Forty years ago this week, The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters, and in the process took everything we knew and loved about Star Wars and blew it the hell up. It is a legacy that has made it one of the most revered, if not the most revered, entries in the saga. It is a legacy that is, in the most loving and equally revered sense, shared with is distant sibling, the middle chapter of the sequel trilogy, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
There are many obvious parallels, of course. The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi are middle chapters in trilogies. They expand the world set up by their predecessors. They are also dark middle chapters, exposing our heroes to hardships that we never would’ve contemplated coming out of their prior victories.
Both films deal with major familiar revelations intended to shock ourselves and our heroes. And that’s just on a thematic level—from Hoth to Crait, Yoda and Luke to Luke and Rey, Canto Bight and Cloud City, there are even plot comparisons that, at some point, became a little too familiar. In the latter movie’s case, it was consistently brought up as a “concern” before release. After release, from a metatextual perspective, both The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi both faced backlashes from audiences who were shocked that the stories they had told did not align with what fans had expected coming out of A New Hope or The Force Awakens.
What really matters is this one similarity above all: whether you want to admit or not (search your feelings, you know it to be true!), Empire Strikes Back and Last Jedi both love Star Wars.
At times on the surface, that might not feel like the case—as people bemoaned The Last Jedi and, as we often forget, as critics and fans bemoaned in the immediate wake of Empire’s release those 40 years ago. Empire and Last Jedi alike are two films that put their heroes through absolute hell, on a situational and spiritual level, confronting trauma and defeat in spite of everything they had achieved in their prior adventure. How could Empire love what Star War was, if it tears Han, Luke, and Leia apart, if it shatters the Rebellion on Hoth, and reveals our hero’s shocking connection to the evil he swore to destroy? How could Last Jedi love Star Wars, if it presents us a Luke Skywalker utterly dismayed by the world and failed institutions around him, shatters the Resistance on Crait, and asks our hero to question everything we thought about her own mysterious heritage?
(You see what they did there. It’s like poetry, it rhymes, and so on and so forth.)
Both films ask us to consider what Star Wars is—not just from a worldbuilding perspective as they introduce new worlds and characters and concepts about things we had assumed or learned in their predecessors—then subsequently asks us to defend that thesis like our lives depended on it. By challenging the hope and faiths of Luke, Leia, Chewie, Lando, and Han, of Rey, Poe, Finn, Rose, and Luke and Leia again, Empire and Last Jedi don’t belittle those hopes or faiths. They ask our heroes, and us as an audience to embolden them, to hold those beliefs ever tighter. It’s only in challenging them, instead of flatly accepting them, that we truly ascertain their values to this saga.
What Star Wars is about—hope and love, the trifecta of family, fate, and destiny, and having the strength to be beholden to none of those things to forge your own path—shines ever brighter when it is confronted by revelations that shake those things to their core, even if those challenges initially come off as too shocking for us to even consider. That is what both Empire and Last Jedi understood, even as people’s expectations were ruffled in the process. Because deep down, they knew what about Star Wars was truly worth loving, and forged a way for those things to emerge stronger in the films that came after them in the process.
Forty years on, what Empire had to say about what Star Wars is—what it could be, and what should be most cherished about it, even in times of darkness—still burns bright. It’s a spirit felt in Star Wars fiction at its best, always asking us to challenge the beliefs that this universe in turn inspires. A spirit that its successor middle chapter likewise embodied.
Hopefully, that’s something about it we will likewise reflect upon and embrace when the time comes to reflect on Last Jedi’s own anniversaries to come, as we always will with Empire.
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