OPINION: 7 Reasons ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Made ‘Star Wars’ the Most Successful Franchise in the World

By December 14, 2015

As we ready our engines and Countdown to The Force Awakens I couldn’t help but look back at the journey that is Star Wars and its 38 years of existence in pop culture. We all know Disney is pulling out all the stops, using the might of their Death Star sized laser to shoot us over the head with their marketing campaign. And it’s working. Estimates have The Force Awakens breaking the opening weekend tally by a landslide with some predicting it will break the box office of all time…

So in thinking about it all, the universe that is Star Wars and their movies, tv shows and comics, a certain quote from a Wired interview with Kathleen Kennedy came to mind… And in fact, hammered something home for me:

The universe of Star Wars has more than an audience—it has followers. And followers are emotionally invested, which makes redeveloping it a daunting task.

These faithful fans, like me (and man, am I emotionally invested) don’t just expect a new movie/tv/comic/book… they expect… magic.

So what is the criteria for this magic? Why does it matter so much; cause us to line up for days– weeks, if needed? What do the followers want in their Star Wars product? It’s quite simple…

They want The Empire Strikes Back of Star Wars movies… Anything less would be a failure.

Chris Taylor’s “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe,” guides you through every step of the evolution Lucasfilm went through before and after the original Star Wars movie came out. And though Empire was a huge hit… what Mr. Taylor did so well, was remind me (and the fans) that the Lucasfilm empire made up of THX and Industrial Light and Magic would not be in existence today had The Empire Strikes Back failed at the box office. What that also means… no Return of the Jedi. 

Moreover – there would be no extended – now ‘Legends’ – universe, no Thrawn Trilogy. No video games, no Force Unleashed. No Dark Horse Comic run; no Star Tours or T-shirts galore.  And yes, there would be no prequels. Also… no The Clone Wars, Rebels or Marvel Star Wars. Heck, Lucas himself would have been broke. Therefore there would be no Indiana Jones, Willow or Labyrinth! With no Empire there might not even be a PIXAR – (Lucas sold the rights and technology to Steve Jobs in 1986)!

And there would be no The Force Awakens.

If Empire didn’t succeed or stick the landing the Star Wars universe, as we know it, wouldn’t exist.

This thought led me then to compare all the movies in the saga in order to find exactly what it is that made people excited for Empire’s place in the zeitgeist. Why is it “the best?” Why do directors always compare their second movie – whether its a superhero movie or a fantasy tale – as the “Empire” of their sequel? Why is it that, perhaps 7 or 8 times out of 10, people pick Empire as their favorite against all the rest?

Because The Empire Strikes Back did 7 things absolutely right.

As the faithful file in to theatres worldwide this December 18th — their hope beyond all hope — is that we get a Star Wars movie that moves us just as powerfully as Empire.

Here now are the 7 reasons why The Empire Strikes Back made Star Wars the most successful franchise in the world today.

star-wars-the-force-awakens-jj-abrams-lawrence-kasdan-11.) Lawrence Kasdan

It is the opinion of this author that Lawrence Kasdan, arguably, could be used as the single example of why Star Wars is so successful today. I mean, first thing JJ Abrams did when he decided to ‘take on’ The Force Awakens… Hire Lawrence Kasdan. Both Kathleen Kennedy and JJ knew — if they wanted Empire like success, you needed Kasdan. The man was hired after turning in a draft of Raiders of the Lost Ark and rightly so! Kasdan, reportedly, added in most of the Force mythology we know today; shaping a very different character in Yoda during the process. He added layers to Han and Leia’s relationship while upping the ante for Luke and his “rush” to fight Vader.

Point here – Kasdan was responsible for most of the wonderful story beats and characters in Empire. And in Jedi – which he also wrote – was insistent about Han Solo’s death as part of the story. But as you know, George wanted Han to live. George also wanted Ewoks (apparently to Kasdan’s disdain). Without Kasdan we probably wouldn’t have Parts 3 and 4 of this list… which I’ll get to that later…

Lawrence Kasdan is back for The Force Awakens. Point. Match. Kasdan.

star-wars-empire-strikes-back-snow-battle2) Epic Snow Battle

Think of it… You line up for hours for the second movie from Star Wars talking, mostly, about the trench run from the previous movie. There was nothing better. The special effects were taken to new levels, the dogfight in space more than a 6 year, 7 year– hell — adult could handle! How can you top something so perfect?

How about a fully realized, epic battle in the snow with even better special affects? Check mate, Empire.

yoda13) Yoda

Sure, Obi-Wan asked you to stretch out with your feelings. He introduced you to lightsabers and mentioned Clone Wars. Obi-Wan hid two droids in plain sight and knew when Alderaan blew up. Bet no one figured a puppet would come in and trump all those things with a simple ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ Thank Kasdan, director Irvin Kershner and Frank Oz for that…

Yoda offered humor and weight to the proceedings. His monologues on the Force added mythology while not being overly religious. And his raising of the X-Wing out of the swamp with the Force is one of the most magical scenes in cinema history. Yoda had 10 minutes and some change of screen time in Return of the Jedi before he became one with the Force so it was in Empire where he earned his pop culture imprint. Yoda’s been mimicked, donned on shirts, collected and quoted endlessly. And he was so popular most die hard fans called foul when he donned a lightsaber in Attack of the Clones. That’s not the Yoda we know!

