Is ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Too Good for ‘Star Wars’?

In the wake of all the hubbub about new changes to the ‘Star Wars’ films, Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly wrote an asinine article suggesting that the ‘Star Wars’ movies are just silly, disposable kiddie crap made for stupid children anyway, and adults shouldn’t waste their time obsessing over what George Lucas does to them. This is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever read in my life. (More about that in a moment.) With that said, the article did propel me on a train of thought that led to the following question: Is ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ too good, so much so that it skews our perception of the entire ‘Star Wars’ franchise?

First, let’s get this Franich article out of the way. Beyond his blunt insult toward fans of these films, Franich’s entire argument is built off a faulty premise – that art intended for children isn’t worthy of the same type of preservation as art intended for adults. I reject this notion on every possible level. By Franich’s logic, the writings of Theodore Geisel, Shel Silverstein, and even Mark Twain (in books like ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’) all have little-to-no artistic merit, because they were written for children and “Kids are stupid” (a point he reiterates numerous times). It’d be just fine to Photoshop some pictures of real animals over Maurice Sendak’s beautiful illustrations for ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, wouldn’t it? After all, he wrote that book for kids, and Kids Are Stupid. What’s the difference, right? Who cares?

No, this argument is nonsensical. Regardless of whether the ‘Star Wars’ movies were made primarily for children or not, regardless of whether their original versions were always “flawed” or not (another of Franich’s complaints), they are nonetheless culturally significant works of art that deserve to be treated and preserved with the same respect as any other important film or artwork. To argue otherwise is madness.

Now then, with that out of the way, I’m still left with this nagging question about ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. George Lucas himself has used this “children’s movie” defense when dismissing complaints about his alterations to the films. This leads me to suspect that Lucas may actually be bothered by how good ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ turned out to be, because it doesn’t fit easily with the rest of his series.

Don’t get me wrong; the first ‘Star Wars’ is still a great film regardless of whom it’s made for, but it does fit comfortably into the “childen’s movie” context that Lucas talks about. However, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ took the series to another level. It’s by far the most mature, complex and emotionally engaging film in the franchise. Nothing that has followed it has been able to live up to that standard.

I’m beginning to think that Lucas believes that he gave the writers (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) and director Irvin Kershner too much leeway during the creation of the film, that he let them make a movie that was too good for what he had intended the series to be. Perhaps that’s why he needed ‘Return of the Jedi’ and (god help us) ‘The Phantom Menace’ to act as course corrections back into kiddie territory.

What if there had been no ‘Empire Strikes Back’ as we know it? What if the second ‘Star Wars’ film had been more like ‘Return of the Jedi’ – the sort of sequel that simply rehashes the plot of the first film while dumbing it down a little? What if, like ‘Jedi’, it had been filled with silly humor and lots of puppets and teddy bears meant to appeal to young kids, and was completely devoid of the emotional resonance key to the climax of ‘Empire’ now? No doubt, such a movie would have still been incredibly successful (as ‘Return of the Jedi’ was enormously successful, much more so than ‘Empire’ was). Viewers would have greeted it fondly and expected more of the same, which George Lucas would happily give them.

Did ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ raise our expectations for what we wanted the ‘Star Wars’ franchise to be? Without it, would we be nearly as disappointed with ‘Return of the Jedi’ or the prequel trilogy? Does George Lucas actually regret that ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is so much better than any other movie in the series? Honestly, I fear that may be the case.


  1. no. it’s an episode of star wars. the one where our heroes are not having the best of days. what i love about star wars is that it’s a great adventure that spans 6 episodes. when you go through 6 episodes there are going to be moments that fall flat and empire has some moments that fall flat. but on the whole , its the glue that holds the series together. also , never read entertainment weekly. they dump on everything. its easier to write that way.

  2. I actually think it’s a little of the opposite…after EMPIRE started to get it’s “cred” as a movie that was actually BETTER than Lucas’s original Star Wars, I think George tried to make a movie that would top it (one of the reasons, I believe, that he helmed all three prequels), but he just really never UNDERSTOOD why Empire was so darn popular. George has never really understood that it’s not about effects, aliens, and things that go wizz-bang…it’s about STORY. And for all George Lucas is and was, he’s never been a particulary good storyteller.

    • Alex

      I’d actually disagree with you on that, Shannon. I’d say that George Lucas’ primary talent IS storytelling. The plotlines of the Star Wars Saga, Willow, and the Indiana Jones series are pretty darned interesting. There’s political intrigue, mysticism, violence, romance, everything that one could want… if you look only at the story. I maintain that the plot of Episode II, including the assassination attempt, the conspiracy, the daring rescue, the love story is quite good. The problem is always in the execution. The dialogue is wooden and the acting is laughable and the chemistry between the romantic leads has all the depth of a kiddie pool, but the story itself is not half bad.

