Now, it may not matter in terms of great global or cosmic realities whether Greedo or Han shot first in the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars. However, in terms of story and what Star Wars is all about — or was all about, before GL took over complete creative control (perhaps he isn’t a genius after all) — it matters. And not just to me — Googling “han shot first” gets you over 199,000 hits.
When Star Wars was released in 1977, no one knew it would become an iconic, mythical, legendary hit and mainstay of popular culture like few other things. So when we meet Han Solo, he is a scoundrel capable of becoming a better man, but not yet — because Star Wars isn’t a mythic thing that buys into its own hype yet, right?
Anyway, when we meet Han Solo, we meet a criminal who smuggles stuff for some unseen mobster with the unsavoury name of Jabba the Hutt. Chances are, he’d’ve been a smuggler even if the Old Republic was still in business (unlike Malcolm Reynolds, he doesn’t seem to have fought in any world-shattering wars before taking up crime — oh, right, only the clones did that. Lame.).
So meet this scoundrel and criminal in a cantina in Mos Eisley, of all places — “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” (Ben Kenobi) We know nothing about him, except that he’s a smuggler who needs some cash, and was boarded by the Empire at some point. And he’s got nothing against shooting first.
So, when things with Greedo appear to be going South, he shoots him. Because Han Solo when we meet him is a greedy criminal who kills people to save his own skin. At least like Malcolm Reynolds’ foes, his opponent was armed, awake, and facing him.
Han Solo is not a knight in shining armour. Maybe towards the end of Return of the Jedi he is. But not in Star Wars in 1977 when we meet him. Not yet. He needs to get thrown into a trash compactor on the Death Star, befriend a kid named Luke Skywalker, join a rebellion, and fall for a princess before that happens. He needs to grow as a man.
If Greedo shoots first, this means that Han Solo, rather than being a scoundrel in need of redemption who can change, is already a good enough man. I mean, sure, he kills people. But only in self-defense. Only if they shoot first. He is no longer as dynamic a character; he does not grow as much. And thus, part of his essence, an important part of what makes this scruffy-looking nerfherder an important character is taken away from us by a man who doesn’t seem to realise that if it was good enough in 1977, it’s good enough in 1997 and good enough in 2007 and good enough in 2011.
Having villainous men become good is important in stories. We don’t need anti-heroes, necessarily, but it’s good not to have every one a Beowulf anymore (although Beowulf’s awesomeness actually decreases through the course of the epic, according to the critics). Everyone likes redemption stories. We don’t need our heroes born as heroes. In fact, having recently read over 100 saints’ lives, I can tell you how utterly boring that gets!
The fact is, we’re all born scoundrels, but we’re all capable of becoming heroes. Like Han Solo, who risks his life, his money, and — most important of all — his ship, the iconic Millennium Falcon in a rebellion he could quite easily have avoided once he got his reward before the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars. But he didn’t — something in him had changed, and so we see him grow and change as a character from our first encounter with him in Mos Eisley through the battles and adventures of The Empire Strikes Back to the battle on the moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi.
Greedo shooting first destroys that and makes the story less of a story.
Perhaps George Lucas didn’t actually know what he was doing in the beginning; perhaps the greatness of the original trilogy as it was formed came not simply from Lucas but from the team of creative minds, including directors, screenwriters, actors, muppeteers, the Jim Henson Creature Shop, special effects teams, and more, that worked with the incipient vision Lucas had.