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.