The Empire Strikes Back Turns 40
Why It’s the Michael Jordan of the Star Wars Saga
I have two GOATs on my mind. The first played for Chicago in the ’90s. The second flew into cinemas in 1980. ESPN’s The Last Dance finished its run on Sunday and, in my opinion, shut the door on one GOAT debate. Michael Jordan is the Greatest of All Time. If you talked to me a month ago, I’d still be arguing for LeBron. Being a native of the Cleveland area, when I pray to God he’s usually 6′ 9″ and known for his chase-down blocks. So, whenever the Jordan vs. LeBron conversation comes up, I’ve found it difficult to remove myself from that bias. The Last Dance put it to bed. I must now admit that the GOAT crown rests firmly on Jordan’s big bald head. This week also saw the 40th anniversary of the GOAT Star Wars film. Now we all have favorites, but The Empire Strikes Back is the absolute best experience Lucasfilm has ever produced. To say otherwise is like saying that Tatooine has one sun or that tauntauns smell good on the inside. You are free to love Larry Bird or Attack of the Clones (the Anthony Bennett of Star Wars films), but if you search your feelings you know it to be true. The Empire Strikes Back is the Michael Jordan of a galaxy far, far away.
Every subsequent Star Wars film has been simultaneously cursed and blessed to follow in Empire’s footsteps. Just as every basketball phenom is forced to pursue Jordan’s ghost. When LeBron finally hangs it up, he will likely be ahead of Jordan in most meaningful stats, save for titles — the ones that matter the most. LeBron is the most talented player to ever handle the rock, but I still think that Jordan’s impact is insurmountable. The context is as essential as the accolades. MJ’s reign came at a pivotal point in the NBA. The 2020 idea of the superstar athlete is all built on the foundation that Jordan laid down. Every player who laces up pays homage to Jordan in some respect. Those that would dare claim the throne from him must be judged accordingly. Likewise, each new episode of Star Wars must be weighed against the success of Empire. The reason Star Wars is as ingrained in our minds as it is (for better or worse) is because of Episode V’s triumph. If it flopped, the series would arguably not have the same staying power that it has today. They would probably still be making Star Wars films, but the franchise matured in a meaningful way with Empire’s release. This was no longer a flippant Flash Gordon-esque serial, but an operatic conflict between good and evil. The fairy tale became a legend.
May 25th, 1977, A New Hope hits theaters and launches pop culture into hyperspace. Back then it was just called Star Wars, or as I like to refer to it as: Wilt Chamberlain. Much like the league had to alter the rules of basketball to accommodate Wilt’s physical dominance, Star Wars rewrote the rules of cinema to accommodate George Lucas’s vision. When adjusted for inflation it netted over a billion dollars in box office revenue. It was an absolute phenomenon. So how do you follow that up?
It is important to remember that at this time, sequels were not à la mode like they are today. They were typically low-budget knockoffs meant to earn studios some quick cash. Movie “franchises” were still in their infancy. Lucas himself almost sold out and commissioned a sequel novelization with the intent of producing a cheap follow-up. I have not read that book, but I know its called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (a dope title for literally anything else except Star Wars) and Darth Vader has pet gargoyles in it. The universe where that film was made is the same one where Eric Stoltz played Marty McFly.
“because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you’re not Hollywood.” — George Lucas to Irvin Kershner
Back in our universe, Lucas quickly realized that with the massive success of the OG Star Wars, he had the clout to do what he wanted. The first film had nearly killed him — he suffered a heart attack while shooting — so he turned to his old professor, Irvin Kershner, to helm the sequel. This was an unusual choice and even Kershner was unsure why Lucas had such faith in him. Kershner would later ask: “Of all the younger guys around, all the hot-shots, why me?” Lucas replied, “Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you’re not Hollywood.” So what does this mean? Irvin Kershner is Phil Jackson.
When I think of how to construct a sequel, you have two options: go inward or go outward; focus on the characters or you just make it bigger and badder. The Godfather Part II goes inward. It doesn’t have quite as many iconic scenes as Part I. There’s no horse head in a bed, no montage massacre, etc. Much of the power of Part II comes from the growth of its characters. A scene like “I knew it was you Fredo” could not possibly have as much power in Part I as it does in Part II. On the flip side you have films that just take the formula of the first and jump it to lightspeed. Sometimes this can work exceptionally well. The nine Fast & Furious films are living proof of that. The Mission: Impossible series provides another good example. Those films start by asking “how many cars can we shoot out of a plane” or “what can we do to try and kill Tom Cruise this time?” The latter option is usually the safest method for creating a successful sequel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just blow some shit up bigger.
I don’t want to discredit those films, but I contend that the most meaningful sequels are those that take the former track. Those that strive to give the people what they need as opposed to what they want. This is the problem that has plagued every sequel, prequel, or spinoff after Empire. If I see another Death Star I might just jump into a Sarlacc Pit. They keep going to the well and regurgitating what worked in the past. They’ve all made money but they haven’t quite reached the same highs as Empire. It’s the same difference between joining Golden State and beating the Bad Boy Pistons. Empire knows that to be the GOAT, you gotta take the hardest road.
“This fucking guy has balls, man. It’s unreal the risks that he will take in order to tell us his story. And the fact that it comes off so well, that it’s so deftly done, is just the ultimate to me, the cobbling together of all of these magical disciplines to make this thing that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. That’s spectacular.” — David Fincher on The Empire Strikes Back
The most rewarding part of sequels is that they allow the filmmakers to get a little weird. On the page, a lot of things in Empire probably sounded ridiculous. The new character of Yoda is a muppet. Obi-Wan comes back as a ghost. The Millenium Falcon gets swallowed by a worm… The fact that it works at all makes me think that maybe the Force does exist. David Fincher thought a similar way: “This fucking guy has balls, man. It’s unreal the risks that he will take in order to tell us his story. And the fact that it comes off so well, that it’s so deftly done, is just the ultimate to me, the cobbling together of all of these magical disciplines to make this thing that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. That’s spectacular.”
