds was much more impulsive. His plans came to him at the last possible moment, with few details outside of a general idea and direction. Deciding to fly through Reaver space to defy the Alliance, Mal risked his life and the crew. This impulsive and defiant behavior solidified him as an outlaw hero, as if the smuggling and cargo runs didn’t already. While those actions were for profit, his true mission was taking down the Alliance. For a while, similar to Han, outrunning and evading the Alliance/Empire was enough to survive and eke out a living. Eventually however, Mal had to become a hero to the galaxy, the eventual rise of a true outlaw hero.

In the end, Han was a hero to the Rebel Alliance. A medal was draped upon his chest and he received the recognition and wealth he had been fighting for. This doesn’t make him any less of a hero in the classical sense. Though, as evidenced by the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s classic films, the true outlaw hero doesn’t seek recognition and accolades. He only seeks resolution to his problems to get back to doing what he does best, making profit and shooting those who get in his way. This is how Malcolm Reynolds ended his adventure, as the broken, bruised and nameless hero to the revolution, his livelihood of smuggling restored for the time being. Advantage: Mal Reynolds

In the end, and only considering the categories above, this debate goes to Mal Reynolds. However, I’d be just as glad to call it a tie, for if I was to expand the categories and go on for a couple thousand more words, we’d probably reach an impasse at some point. Also, I am keenly aware that this particular debate has taken place many times on the internet, but not here at GeekDad. So vote and keep up the debate in the comments!