      • Yes, George is good at IDEAS, what he’s not good at is EXECUTION. His ideas in another man’s hands…be it Irving Kershner or Steven Spielberg…can be fantastic. His ideas in his own hands can be disasterous.

  3. Jane Morgan

    George Lucas has a B-Movie sensibility.

    When he was young, and had less power, his sensibility was suppressed by the craftsmanship of others. The more power he amassed, the more he could bend his movies to his will. i.e. ‘Indy 4.’

    George Lucas might regret ‘Empire,’ as it made him less wealth. But the core conflict is this. He is an artist. He doesn’t care about the fanbase that exists on the distant edge of his sensibility.

    In a way, it’s honorable.

  4. I think this whole Star Wars saga must be looked at from the perspective of those old serials George Lucas was so fond of as a child. The Flash Gordon stuff. The fantastical stories he saw and read as a child and was so enamored with; the ones that always ended in a cliffhanger that said, “Will our brave hero survive the alien onslaught??”. You know, kid’s stuff.

    The article by that EW guy was missing the point. These movies aren’t meant to be high art, nor are they meant to be dumb, meaningless entertainments for stupid kids. They’re meant to enthrall the world with the simple tales of good vs. evil. Problem is, GL is a super-rich film god who has been surrounded by brown-nosing yes-men for far too long, and he’s forgotten what it’s like to make a good film.

    And lately, he’s become obsessed with “fixing” his classic films to reflect the way he always wanted them to be, yet he is rejecting any and all constructive criticisms put forth by his loyal fans, simply because he’s stubborn.

    Honestly, sometimes all it takes is for another set of eyes to look at what you’ve created and give it a fair judgement. And then, for the creator to take those judgements to heart. George won’t do that. And we can complain all we want, but it’s about as useful as screaming in outer space, for all the good it’ll do.

    • Excellent points, especially about the “brown-nosing yes-men”. All you have to do is watch any of the documentaries shot during the prequel filming and you’ll see the misguided love sent George’s way from the likes of John Knoll, Rick McCallum, and even Spielberg himself. “It all looks GREAT, George.” Look at the love in the eyes of all the ILMers when George is marking up the storyboards for Phantom Menace, showing what is going to be CGI and what will be practical (the CGI markers must have run out quick).

      The sad thing is, I’d bet most of us, myself included, would probably have fallen into the same snare. When you idolize someone or someone’s works, they really do seem like they can do no wrong. And you want to go on “the journey” with them for their next venture, regardless of how foolhardy it might be. I’d like to think that with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of the ILMers who worked on the prequels have rededicated themselves to producing QUALITY work now that they’ve seen how one man’s unbridled ‘vision’ can muck up a franchise so badly.

      And although we live in a time where most movie makers SHOULD NOT listen to the “teeming masses” (I’m looking at you, test screenings), and adhere to their vision to bring us something original, it would be nice if George would occasionally listen to his rabid fan base and keep us from having to scream “into outerspace, for all the good it’ll do.”

  5. Drew

    Couldn’t agree more!

    Probably one of the most shockingly awful articles I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of reading in quite some time!

      • Drew

        I sure am! That’s why I wanted to link to it on the last Star Wars post. I thought it would spark some good vitriol.

        I also couldn’t agree more with your comments about ‘Empire’ in this article!

        George Lucas is a fucking asshole! Actually, that doesn’t even begin to describe just what a low-life piece of snake shit he is.

        The fact that he is trying to effectively erase the original trilogy from existence is reprehensible! It’s worse than that! I don’t see how what he’s doing doesn’t violate some obscure art preservation law! He should be put in prison for the heinous acts he’s committing!

  6. motorheadache

    I think that is partially the case, but not fully. After all, Return of the Jedi has some fantastic moments in it, especially the climax, which is dramatically effective and contains some of the best moments of the films (well, previous to Lucas’ latest tinkerings anyway).

    The prequel trilogy really has nothing– I’ve always heavily disagreed with the idea that the Prequel trilogy really isn’t worse than the originals, its just that the originals are more nostalgic. I think that’s a load of crap.

    If the Phantom Menace had as many dramatic moments and characters that you cared about as even the worst of the originals, it wouldn’t have been a bad film overall. You’d say– “well, the bits with Jar and Jar and some of the sillier aliens were annoying, but I really teared up at the emotional ending when Obi-Wan loses Qui-Gon” or something like that. But the characters and story are so boring and cardboard, you don’t care anyway so the entire film is a mess.

    But I suppose it does stand to reason that without Empire, if Star Wars 2 had been some inferior rehash or whatever, then nobody would have cared about the following films or prequels anyway. The original Star Wars would remain a classic similar to Jaws, and also like Jaws any following installments would be largely forgotten.

