The flawed legacy of The Empire Strikes Back

“The night is darkest before the dawn.”

Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight (2008)

Prior to The Empire Strikes Back, there was nothing special about sequels. Successful films provided studios with a marketable property they could exploit for profit, by considerably slashing the budget from one instalment to the next. Jaws, for example, spawned three sequels, with Jaws IV: The Revenge clawing 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 however: emboldened by the success of 1977’s Star Wars four years previously, George Lucas decided to make the follow up even bigger than the first, offering a greater narrative payoff for a bigger emotional investment. This radical notion has gone on to become accepted wisdom—sequels will always cost more to produce than their predecessors and, most of the time, they’ll make more money too.

The increased production value is quite evident on screen when compared to the original; Empire is a great film, and even better sequel. The middle chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy has consequently had a lasting impact on the movie industry, becoming the touchstone by which we judge our sequels nowadays. Unfortunately, as much as I want to, I’m not here to laud Empire for everything it got right, I’m here to chastise it for everything it got wrong. That’s not to say Empire is a bad film—far from it; however the consequences of its legacy have been, in short, catastrophic. Accompanied by a somewhat frosty reception upon its initial release, the film’s revered, cult-like status—similar to that of The Goonies, or Primer—was built over time (hopefully we’ll be able to say the same about The Last Jedi in years to come).

The ‘sequel hook’—plot points that would only pay off in a hypothetical sequel—were not unheard of in the early ’80s, but very few films were built upon the expectation of a follow up, so Empire is quite 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. This success comes at a price, however. The expectation herein created for three-act structure storytelling seems to crop up whenever a hotly-anticipated sequel is being written; the long shadow of Empire looms over many famous sequels. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Temple of Doom, Spider-Man 2, Judgement Day, Back to the Future Part 2, The Two Towers—they’re all arguably the ‘Empire’ of their franchises: bigger, bolder, darker. Even The Last Jedi, another initially divisive entry in the Star Wars canon, sticks arguably too close to this darker ethos, the tone of ‘part two’ we as an audience have come to expect. As Movies with Mikey puts it in his brilliant 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: the big act two.”

For example, the sequel to 2002’s Spider-Man takes a big step away from the ‘Power Rangers’-esque tone of the first instalment, featuring a more serious, character-focused story along with an intimidating and layered central villain for the hero to contend with. Back to the Future Part 2 wasn’t received as well as its predecessor or its sequel despite the bleaker tone and cliffhanger ending—it might have been had it been more upbeat. And Temple of Doom, well Temple of Doom speaks for itself. That’s not to say any of these films are ‘bad’, but the trend is regrettable. It’s almost impossible to incorrectly predict the tone of big-name sequels nowadays. Seemingly contrary to the opinions of most writers, no film is likely to eclipse The Empire Strikes Back any time soon, so why try? Instead of trying to, at best, ‘re-interpet’ past works, perhaps it would be better to reward a loyal audience with something more than a darker follow up… but that’s just me.