The problem with The Empire Strikes Back

To suppose that there is a problem with The Empire Strikes Back is not to point the finger in the direction of creator George Lucas, or the film in its own right; The Empire Strikes Back is not a bad film – in fact, I love it. However, prior to Empire, there was nothing particularly remarkable about sequels. Successful films provided studio heads with a proven marketable property they could repeatedly exploit for profit, considerably slashing the budget from one instalment to the next in the hope of increased revenue. For example, blockbuster Jaws spawned three sequels – the fourth and thankfully final of which, Jaws IV: The Revenge, ultimately clawed back less than a tenth of the original’s earnings. The Planet of the Apes franchise tells a similar story of diminishing returns, as it rapidly burned through four sequels, shedding production value and creativity as it went.

The Empire Strikes Back changed all that. Luckily, Lucas hadn’t written himself into a corner four years prior with his 1977 original; and, emboldened by the surprising commercial success of Star Wars, Lucas chose to make the space opera’s follow-up even bigger than the first, offering a greater narrative payoff for increased emotional investment. Since then, this radical notion has gone on to become accepted wisdom in the minds of producers and moviegoers alike. As noted in this Financial Times article, “In Hollywood, familiarity breeds success, not contempt.” In an effort to lend the universe a scale heretofore unseen in cinema, Empire‘s budget was 50% more than the original’s $11 million, and despite the initially frosty critical reception, it performed successfully at the box office. The increased production value is quite evident on screen: the opening battle is instantly arresting (beating out the original’s climactic Death Star trench run in my opinion). In addition to the ice planet Hoth, Empire also introduces the exotic worlds of Dagobah and Bespin, along with new characters like Lando Calrissian, Yoda, and of course, bounty hunter Boba Fett. It does just what a sequel should do, introducing the viewer to more of what its universe has to offer.

The ‘sequel hook’ – plot points that would only pay off in a hypothetical follow-up – were not unheard of in the early ’80s, but very few films were built upon the expectation of a sequel, so Empire is relatively unique in that respect. A ‘disarming’ loss for the movie’s hero, a cliffhanger in the romantic subplot, and one of the most significant reveals in cinematic history are what has earned Empire its place in the pantheon of Hollywood – special effects aside, because God knows the film’s dialogue is nothing to write home about. The villains win, and the expectation herein created for three-act structure storytelling is seemingly hard to escape, cropping up whenever a hotly-anticipated sequel is being written, caught in the long shadow Empire casts. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Temple of Doom, Spider-Man 2, Judgement Day, Back to the Future Part 2, The Dark Knight, The Two Towers: they’re all the ‘Empire’ of their respective franchises – the big act two: bigger, bolder, darker – coming to a close with their protagonists’ backs to the wall. As Movies with Mikey brilliant puts it in his fantastic Infinity War critique ‘Let’s Talk about Thanos’, “We took the wrong lessons from [The Empire Strikes Back]. Every big franchise middle chapter feels the pull of Empire.”

For example, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 takes a big step away from what I’m going to call the ‘Power Rangers’-y tone of the first instalment. It features a more mature, character-driven narrative, a layered central villain for the hero to contend with, and a cliffhanger ending. In The Dark Knight, the Joker wins. Sure they caught him at the end but he achieved his goal; he broke the city’s trust in its guardian angel. He tarnished Batman’s image and it never recovered. The Desolation of Smaug ends similarly: evil triumphs over good, the Dragon escapes. The advent of the ‘split’ final film has led to even more Empire clones – both Infinity War (originally Infinity War Part. 1) and the first Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film end with the heroes on the back foot, outmaneuvered by a foe either too powerful or too ubiquitous to defeat. That’s not to say any of these films are ‘objectively bad’, but the trend is regrettable. “How else are you meant write a sequel?” you may ask; if you’re a good filmmaker, you can find a way around that, Empire‘s legacy has simply conditioned you to expect a darker follow-up. Contrary to the opinions of most writers, no film is likely to eclipse The Empire Strikes Back any time soon, so why try?