  7. Eric

    How many of you complaining won’t be picking up all six movies next Friday when they hit blu-ray for the first time. Lucas makes these tweaks, because it’s the whim of a very wealthy, very lucky, and very greedy man. He’s in it solely for the money. Like the soon to be 3D versions of all the films, it’s just a cash grab, and like it or not, we all perpetuate it, because thirty-five years ago a movie snatched our inner child, and Lucas won’t let it go. He can make these tweaks and then in two years rerelease the original versions, to sell them multiple times to all of us, who sit there like Pavlov’s Dogs, drooling for the next Star Wars version to hit the shelves. We are the problem, because we enable an extremely greedy madman.

  8. I admit, I get upset when I hear news of Lucas mucking up the original trilogy. The funny thing is, I still buy whatever he’s selling.

    I have pre-ordered the blurays (yeah I know…) but it is currently the only way I can get star wars in hd.

    I would gladly trade that set in for an unaltered form of the original trilogy (the one where Han SHOOTS FIRST!).

  9. jonstamos

    I really disagree with the notion that Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back are kid films or were targeted to kids. Within the first few minutes of Star Wars Vader kills a guy by crushing his neck. The next hour is followed by two smoldering skeletons, burning Jawa carcasses, a bloody amputated arm, torture, mass genocide (which admittedly is played rather lightly)and one poor storm trooper who knocks his noggin’ on a door. Empire follows it with some disembowelment, more torture, more amputation (bloodless this time) and one incestuous kiss. Even Jedi has some weird droid on droid torture (must have been from the Lynch approved script, seriously one of the weirdest things in Star Wars), the rancor chewing a live victim and a Harrison Ford/Carrie Fisher boob grab. If these were intended to be kids movies, then Lucas’s mind is twisted (and evil).

  10. Still got my set coming and needless to say I will be in the seat at the theater for all 6 in 3D, hate to say but if the conversion goes good, Star Wars in 3D will be an amazing experience, the Pod Race scene, the Death Star Trench and so many great space battles and everything in between will look awesome if its done right, i dont care about some dumb changes to be honest, sure I would gladly take the originals if they were available in HD, but they arent and these dont hurt me so much to the point that I’m abandoning my favorite franchise of all time, I’m reading the novels, I got into the Beta of Star Wars The Old Republic and I have every damn Christmas ornament thats ever been released plus a Star Wars tree skirt AND a Yoda tree topper with glowing green light saber, I’m a Star Wars nut and always will be and I’m not afraid to admit that, hell I even like the prequels so :p hehe

  11. triguous

    I’m willing to bet that everything I liked about JEDI was written by Kasdan and everything I didn’t like was written by Lucas.

  12. I don’t think Lucas even cares about money. I think he’s a very lucky loser that stumbled on something he doesn’t deserve. He has no idea how or why he made such a successful movie and rightly gave up the reigns to more talented people with Empire.

    But at some point, he decided, he wanted to write and direct these movies again. He has zero respect for his fans. Absolutely none. I have never, ever heard of an artist who has less respect for his fans in my life. Especially in a medium that really only works with popularity (unlike painting or music)

    I think he is a kid who was bullied so much in HS that he wants to take it out on the millions of fans who allow him to f with them just cause it makes him feel more secure. And he gets off on it.

    Then he eats cats and dissolves them in his gullet like a pelican.

  13. Kirshner took the Empire job on the condition that he be allowed to focus on the human aspects of the story, something that just about everyone can see is lacking in all the other films, particularly those directed by Georgie. The man cannot write a decent line of dialogue, let alone a love scene. He does not seem to understand how humans function, and perhaps understanding that is key to understanding why he refuses to listen to fans and leave the films alone.

  14. Brian H

    For a moment, let’s give George Lucas the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that back in the 90’s when they began releasing cleaned up footage of the first three Star Wars films, George Lucas saw the “wow” response from most people and has been trying to continue and recapture that response without knowing when to stop.

    Even so,the first three Star Wars movies are considered good, and people enjoy them. That does not mean that they are perfect, but really it means that they do not need to be altered. A movie like “the Phantom Menace” that disappointed many people and is considered lousy, is ripe for altercation.

    Many people like the first Matrix film and the first Pirates film, but don’t care for the sequels. Fortunately, those original films haven’t been repeatedly altered in order to make the sub-par sequels seem congruent.

    In the case of the Empire Strikes Back, many people prefer it to a New Hope. Fortunately, a New Hope hasn’t been altered endlessly to try to make it fit better.

  15. I don’t think it’s fair to pick out Empire and say “Is it too good to be Star Wars?” – It IS Star Wars, even if it’s considered the strongest of the bunch.

