The tropes likely began before Irvin Kershner’s 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back, but they were solidified with it.
The Empire Strikes Back is, for all intents and purposes, one of the most important films in all of nerd culture, if not the most important. If one were to trace back the pop-culture obsessed ethos of this grand and far-reaching phenomenon known as “nerd,” one would find a direct throughline back to Star Wars. Sure, we has Star Trek nerds before that, and one could even stretch current-day sci-fi obsession all the way back to pulp novels of the 1940s and before. But when we refer to “nerd culture” (or even to “pop culture” for that matter), we’re typically referring to a very particular thought pattern that solidified in the mass consciousness directly over Star Wars back in 1977. It had been percolating for years. Eventually, the internet made it bloom into the multi-headed beast that it is today. Star Wars changed everything and re-created the very notion of fandom on a whole new level.
Then, in 1980, a sequel to Star Wars was released, and, well, perfection had essentially been attained. Ask anyone. I hesitate to admit that I personally prefer the original Star Wars to the sequel (although I was a late entrant to the Star Wars phenomenon), but I haven’t met too many people who do not utterly adore The Empire Strikes Back. If asked to list the most important, must-see films in the nerd canon, the people I have talked to would likely put The Empire Strikes Back near or at the top next to Evil Dead 2, Superman, and Ghostbusters.
Indeed, The Empire Strikes Back has become such a ubiquitous and influential presence in fantasy and sci-fi cultures, that it can often seem we that, in many ways, we haven’t grown since. I watch any and all sequels these days, and I see distant reflections of Empire all over them. One could even argue – as I did in the very title of this editorial – that all sequels are The Empire Strikes Back. Allow me to elucidate.
When boiled down to its base elements (i.e. excising the specific details of the Star Wars universe) what are the basic story beats of The Empire Strikes Back? It opens in medias res, showing our heroes from the first film entrenched in a new adventure. It depicts the heroes facing even larger and more trying trials than the last time, usually fighting at the edge of their abilities. Their roles are essentially the same, despite having learned lessons and “changed” in the last film. The tone (and I’m most certainly a critic obsessed with tone) is typically a lot more serious and focused, taking the light fantasy elements of the original and forcing them through the beats of a more hefty drama.
And, most significantly, the story of The Empire Strikes Back revolves around the details of the heroes’ personal lives much more closely. To put it another way: In the original film, the heroes are a small part of a larger universe, and their actions were mere functions within that universe. They were outsiders who became involved in a story larger than themselves. In “original chapters,” since we need to be gently introduced into the action, we get to find our way in alongside the heroes. In sequels, however, the heroes are already at the center of their world at the outset. There is no longer a larger drama for them to explore their way into, because they have become the larger drama now. The drama becomes more pointedly about them, their interpersonal strife, and their relationships with other established characters. Star Wars was about a group of ragtag rebels (including one Luke Skywalker) fighting off an evil galactic empire. The Empire Strikes Back is about Luke Skywalker’s family.
This tendency to make sequels specifically about the hero’s personal life – and not a new world or a new adventure – is one we cannot escape.
How many sequels can you name that are specifically about some shadowy figure from the hero’s past? They are legion. This is, I posit, where we’ve kind of stayed when it comes to making fantasy and sci-fi sequels. Oh sure, there are exceptions (the three Lord of the Rings films, for instance, function as one giant film), but they are few and far between. And, since all sequels tend to have this same dramatic function, they begin to stale in the imagination after a while. I have to be honest, I am beginning to tire of the common sequel “twist” wherein it is revealed that the villain (or some other significant key player in the drama) is revealed to be related to the hero in some way. We saw this as recently as How to Train Your Dragon 2, wherein the hero’s long-lost mother returned. Or in Captain America: The Winter Soldier wherein the villain was an old friend of the hero, unexpectedly resurrected. Every time it happens, a distant echo of “I am your father” plays in my head.
All of the Harry Potter sequels are about how everything Harry encounters is already connected to him in some way. Indeed, most all of YA fantasy novels (and their subsequent film adaptations) tend to be structured in this way. You, hero, didn’t know you were important. You find out you are unique in some way merely through your birthright or genetic predisposition. You will ultimately be the messiah in a fantasy universe, and you will save us all from a scary villain. Also, that villain is also personally connected to you. Your parents knew all about this, but didn’t tell you. Divergent, Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, etc., are all predicated on the same principle.
And all of this was codified with The Empire Strikes Back. I understand the impulse of filmmakers and studio heads, and even creative auteurs, to “up the stakes” by bringing back something familiar or significant to their hero, but that’s kind of the problem isn’t it?: We’ve become so enamored of the Save the Cat!-style Screenplay 101 School of Structure, that common dramatic beats like “upping the stakes,” and making the hero’s journey “even more difficult than before,” have crossed the line into repetitive sameness. Indeed, the whole notion of “The Hero’s Journey,” (that well-worn analytical phrase you hear about so often in discussions of screenplay structure) has inverted its own usefulness. Famed professor Joseph Campbell began noticing that all major myths followed similar story beats, and coined the phrase. Screenwriters began using that structure as a basis for screenplays, and Star Wars is often cited as the one screenplay that cleaves to the Hero’s Journey most effectively. Soon, a screenplay was seen as bad if it didn’t adhere to The Hero’s Journey.
The basic structure of the 1980 classic is reused so often, one might (in perhaps one of their more cynical moods) begin to assume we don’t know how to make sequels in any other way. We’ve become addicted to The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a good film, but one we cannot put down. We’re addicted to the point that, when making a fantasy sequel, it’s practically the only story we can tell. Wouldn’t it be nice, for instance, for the hero to encounter something wholly new and original in a sequel? Go to a new setting where they have to learn new rules and learn new lessons? Maybe even become even more heroic in the process? I’d hate to live in a world where every twist ending can essentially be boiled down to “I am your father.” See, Mr. Hero (or Ms. Heroine)? It turns out you were the center of the universe all along! Dickens could get away with this. Dickens gets a pass. Modern movies, however, have done it too much.
We’ve become very good at telling a very specific kind of sequel story. To wax theoretical: most big-budget genre pictures are meant to thrill us. But on a deeper level, they’re meant to comfort us as well. As such, we tend to fall back on the things that worked in the past. And what worked best in the past was The Empire Strikes Back. A studio executive friend of mine once put it this way: Audiences want to be surprised every time, but they want to be surprised in the exact same way. I personally have more faith in audiences. I think if presented with something new and unusual and also great, they will react accordingly positive.
I wrote an editorial a few months ago on how nerds need more new stuff. We need new heroes, new properties and new nerd obsessions, yes, but it also goes deeper. We need new stories as well. Sure, one can argue that there are only finite stories in the world (some say there are as few as three), but there are far more varied ways we can go about telling them. We talk about story and storytelling a lot in the nerd world, but it’s rare that we get a story that is unique, new, compelling, and challenging. The Empire Strikes Back is still great. We’ll always have it. Indeed, a lot of sequels that follow the Empire pattern are also still great. But when all movies become kind of the same, then we run the risk of creative stagnation once again. Let’s not just be awesome. Let’s expand.