Love forever, you do, Yoda.

sw_lgi_gallery_104) Expanded Force Mythology

Add Kasdan here with a heaping tablespoon of Lucas, baked over a year by Kershner… fleshing out the Force and expanding the mythology making it more spiritual rather than a parlor game marks one of the most interesting things about The Empire Strikes Back. We did not get that level of depth from Obi-Wan in New Hope and by Jedi, Luke was already…well, a Jedi. Obi-Wan introduced the Force in A New Hope, Yoda made it a household name and religion in Empire.

It was cool to talk about the Force; you wished you had it. I mean, did YOU know you could move things with your mind using the Force? Not by watching A New Hope. Empire is credited with expanding the mythology while also adding in all the bells and whistles. You knew you could get your lightsaber out of the snow in moments of peril, stack rocks and even rescue ships from marsh planets. Without Empire, we wouldn’t have the Force as we know it today.

Force FTW.

johnwilliams35) Iconic Music

Okay, okay – this might be a tough one to argue. Star Wars – A New Hope did give us the main theme plus Force Theme, arguably one of the most beautiful refrains in orchestral history. How did Empire’s score add in that extra…je-ne-sais-quoi?

One thing:

Without Empire, sports games wouldn’t have their Imperial March to score the opposing team. Hell, anytime something bad happened in your life, you wouldn’t be able to hum the notes to yourself and smile, lightening your mood. The Imperial March is a very, very, close second to the main theme as far as iconic goes. And that’s what Empire gave us in regards to the music (thank YOU John Williams). What would life be without The Imperial March?’ Boring.

You had us at dun, dun, dun – dun-dun-dun – dun-dun-duuun…

Vader6) The Best Twist in Cinema History

When Lawrence Kasdan was hired, he was essentially handed the first draft of Leigh Brackett’s first draft of the script; Brackett had recently passed away so Kasdan was approached. There was only one caveat Lucas wanted Kasdan to know – ‘Vader is Luke’s father’ (via a Wired interview).

From day one, Lucas knew where this story was going and no one, not Mark Hamill, not David Prowse (Vader); not the audience saw it coming. It floored most of the world and left kids everywhere watching their father’s very, very closely… What other “sci-fi” movie has ever dealt in Greek Tragedy? Answer: no one. If this twist failed miserably, so would Empire. Instead, it launched the original, grand-daddy of all wait times for Jedi (only 3 short years… right?) and fueled the fire of speculation in future nerds (like JJ Abrams). Ever wonder why most filmmakers compare their sequel movie to Empire? I would think a big part of it all came down to this twist.

For changing the cinema world/rules as we know it, hands down — Empire is the winner.

empireendshot-17) A Cliff Hanger That Took Some Balls to Pull Off. 

Empire was a smashing success… and, sure, this point could just be a continuation from reason 6. In regards to endings, Empire is the gold standard. It ended with Han Solo being frozen in carbonite and flown off to Jabba by Boba Fett.

You mean… The movie’s OVER????

If every single (previous) point didn’t pay off or land, just right, the movie would have ended and people would have moaned and groaned. Can you imagine a world where Empire fails and we would get NO resolution?<Shudders>

I remember being so confused yet satisfied watching the end credits of Empire with my family. I asked my dad what happened to Han Solo? Dad said, ‘We’ll find out next movie…’ In my head I thought– ‘THERE’S GONNA BE ANOTHER ONE???” Yeah, that was Empire and my yet to be developed kid’s brain was blown. The concept of a ‘planned trilogy’ was lost on me.  

Empire had you by the Force Choke from the opening crawl – never letting go until it had no choice and ended. On a downer. A dark time… a cliff hanger. To this day. Empire truly changed the way stories can be told and movies can be made.

The Empire Strikes Back is a daring, perfectly plotted story that, on paper, would never have worked by today’s movie standards. But because it did, Star Wars was officially cemented into pop culture legend with the hype never dissipating, even to this day. Looking back at the saga, it can easily be argued that the movies coming after The Empire Strikes Back we’re poorly executed with very little added to each story (that’s not to say they all don’t have their merits and are enjoyable). Empire captured lightning in a bottle, plain and simple.

Now, as we look to The Force Awakens to open in just 4 short days, the Star Wars believers are crossing their fingers in anticipation… Will we get something as enjoyable and revolutionary as New Hope; horrible as the Prequels or… will we get another Empire Strikes Back? I’ll leave it to you to answer that million dollar question.

The Force Awakens will be released on December 18th, 2015.

May the Force be with you….


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Mark Reilly
Born a geek a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away - Tustin, CA - Reilly is a seasoned writer and producer with over twenty years experience in the film industry. He is the co-host of 'Far, Far Away' here on GeekNation as well as 'Meet the Movie Press' on the Popcorn Talk Network; which airs live every Friday morning at 9am pst. Tweet him at @Reillyaround