I’ve had Star Wars on my mind as of late, partially because I just binged the entire final season of Clone Wars, and partially because thinking about Star Wars is more or less my default state. Anyway, I’d like to point out that Empire Strikes Back is a movie about failure and defeat.
It’s an oddly dark/dour take on what’s usually considered the best Star Wars movie; you don’t really wanna watch your heroes get beat up and lose and yet, that’s what Empire is.
And I seriously mean in every encounter and obstacle they face, Luke, Han, and Leia lost. The best-case scenario is escape.
The Wampa cave in the beginning sees Luke captured. The dude who blew up the Death Star got beat up by the abominable snowman. When he comes to and grabs his lightsaber, he doesn’t kill the Wampa and return victorious; nope, Luke runs away and almost freezes to death outside. Cool.
The Battle of Hoth. Sure, the Rebels bring down an AT-AT or two, but they’re ultimately unable to repel the Empire and end up escaping. Which is the point, yeah, but it’s still a crushing defeat.
Han and Leia get stuck inside a Space Slug and barely escape. Sure, they make it out, but it’s hardly a win. Then they get betrayed at Cloud City and Han gets frozen. Not good. What happens next? They escape Cloud City, but Leia is unable to rescue Han from Boba Feet and has to leave without him.
But it’s Luke who really, really suffers in Empire. Remember, in the original Star Wars, this is the guy who left Tatooine, inherited his father’s legacy (Jedi, excellent pilot), and defeated the Empire. After the Wampa and Battle of Hoth, he goes to find Yoda on Dagobah to learn to be a better Jedi. So far, so good, we break him down in the first act so he can get better in the second.
Dagobah does not go well for him, and Luke fails every task. Initially, he fails to recognize Yoda, instead dismissing the green alien as a nuisance. Later, in the cave, he ignores Yoda’s advice and brings his weapons with him. He fights a ghost of Vader and attacks, revealing his own face staring back at him. Then the X-wing. It sinks into the swamp and Yoda tells Luke to raise it, but he can’t. So Yoda does. It’s awesome, and Luke can’t believe it. To which Yoda says: “That is why you fail.” Verbatim from the Master’s mouth: Luke failed.
And then the duel with Darth Vader. Luke does not win. He gets his hand lopped off and finds out his father was a Jedi and excellent pilot… but is now Darth Vader. That legacy he wanted? Yeah, not good. Luke escapes with his life, but soundly defeated in both spirit and body.
Okay, everyone loses. So what?
Character, that’s what.
By bringing the characters to their absolute nadir, Empire clears Return of The Jedi for the triumphant, uh, return. In it, we’re able to see how much the characters have grown, due in no part to the tribulations of Empire. Han and Leia have put aside their bickering and work as a team to take down the shield generator. Han’s gotten over his self-centeredness and Leia, well, Leia’s as great as ever. Of course, it’s Luke, as the main character, who benefits the most.
In Jedi he’s no longer the wide-eyed kid from Tatooine, the one we see infiltrating Jabba’s Palace is relatively calm and collected. When he meets the Ewoks he doesn’t underestimate them as he did Yoda, rather seeing them as potential allies. And in the final fight against Vader? This time he throws away his lightsaber rather than killing his father. It’s a journey of growth that wouldn’t have been possible without Luke losing over and over again in Empire. What’s important is that the payoff happens, and that the payoff builds on what came before.