How Empire Strikes Back Redefined Star Wars and Sequels
Hey, did you know The Empire Strikes Back is a very good movie? Great, even?
Let me be the first to inform you, then: the thing slaps. It rips. It goes off, beginning to end. It’s…probably the best sequel of all time. It doesn’t quite feel fair to include its major competition of The Godfather Part II in the conversation because that one feels so inextricable from its predecessor (they really do feel like one big movie), so yeah, for argument’s sake let’s just call it: Empire is the best movie sequel of all time.
It’s been forty dang years since this Star Wars movie came out and it still hasn’t been topped. It’s been rivaled in T2: Judgement Day and imitated both poorly and successfully (shoutouts to The Last Jedi and John Wick: Chapter 2) but to this day, there’s still nothing quite like it. It changed the cinematic game. Here’s how.
MORE STAR WARS
Look, yes, Lucas did originally draft a multi-film Star Wars saga before making the original (which also at one point would have crammed an entire 9-film saga into one movie, yikes) but when the first film came out, that was kind of it. There was no guarantee of the story continuing, no predetermined sequel rollout plan or expectation of more from the audience. It existed as a singular, perfect little film object.
It’s weird to think about Star Wars that way today. There is now a perpetual guarantee of more and it’s clear that the world of Star Wars will always be in motion, re-explored and re-contextualized and continued through sequels, spin-offs, and stories. While it’s not literally the first piece of Star Wars expanded media, it’s the origin point of the Star Wars universe as a successful multimedia empire (sorry).
THE SEQUEL TEMPLATE
This isn’t something Empire created, necessarily. But it pretty inarguably perfected it. The metric for what sequels look like today all comes down to Empire. A sequel can’t just continue the story of its predecessor. It must expand the world introduced, force the characters to confront larger problems (both interior and exterior), and at their best tend to cause protagonists to drastically reevaluate the world they inhabit and the stories they’ve been a part of up until the moment.
The goal can never simply be “more story.” The goal must be “better story,” and at that, better story that improves what came before by proximity. The best sequels make you want to rewatch the films that preceded them with the new knowledge of the reveals and story beats to come. It’s hard to say Empire doesn’t accomplish this in about as stellar of a fashion as possible.
Here’s the thing: without ESB, Vader is still an all-time top ten movie villain. But with it? He’s the GOAT (greatest of all time). Without it, we’d likely still have Darth Vader as some sort of pop culture icon, but the places the story of Empire takes him are what cement him as maybe the single most iconic movie villain of all time.
His capture of the crew of the Falcon, the final lightsaber battle, the reveal of Luke’s parentage: it’s all elite supervillain stuff. As much as every sequel in some way owes a debt to Empire, the number of villains who should be paying royalties to Vader is countless.
THE SEQUEL CLIFFHANGER
Want to end your sequel on an unresolved note? Not only do you have Empire to thank for that, you’ve got Empire to measure your efforts against. From Avengers: Infinity War to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the sequel cliffhanger owes a grand debt to what was at the time an extraordinarily bold move on the parts of George Lucas and director Irvin Kershner.
The decision to leave the second chapter of the Star Wars saga hanging with the Rebellion in tatters, Han Solo captured by Boba Fett, and Luke having been told that Darth Vader is his father shocked audiences (and still does to this day) and left them hanging with no telling when or how the story would be resolved.
It’s an ending often imitated but never duplicated. Pulling off such an ending is no small feat and Empire is rightly lauded for it – and rightly credited for, in doing so, paving the way for bombastic cliffhanger endings becoming popularized down the line.
A vast majority of fans consider Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to be their favorite film of the original trilogy, if not the entire Star Wars saga. Do you agree? Have any movie sequels ever come close to achieving what Empire did?
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