You gotta take big shots if you are going to make a dent in the cultural zeitgeist. Sometimes this can lead to a fat whiff and airball. Other times you swish it and become the hero of the game. Basketball can be cruel like that, so can filmmaking. Thankfully, Empire’s jumper is wet. Nothing but net. It is less concerned with action as it is with driving our characters forward. This is why some “nephews” accuse the film of being the most “boring.” It does not give them what they want. Instead, it separates our heroes.
Luke goes to Dagobah for guidance on the Force and gets schooled at every turn. When he first meets Yoda, he doesn’t think that this goofy little frog creature could be a Jedi Master. He assumes that Yoda must be some great warrior. War not make one great (I am Yoda, you idiot). Next, he fails to lift his crashed X-Wing out of the swamp. Size matters not (I’ll show you how it’s done). When Yoda rescues his ship for him, Luke can’t believe it. This is why you fail (no clarification needed). His preconceptions are challenged. He learns to grow beyond the farm boy he started as, and into the savior the galaxy needs.
The same goes for Han and Leia, who realize that their playful bickering might mean something deeper. For Han in particular, it is about progressing into someone who truly gives a damn about the Rebellion’s cause. Leia ditches the space pajamas for military garb and comes into her own as a leader. By focusing on the characters so thoroughly it forges a deeper connection with the audience. Our love for the trio is far stronger after each trial they endure. This was the reason why Kershner was brought on board in the first place. His focus on character development was the triangle offense playbook necessary to realize everyone’s full potential.
This same development is extended to its chief villain. The Vader in Empire is a Sith Lord at the height of his powers. When we are introduced to him in A New Hope he’s still a rookie. He’s got raw talent, but it’s unrefined. He spends the majority of the film on Tarkin’s leash. Crucially, he blows the last play of the game and allows the Death Star to get blown up. By Empire, Vader has spent the offseason honing his ball handling. He’s the MVP of Empire and it’s not even close. His stat sheet would read like 45 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists, and 2 Force Chokes. He trash talks, he gets his own entrance music, and he’s not above killing his teammates to get the W. This is the best version of Vader we get in the entire series by far. He is the personification of Michael Jordan’s near psychopathic desire to win at all costs. When we get to Return of the Jedi, Vader is already in the twilight of his career. Thankfully, Empire does right by us all by not wasting Vader’s prime.
One aspect I admire about the film is that its set-pieces scale in reverse order. In most stories, the action would inflate like a balloon. They are all building towards that final heist, or big chase, or massive showdown with the bandits who have come to pillage the town. Not in Empire. The iconic battle on Hoth happens in the first act. The rebels get dunked on and you can’t help but wonder “did they just blow their load here?”
Rewatch the film (what else are you gonna do today) and notice how each conflict scales down in size until we are left with just two individuals: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. We have waited two hours for their inevitable confrontation, and despite being just two men (or one man and one cyborg) you feel the weight of the galaxy is at stake. We all know how it plays out from here. Vader sons Luke by cutting off his hand. Then literally sons Luke by telling him “I am your father.” I know this twist has become ubiquitous nowadays. Everyone “knows” it, but at the time this was the holiest of holy shit moments in cinema history. No one saw it coming. Even James Earl Jones, Vader himself, thought it was a lie at first. Google any young kid’s reaction. They all respond in the same way. They can’t say the words, but they are all thinking “WTF?” This is the revelatory moment that no other Star Wars film has. The signature moment that separates the master from the apprentices. This is Jordan sinking The Shot in the 1989 playoffs.
Despite his entire worldview being shattered, Luke proves why he’s a hero worth rooting for by sticking to his blasters. A lesser man would have submitted to Vader and asked whether they were gonna play catch before or after they conquered the galaxy. Thankfully, our guy makes his escape through brass balls, the Force, and an assist from Lando (the Scottie Pippen of the Star Wars universe). The ending of the film is dark as hell. The good guys just got their asses kicked, our favorite smuggler Han is frozen in carbonite, and our protagonist just lost his hand, lightsaber, and found out his dad is Space Hitler. Where do we go from here? It’s not looking so hot in the Rebel Alliance right now. Things are grim. Luke embraces Leia and they overlook this wacky-looking nebula thing and take a moment. The hard part is coming, but there is hope. Cue John Williams’s score and BOOM! Wipe to credits. That is how you end a film.
When Jordan walked away from the game for the second time in 1998 he had nothing left to prove. Six championships, Five MVPs, and a movie with Bugs Bunny. He retired knowing that his legacy was secured. In the power vacuum, he left behind pretenders who would vie for his throne, but some records are written in stone.
The Empire Strikes Back walked out of theaters with similar notions. It hit the game-winner and strolled right through a hail of confetti. A New Hope may have gotten the Oscar nom, and Return of the Jedi got the big finish, but Empire cemented itself as the best Star Wars film of all time. Forty years and nine films later, it’s still doing its victory lap. Just as Michael Jordan made the NBA what it is today, Empire set the bar and blazed a trail for all future installments to follow. It formed Star Wars into a saga.
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the closest a successor has come. This is due in large part to its parallels to Empire. The middle chapter in a trilogy, the emphasis on character development, and a shocking finale. If Empire is Jordan, then The Last Jedi is LeBron James. It has a lot of haters but warrants respect. And while I will defend that film for taking big risks and pushing the franchise in a new direction, it all comes down to simple math. Empire’s got six rings and The Last Jedi has three.*
*published before the 2020 NBA Finals.