The Empire Strikes Back, which turns 40 this week, is often cited as the greatest of the Star Wars films. But even beyond that, the Irvin Kershner-directed chapter changed the world’s perception of what a movie sequel could be. It essentially popularized two concepts in mainstream cinema: the movie trilogy arc and the ongoing film franchise as an ever-continuing narrative.
Sequels existed in Hollywood well before Empire of course. Universal built their studio on its monster franchise in the ‘30s and ‘40s, after all. By the time the Empire hit theaters on May 21, 1980, there had already been a whopping 11 James Bond films. But although these earlier films were technically sequels, their idea of what a sequel was supposed to be was totally different than what George Lucas would dream up. Every new 007 movie presented a fresh slate for its protagonist and audience, barely referencing any past episodes, if at all.
The idea of continuing the story from where the previous film left off was of course inspired by the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of Lucas’ youth. But even in their day, those and other adventure serials were viewed as cheap entertainment. The “real” movies didn’t mimic their format, because to be so akin to lowly Saturday matinee entertainment would be seen as beneath them. (Lucas’ Indiana Jones was also heavily influenced by those old serials, but instead it would later adhere to the James Bond formula, interestingly enough.)
20th Century Fox
Due to this stigma, sequels that were direct continuations of popular films were looked at as crass cash-grabs by the masses. Planet of the Apes was a huge success for Fox in 1968, but when the studio instantly thought of continuing the story, its lead actor Charlton Heston scoffed at the notion. “I don’t want to do a sequel; that’s like the Andy Hardy series,” Heston said, referencing the endless Mickey Rooney comedies of the ’40s. He agreed to return for a cameo in the second movie, but his thoughts echoed what most people though about direct sequels: they were low rent ideas.
When blockbusters like The Exorcist and Jaws received their sequels, they were greeted as cheap knockoffs that just attempted to replicate the first movies, but less effectively. Many expected “Star Wars 2” to be the same.
But Empire changed all of this when it was released. Unlike the Bond films, it expected you to walk into the theater having already seen Star Wars, and to be familiar with all the characters and the mythology set up in the first film. There was no playing catch-up here, nor lazy reproduction of its 1977 predecessor. Moreover, Empire‘s cliffhanger ending popularized the idea that the second film was but the middle chapter in a three-part story. Empire was a prestige blockbuster sequel by way of the old serial formula, once considered something too juvenile for “grownup” movies.
Movie trilogies became normalized after the massive success of Empire. In its wake, Back to the Future and even the “rival” Star Trek franchise used this formula. (Though in Star Trek’s case, it was movies II, III, and IV that formed the trilogy arc.) Eventually, the Lord of the Rings became the second most popular film trilogy of all time after Star Wars. This was only fitting, as Tolkein’s structure was a big influence on George Lucas as a storyteller in the first place.
No movie franchise in Hollywood history has headed the lessons of the Empire Strikes Back more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This should come as no shock, as Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige is a self-proclaimed huge Star Wars fan. Ever since Nick Fury first appeared in the end credits of Iron Man, the MCU has been building each film on top of the last, always creating an Empire-style tease for what’s coming next in each film.
Every Marvel movie is in perpetual Empire-mode, and it has worked like gangbusters for them. In a larger, sense Infinity War and Endgame were the most obvious films to take a cue from Lucas’ playbook, but truly all of the Marvel films do this.
Fascinatingly, it seems the Star Wars film franchise is looking to lean away from trilogies, and focusing on standalone films for a while. With The Mandalorian and other upcoming streaming shows, the notion of serialized Star Wars might be best left on the small screen for now. Star Wars has long lived in the shadow of Empire, and it looks like they may finally be getting out from under it. But as for the rest of the major Hollywood franchises? Don’t expect the impact of The Empire Strikes Back to fade away any time soon.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm