How ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ changed Star Wars forever

Why Episode V turned Star Wars into the franchise we know and love today

“The Empire Strikes Back” — regarded by many fans and critics as the quintessential Star Wars movie — recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

We’ve become so accustomed to this movie’s beloved place in the Star Wars canon that we forget just how daring some of its plot twists and other storytelling choices were at the time.

It’s hard to view the first Star Wars movie, “A New Hope,” in a vacuum — without placing it in the context of the larger Star Wars franchise — but if you look at it completely on its own, it’s really just a fun little space fantasy romp. You’ve got good guys, bad guys, some cool creatures, spaceships, swordfights, and a little bit of magic. It doesn’t necessarily even need a sequel, since it ends with the heroes blowing up the Death Star and seeming to live happily ever after with their spiffy new medals.

Then along came “The Empire Strikes Back,” and everything changed. Episode V took the franchise to a darker, deeper, richer place, transforming Star Wars from that “fun space romp” into an epic family saga spanning a multi-generational struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force. “Empire” took the black and white tones “A New Hope” had painted with, mixed them up, and re-contextualized the story in fascinating shades of gray.

I’m convinced the Star Wars franchise wouldn’t have such impressive cultural staying power without “The Empire Strikes Back,” and we probably wouldn’t have gotten any of the prequels, sequels, or TV shows.

Four decades after its release, here are the reasons why “Empire” is still so powerful:

1. The heroes are allowed to fail

One of my favorite things about “The Last Jedi” is its bold storytelling choices and the fact it allows pretty much every major character to experience devastating failure. “The Empire Strikes Back” actually paved the way for this kind of storytelling in Star Wars by challenging our heroes both physically and emotionally.

Leia struggles to find a way forward for the Rebellion after their retreat from the battle on Hoth. Han Solo is captured and frozen in carbonite. Luke doesn’t learn the lessons Yoda is trying to teach him and isn’t able to save Han in time.

While it’s hard to watch our heroes fail, the story has a greater emotional impact because it dares to give us flawed, nuanced characters. The happy ending we eventually get in “Return of the Jedi” means more after seeing everything the heroes went through in “Empire.”

2. Subverting expectations

“Subverting expectations” has become a bit of a negative buzzword in pop culture recently, which I think is a shame, because I like stories that are able to surprise me and shake up the way I feel about a franchise. Sometimes what an audience expects or assumes will happen is not actually the best way to tell a story.

“The Empire Strikes Back” subverts our expectations in a variety of ways, perhaps most importantly with the character of Yoda. When Luke goes to seek this “legendary Jedi master,” we kinda assume he’s going to find another Jedi like Obi-Wan, whose appearance in “A New Hope” is much closer to the wizened mentor stereotype we often find in fiction.

Then Yoda shows up and is actually this tiny green alien who seems a little…well…crazy. (Side note: I always forget just how quirky Yoda’s first couple scenes in “Empire” are, as he tries to steal Luke’s food and pesters R2-D2).

However, the reality of who Yoda is communicates such an important message. Yoda forces Luke to confront his misunderstandings about the Force and his own prejudices about what a Jedi should be. Although Luke is resistant to some of Yoda’s training at first, Luke later takes the Jedi Master’s wisdom to heart, and becomes a better man because of it.

3. The best movie plot twist of all time

“No…I am your father.”

That line is so well-known now that it no longer seems shocking. But back in 1980, it was a shockwave that altered the Star Wars saga forever.

Is it a bit bold to call it the best movie plot twist of all time? Maybe. But I personally think this single line is the most important piece of dialogue in the entire Star Wars franchise, pushing the series from “good” to “great.”

Before this, Darth Vader is more of a stereotypical bad guy, who’s just going around doing bad guy things because he’s a bad guy. However, the revelation that he is Luke’s father suddenly makes the conflict much more personal and interesting. This film series is no longer merely about the Rebellion vs. the Empire; it becomes a Shakespearean family drama with layers of complexity.

4. From film to franchise

“A New Hope” was a wonderful film, but on its own, it’s a fairly simple, stand-alone story. “The Empire Strikes Back” takes Star Wars from “story” to “saga,” opening the door for 40+ years of storytelling.

As someone who’s spent about half my life watching Star Wars, collecting Star Wars memorabilia, cosplaying as Star Wars characters, reading Star Wars books, and even attending a Star Wars convention, I’m so thankful for the impact “Empire” has had on the saga as a whole.

I can’t wait to see where this saga goes in the future, continuing to build on the foundation laid by “Empire” all those years ago.

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