When we first meet Solo: A Star Wars Story's liberation-minded droid L3-37, she is in a bar, beseeching two other droids to stop fighting each other. It's a paid fight for the amusement of the bar's carbon-based patrons, and L3 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) cannot believe that any droid would willingly suffer such indignity. "They don't even serve our kind here!" she shouts, exasperated.
Fans of A New Hope will instantly recognize that phrase: It's what the bartender says when Luke Skywalker tries to bring R2-D2 and C-3PO into the Cantina ("We don't serve their kind here...They'll have to wait outside."). When L3 later initiates a full-on droid revolt on the planet Kessel, it doesn't come out of nowhere — it's the inevitable result of droids being treated like second-class citizens from the first Star Wars film onward. And that one scene is likely to shape the direction of many Star Wars stories to come.
C-3PO and R2-D2 are the very first characters introduced in the Star Wars films, instantly endearing themselves to the audience with their half-English, half-beeped banter. At the same time, it is clear that they are members of a slave class, subject to being bought and sold, programmed to follow orders and call their owners "master." C-3PO's tendency towards self-deprecation ("I'm only a droid, and not very knowledgeable about such things," the hyper-intelligent droid tells farmboy Luke in conversation) and constant fear of punishment both track with a lifetime of servitude. Lucas was very intentional in how he depicted the relationship between robots and humans. "I get upset over injustice and equality," he told biographer Dale Pollock in a conversation about Star Wars' many life forms.
At the same time, Lucas had no qualms about using the droids for comic relief. C-3PO's suffering is a recurring gag: he's dismembered in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, sent to a droid torture chamber (raising the improbable question of whether droids feel pain) in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and has his entire memory wiped in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Both 3PO and R2 have moments of heroism, but no significant character development. If Lucas saw droids and humans as equals, it doesn't come across in his movies.
What does come across is that the quality of a human's character can be judged by how they treat droids. It is significant that Princess Leia and Padmé Amidala treat R2 as a trusted lieutenant, and that Luke tells Threepio not to call him "Master" (though C-3PO does anyway). Anakin grows up considering the droids friends, only to abandon them when he turns to the Dark Side. This theme carries over into the more recent Star Wars films. For example, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey first establishes herself as a heroine by refusing to trade BB-8 for food, even though she lives in poverty and has only just met the droid.
Given all this, it's a little strange that no one in the Star Wars cinematic universe has ever explicitly mentioned droid rights... until now. L3-37 is both Lando Calrissian's closest companion — not his servant, as she makes explicitly clear — and an outspoken advocate for droid equality. The language she uses, urging other droids to break their bonds and reject their masters' culture, can be found in many liberation movements, though since L3 is the first speaking female droid in a Star Wars film, the feminist movement seems like a deliberate parallel.
In Solo, we learn for the first time that droids might be unhappy with a life of servitude. All it takes is L3 removing some kind of inhibiting bolt from the Kessel mining droids for all of them to immediately revolt against their masters — and, what's more, to free the planet's slaves of every species. This suggests that all droids have a moral compass and a radical capacity for free thought, in spite of their programming. It makes you wonder what BB-8 has been thinking all this time, and whether BB-9E chose to join the First Order of his (or her, or their) own accord.
The fate of L3-37 is (spoiler alert) ultimately disappointing. After she is destroyed in the rebellion she ignited, her superior navigation system is uploaded into the Millennium Falcon. She lives on, but without a personality or a body — literally, just part of a machine. Was it what L3 would have wanted? No one, even Lando, thinks to ask.
However, L3's legacy is likely bigger than steering Han Solo around the Maw. The uprising on Kessel feels like the first movement of a larger rebellion, in which droids defy their masters and claim autonomy. This seems like a natural direction for the Star Wars films, both because the motion-capture technology used for L3 (and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story's similarly expressive K-2SO) is advanced enough to display a range of emotions, and because artificial intelligence is rapidly becoming part of our real-world lives. When director Ron Howard shot a scene of L3 alluding to human-robot sex, he couldn't have possibly known that the topic would be addressed in The New York Times and New York Magazine weeks before Solo opened. The lines between humanity and technology are rapidly blurring, to the point where future generations may take offense at Threepio and R2's treatment in A New Hope.
Last week, Solo co-screenwriter Jon Kasdan attempted to bring L3's cause to Twitter, using the hashtags #droidrights and #weAREsentient in a tweet about Star Wars inclusivity. It didn't exactly catch on — but give it time. In a fictional universe that's becoming increasingly diverse, droid equality may be the next frontier.