    It would be like taking the work of a famous artist, picking their best piece, and then asking if it’s too good to be seen alongside the rest of their work. Imagine someone saying that Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was easily his best work, and too good to be seen as a companion to his other work. Then attributing it to being great mostly because of the other artists under his command?

  16. Picknicker

    “By Franich’s logic, the writings of Theodore Geisel, Shel Silverstein, and even Mark Twain (in books like ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’) all have little-to-no artistic merit, because they were written for children and “Kids are stupid” (a point he reiterates numerous times).”

    By your logic, the script(s) for Star Wars is comparable to the works of Mark Twain.

    Ridiculous on every level.

  17. Victor

    I always hated the kiddie argument. Star Wars was no more a kiddie movie than Planet of the Apes. It was an adventure film, not a kiddie film. There was little slapstick. It’s a popcorn flick, if we’re going to be accurate. Not heavy dramatic fare, but that doesn’t make it kiddie, either. It blew EVERYONE away, not just kids. Empire was a more serious, dramatic, emotional adventure. The only “kiddie” films in the series are TPM and the Ewok portion of ROTJ. AOTC was aimed at young teens and kids, but does anyone really argue that ROTS, the only PG-13 rating in the series, is aimed at kids? So…at best, just under half of the series was aimed at kids. No doubt elements were thrown into the films for kids (making new ships and weapons, etc.) Most adventure movies have extensive toy lines aimed at kids, that doesn’t make the films themselves childish.

    Time to put this myth to rest.

  18. Tony

    I don’t think Lucas sees Empire as too good for Star Wars, but it didn’t offer him as much of a merchandizing opportunity as he wanted.

  19. I don’t hear an kids complaining abut changes to Star Wars. Kids still seem to love them.

    Now adults trying to revisit their childhood through these films, that’s where the complaints begin.

  20. AllBlue

    I don’t know if Empire was as dark as Lucas originally conceived it, but I think he always planned for it to be pretty serious. It’s hard to have a climax like that when everything else in the film is bright and cheery. If anything, he wanted to take the audience low in ESB to make the outcome of ROTJ feel even higher.

    It’s interesting though that some of the motivation for Empire to be profitable was so he could build Skywalker ranch, yet he used a story that didn’t seem conducive to repeat viewings. He easily could’ve had Empire be a lot lighter, and throw in some obligatory “heavy” stuff.

    And like other said, ROTS is just as dark, if not more so. I’m sure it’s a lot more traumatic for (dumb) kids than ESB was. The clones turn on the Jedi. Deaths of young Jedi are implied. Anakin Force-chokes Padme. And obviously, charred Anakin.

    What rarely gets pointed out is how ESB is, I think, actually the funniest of the six. People always “It’s cool because it’s so dark and pessimistic!” But you had Threepio blown to bits, Yoda’s intro, Han and Chewie can’t fix the Falcon… Han gets hit on the head by a toolbox for crying out loud.

  21. ESB is the best film in the series because Lucas gave up some control. I don’t mind that any of the films appeal to children, but I have always been put off by how he dumbed it down. Fart jokes, characters stepping in sht, overly simplistic dialogue, and muppets just make it all seem so silly. To each his own though. They are his creations. I fully expect him to monkey with the films even more when doing the 3-D thing. It won’t be long until we see the Darth Vader simply admonishing the Emperor and turning him to the good side at the end of Return of the Jedi. 😉

  22. sofialocali

    You make a lot of great and interesting points, and I welcome your slating of that awful Franich article and your opposition to the ‘it’s for kids’ argument. Great entertainment is great entertainment, full stop.

    My reservation is that you slip into doing something that a lot of people do- that is attacking one good thing to elevate another. Empire is clearly a great film and has a wonderful emotional resonance not found in some of Lucas’ other work, but to dismiss that emotional power’s presence in Jedi and concentrate solely on the presence of puppets and Ewoks, I feel, is a mistake.

    There is actually some quality emotional story material in there, particularly involving Luke and his father.

    We see Luke as a noble, considerate man who is sure of himself and won’t give up on his father, which shows excellent character development from the whiny youth in ANH and the doubt-filled apprentice of Yoda in Empire.

    Over the course of the three films, I am impressed by the fact we see the protagonist develop very well.

    I personally find the scene where Luke hands himself over to Vader, and final scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor, set against the exciting (it’s a trap!) backdrop of the final Galactic war, along with the later scene with Luke and his unmasked father, to be some of the more exciting and potent scenes, emotionally, in the entire series.

  23. dougb

    Read this enlightening article about Lucas from 1979, before Empire, before he started pretending to take Star Wars seriously. He basically says he did it for the money, so he would be free to make serious movies. Somehow he never got around to that. He didn’t even think Star Wars was a good movie, probably why he couldn’t be bothered to direct the next two installments himself.