On Twitter I recently saw Misha Burnett say that The Empire Strikes Back was probably the movie which ruined sequels for him.
In isolation, Star Wars had a triumphant ending. The kid from the boondocks rose to the occasion and became a hero. He showed himself worthy in the eyes of the tough kid and the pretty girl and the wise old man, and he did something that would have made his father proud. Empire took all that away from us. As the first film in a trilogy (or film number whatever in a series) the story of Luke Skywalker goes from being a boy becoming a hero to a naive recruit becoming just another soldier. The final scene of Star Wars is a recognition of a hero who has saved the galaxy and won the admiration of the beautiful space princess. The final scene of A New Hope is just a bureaucrat entering a commendation into a personnel file. And that is why I don’t like series fiction. In a series, there are no happy endings because in a series nothing ever ends.
This is a very interesting perspective, and in one sense I think that he’s right. What’s really curious is that the reason that he is correct is also why anyone remembers Star Wars well enough to make this observation.
If you just consider Star Wars (later retitled to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) on its own, it’s a fun popcorn flick and possibly the second summer blockbuster after Jaws. It’s the basic Campbellian “hero’s journey,” which is fun but not very interesting. It’s not very interesting because it’s only a very narrow slice of life.
What happens in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is that Luke has to deal with the fact that life isn’t over until you die, even if you accomplish something big. At the end of A New Hope, they defeated the Empire’s super-weapon, but didn’t defeat the Empire. And it’s true that there is always more work to be done. It’s in The Empire Strikes Back where we find out whether the seed fell on rich soil and will yield one hundred fold or whether it fell on rocky soil and sprung up quickly but then withered quickly when the sun came out because it had no root.
In A New Hope, there is a sense in which Luke got the girl. In Empire Strikes Back, we see the much more interesting action of Luke giving up the girl for a higher calling. Then in Return of the Jedi we see, after Luke’s rigorous monastic training, his self-sacrificing love saves his father’s soul. Luke went from a kid who wanted to grow up to an actual adult who had adult adventures.
Another way of looking at it is that look progressed from natural goods to supernatural goods. At the end of A New Hope, we see Luke bathed in glory. At the end of Return of the Jedi, we see Luke alone, burying his father who he alone knew the fate of, then joining the others but even there apart, having a religious vision which showed him the deeper reality that makes the celebration good, but only a small good.
If Star Wars had remained Star Wars instead of becoming A New Hope, it would have been forgotten as one among many stories of someone getting started in life. This is the adventure movie equivalent of the romantic comedy which ends with the couple getting married. (Or, if anyone told such stories, of a man becoming a priest ending with him being ordained.) The Star Wars trilogy is the far more difficult and thus far more unique story of describing adults. We see a working marriage in Han and Leia—fighting together through suffering and pain for the sake of something besides themselves—and we see a living priesthood in Luke.
Ultimately, in life, it’s cool to see the seed germinate, but all sorts of seeds germinate. It’s the seeds which turn into fruitful plants which stay with us.
(This, by the way, is why most sequels suck—instead of telling the different story of a seedling turning into a plant, they just reset everything and try to tell the story of a seed germinating again. That’s really when all of the progress of the original story is lost.)
Oh, and even considered in the trilogy, the end of A New Hope is a whole lot of people celebrating the two men and a wookie who just saved their lives. Princess Leia doesn’t become a bureaucrat just because she eventually stops clapping and gets back to the rebellion she was leading at the beginning of the movie and which clearly wasn’t over at the end of it.