Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture. In this installment, we try to settle a dispute that’s been plaguing sci-fi fans for more than 35 years. Which is the better movie: Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back? There’s never been a definitive answer … until now.
The Empire Strikes Back achieves what every good sequel aspires to do: It uses the original film as a firm foundation, while building something richer and more emotional on top of it.
Where the characters in Star Wars are instantly iconic types, Empire gives them resonance, depth and shading. No longer is Luke Skywalker just the impetuous young kid thirsting for adventure — in Empire, he comes to understand the power and responsibility of becoming a Jedi. No longer is Han Solo just a hotshot flyboy — the sequel exposes him as a moody romantic who finally reveals his heart to someone, only to have his soulmate stripped away from him. Every performance is stronger in Empire because the stakes are higher, and the sense of loss so much more pronounced. The film allows Darth Vader to be the towering, complicated symbol of evil that would define this franchise.
It’s also funnier than the original. And that third-act twist is arguably the greatest cliffhanger in all of movies. Star Wars was about creating expert sci-fi escapism. In The Empire Strikes Back, there’s no escape for our heroes — suddenly, it’s a galaxy filled with tough choices, crushing farewells, and reminders that, sometimes, the bad guys win.
THE CASE FOR STAR WARS
We’ve asked this before, but seriously: What if George Lucas would have never made any sequels? If Darth Vader were never Luke Skywalker’s father? Star Wars was the original franchise — it’s what everyone’s trying to duplicate today, including Star Wars — but what if that would have been it?
You can make a pretty strong argument the world’s a better place, no? The movie is just simply a straightforward story: Farm kid from out of nowhere discovers he’s special, takes on bad guys, beats bad guys with help from his friends, saves the galaxy. Everything else has just been more. Some of it has been great; some hasn’t. But none of it has had that fundamental clarity of the original recipe, the clearly drawn lines between good and evil that are as clean an example of the most eternal tale in storylines since the beginning of time.
The movie was its own special object, untainted by the world that came after it, a world it helped create, of course. We love Empire. We love Jedi. We even find some parts of the prequels that don’t destroy our soul. But nothing will ever compare to the high of the first time. We’ve just been chasing it ever since.
THE CASE AGAINST STAR WARS (AND FOR EMPIRE)
Star Wars is great, but the thing that keeps it from being as fantastic as Empire is, ironically, the man who created it. Lucas is an incredible conceiver of ideas — without him, we’d never have Indiana Jones — but as a storyteller, he’s not all that sophisticated. As primal as Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey is in Star Wars, it’s undercut a bit by Lucas’s generally uninspired directorial style and golly-gee dialogue. (As Harrison Ford famously told Lucas on the Star Wars set, “You can type this s**t, but you can’t say it.”)
Empire is enhanced by Lucas settling into his more comfortable position as producer and overseer, hiring Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan to work on the screenplay, and bringing in director Irvin Kershner and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky to give the sequel a more layered, somber tone. Also, Empire introduced some of the franchise’s best characters, including Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Yoda, who’s the movie’s spiritual center. And let’s not forget: He’s a puppet. Which means that Empire is also Frank Oz’s triumph, turning a piece of felt into one of the wisest and most resonant figures in the Star Wars universe.
THE CASE AGAINST EMPIRE
Yeah, but are we sure this world needs to be all that complicated? Maybe it’s possible that the simplicity of Lucas clashed with the failed complexity of Lucas and made us forget just how great the simplicity of Lucas really was? The world of Star Wars was expanded in Empire, but it’s still not that blast of cool air to the middle of your brain that Star Wars was. Empire was darker, but did we really need “dark,” or even want it? As much as we love these movies, they are not inherently high art. They are pop. They are the centerpieces of our popular culture. Darkening them does not inherently make them better. Sometimes, the original recipe is the right one.
Either way, you can’t go wrong. In one corner, you’ve got the blockbuster that permanently changed the way Hollywood operated, and still casts the largest shadow across the cultural landscape. In the other corner, you’ve got the sequel that serves as the template for every good franchise’s electrifying second chapter — the rare follow-up that tops what came before it. This is a close call, but Han and Leia’s love story, that awesome AT-AT battle, and the epic lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth make the difference. We’re going with The Empire Strikes Back. What about you?