“The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet.”– Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back (1981)
Warning: contains spoilers for The Empire Strikes Back (1981).
The Empire Strikes Back is a great film and even better sequel. It definitely makes an appearance in my personal Top Ten at the very least. The middle chapter – the most emotionally dark and thematically rich – of the original Star Wars trilogy has had a lasting impact on cinema, becoming the touchstone by which modern movie sequels are judged: a brilliant example of how a great follow up can not only improve on its predecessor, but transform the viewer’s perception of a movie universe and engage them further than the original entry. The Dark Knight is perhaps the only other film I can think of within even touching distance of such stature.
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 – it isn’t. However the consequences of its legacy have been – in short – catastrophic. Despite a somewhat frosty reception upon its initial release, Empire‘s revered, almost cult status – like that of The Goonies, or Primer – was built over time (hopefully in a decade or so we will be able to say the same for The Last Jedi). A ‘disarming’ loss for the trilogy’s principle hero, a cliffhanger in the romantic subplot of all things and one of the most significant reveals in movie history – “No, I am your father” – are what has earned Empire its place in the pantheon of cinema.
The expectation herein created for three-act structure storytelling seems to crop up whenever a hotly-anticipated follow up to a great movie is being written; the long shadow of Empire looms over many famous sequels. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, How to train your Dragon 2, Temple of Doom, Spider-Man 2, T2: Judgement Day, Back to the Future Part 2, The Two Towers, and to some extent (a hotly-debated topic in the movie community, obviously) High School Musical 2 – 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 the “night is darkest before the dawn” (Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight) 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, that learns the wrong lessons.”
For example, Spider-Man 2 takes a big step away from the ‘Power Rangers’-esque campiness 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 – it might have been had it been more upbeat; both Part 1 and 3 are light-hearted romps through some interesting locations, while the middle chapter is overshadowed by Marty’s errors of judgement and its depressive atmosphere. And Temple of Doom, well Temple of Doom speaks for itself.
That’s not to say any of these films are objectively ‘bad’, but the trend is regrettable. It’s almost impossible to incorrectly predict the tone – and potentially the plot – of any big-name sequel 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.