We’re only a week away from the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and it’s becoming clear that in spite of the blockbuster success of The Force Awakens, director Rian Johnson may have an even more difficult task on his hands than J.J. Abrams did in resurrecting the franchise. Because while The Force Awakens was able to rest on its laurels by essentially remixing A New Hope, The Last Jedi has a far more formidable task: it needs to not remake The Empire Strikes Back.
That’s no small task. Comparisons between The Last Jedi and Empire have been flying around since credits rolled on The Force Awakens. Star Adam Driver has said that Last Jedi “has a different tone” from the first movie, just like Empire. And Johnson is aware of the problem, commenting to Entertainment Weekly, “I just tried to kind of ignore that aspect of it [the parallels to Empire] and have the story take the shape that it needed to.” But he also acknowledges that “by its very nature, there are some structural parallels.” There’s admittedly some room for concern, at least based on the small snippets of information we know about The Last Jedi. You can draw a line from Rey seeking out Luke for training to Luke seeing out Yoda, or between the Resistance clashing with a bloodied but by no means beaten First Order in the same way that the Empire came back as a resurgent force against the Rebels. And with the mystery of Rey’s unknown parentage, there’s even room for another big third-act “No, I am your father!” reveal. Add it all up with the visually and tonally darker trappings that the trailers have showcased, and there’s plenty of potential for The Empire Strikes Back to strike back yet again.
But following Empire too closely isn’t just a Star Wars problem. The idea that a sequel must be “the Empire Strikes Back of the series” has become prevalent across the entire entertainment industry, and that’s not a good thing.
There are literally dozens of examples. J.A. Bayona has described his upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as the Empire of the rebooted dinosaur series. Dean DuBois called out Empire as a guiding star when describing his goals for How to Train Your Dragon 2. Wes Ball called The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials “the Empire Strikes Back of this three-movie series.” Screenwriter Chris Terrio called Batman v Superman "a bit of an Empire Strikes Back.”
It’s not just movies, either. Video games do it, too: BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk compared Mass Effect 2 to Empire when teasing that sequel, and game designer Antoine Thisdale told Polygon it was a touchstone when promoting Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Even comic-book writer Grant Morrison threw around the analogy when teasing his upcoming Wonder Woman: Earth Two graphic novel at Comic-Con this year.
I’m even guilty of doing it myself when speculating about the future of the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
Look, The Empire Strikes Back is a very good movie. It might be one of the best sequels for a major franchise ever made. It successfully takes the characters from 1977’s A New Hope and deepens them in interesting ways, almost constantly beating up on the good guys, instead of just handing them another string of victories. And it delivers one of the most famous twist endings in cinema.
But creatively, using Empire as a go-to template has become increasingly lazy. First movie didn’t do so hot? Make it darker and more serious. Need to get fans buzzing? Add a twist at the end. It ignores the fact that Empire worked well as a sequel to Star Wars, and was a product of that specific franchise’s direction and needs. Attempting to re-create it over and over again, or just arbitrarily grafting its darker tone and downbeat ending onto everything, feels like a dead end.
Circumstances may be a little different with The Last Jedi. Even if all sequels shouldn’t be like Empire, arguably making a film like it would be the perfect follow-up to a movie that already mirrored the original Star Wars beat for beat. But audiences have already seen that movie. In fact, given the popularity of The Empire Strikes Back, odds are that Last Jedi ticket holders have already seen it many, many times. And we’ve already seen what a modern, remixed Star Wars movie looks like, too; there’s simply no reason to go down the exact same path once again, apart from nostalgia or creative cowardice.
Fortunately, Johnson is particularly suited to forge a new path forward. The filmmaker has specialized in reinventing the familiar, with his films Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper breathing new life into film noir, madcap capers, and dystopian time-travel science fiction. If he can pull off the same trick with Star Wars, it will be a breath of fresh air for the franchise as a whole.
Most encouraging is how he spoke about the Empire issue at last weekend’s press conference for The Last Jedi. “The second movie in a trilogy; I think we’ve been trained to expect it’ll be a little darker, and obviously [The Last Jedi] looks a little darker,” he acknowledged. “[But] first and foremost, we were trying to make it feel like a Star Wars movie. And that means you have the intensity, and you have the opera. But it also means that it makes you come out of the theater wanting to run in your back yard, and grab your spaceship toys and make them fly around. That’s a key ingredient. So we're going to go to some intense places in the movie, but I hope also it's fun, and it's funny.”
And who knows? If The Last Jedi truly succeeds in forging something unique, perhaps we’ll find ourselves having a different conversation in a few decades. Instead of everyone trying to rip off The Empire Strikes Back, maybe we’ll have directors boasting about how their sequels are going to be the Last Jedi of a series instead.