Lest ye think that the Scene has become baby central, let’s talk about an equally important topic: Star Wars.
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum has a great post arguing that (audible gasps in the audience) Return of the Jedi is actually the best movie in the original trilogy. (Via Scene alum Peter Suderman )
Drum lists all of the good things that there are in Jedi, and argues that the movie wasn’t ruined by the much-reviled Ewoks because they’re only incidental to the story and are only there for a couple scenes.
I actually agree with much of Drum’s praise for Jedi, which you should definitely read, but I still reach the same conclusion as most fans: Empire is still the best movie in the trilogy.
Before I explain why, I first need to settle some scores.
Firstly, I’ve never been that pissed off about the Ewoks. It’s probably because I watched the third movie as a kid, not a teenager. Sure, they’re manipulatively cute, and they’re there to sell action figures to kids, but should they really send people into fits of conniption? Everything in Star Wars is there to sell merch (that was Lucas’ business genius): lightsabers, X-wings, Vader’s helmet, yet we adore those iconic things. Disney’s business is based on merch, and that doesn’t mean The Lion King and Toy Story aren’t great movies.
The Ewoks are also there to provide comic relief, which annoys some people, but that’s also what R2 and 3PO do, and people seem to love those fine, too.
It should be noted that the Ewoks also serve as a powerful symbol: the idea that it’s the Hidden Forces in the universe that rise up to defeat the Empire. Those small, backward furballs are dismissed by the almighty empire, but the grain of sand in the gears stops the machines. That’s something to like.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of the Ewoks. But I don’t think they’re awful either.
Secondly, I’ve always been left cold by one of the most-mooted arguments for Empire: that it’s the “darkest” episode in the trilogy. Yes. So what? Does a movie have to be “dark” to be good? Since when is that a criterion? If you’re older than 16, that shouldn’t figure in your calculations.
Ok, with all that said, and with Drum’s praise for Jedi endorsed, why is Empire still the best movie?
It’s because it’s the movie where the characters are at their most raw, and where the characters undergo the most change.
At the end of the first movie, none of the characters is radically changed. Luke reaches a huge milestone, because uses the Force, but at the end of the movie he is still an idealistic boy who wants to be a fighter for Justice
and the American Way like his father. Han leans to his good side but is still a mercenary rogue at heart. Leia is still a virginal princess who cares only about abstract principle. Vader is still a complete villain.
And during the third movie, with the crucial exception of Vader, every character knows what they have to do. Luke is a world-wise Jedi with scars, literal and otherwise—he has big doubts and big problems, but he is still fundamentally the same person at the beginning of the movie and the end. Han has gone through his transformation from fundamentally selfish to fundamentally selfless, through both his love for Leia and his dedication to a greater ideal. Leia, who was fundamentally a girl in the first movie—virginal and almost fanatically principled—has become a woman, fighting for love as well as abstract ideals.
During the course of Empire, though, every character is thrown through the wringer, salt poured through the still-live scars of their conscience. And as the result they are all fundamentally changed. Luke, obviously, wracked between loyalty to his friends and his desire to train as a Jedi, between the Light Side and the Dark Side. Han and Leia also have to rethink everything: they each have to overcome their fear of love and redefine their life. Even secondary characters: Lando confronts the consequences of his cowardice, and 3PO, who was only a bumbling comic-relief fool, gains a measure of agency.
Between the beginning and the end of Empire, each character has gone through that radical transformation, for the protagonists an entry to adulthood. Luke goes from teenager to man, scars and all. Leia goes from girl to woman. Han also definitively sheds what remained fundamentally a teenage outlook—self-centered, aimlessly rebellious. Even Vader is different at the end of the movie, the seeds of doubt sown by Luke’s stunning rejection.
It’s Screenwriting 101 to say that in your movie your protagonists much reach resolution and that a movie worth watching is one where the protagonist goes through some form of resolution and even redemption. While there are elements of that in each movie (Obi-Wan, Luke in the first; Vader, crucially, in the third, and also Luke), it is in Empire that each character is thrown into the starkest relief, made to confront the biggest choices (again, with the exception of Vader), and reach the most consequential resolution.
So while I agree with all the great things Drum has to say about Jedi, the strength of the character arcs, not “darkness” or Ewoks, is why Empire is still the best movie in the trilogy.