Six Star Wars “Hot Takes”

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the entire Star Wars franchise, from A New Hope to Obi-Wan Kenobi and beyond.

A little while ago I gave six of my “hot takes” on the Star Trek franchise, so this time it’s Star Wars’ turn to receive some controversial opinions! These are all opinions on the Star Wars franchise that, at least based on my limited engagement with the broader fan community, are either unpopular or will prove to be divisive.

This is supposed to be a bit of thought-provoking fun, so more than ever I ask you to keep in mind that all of these opinions are subjective, not objective! I’m not trying to claim that my perspectives on these broad and complex topics are in any way factual or unquestionable; I’m simply offering up my singular take on these points for the purposes of entertainment. I’ll try to explain why I feel the way I do – but I already know that many folks can and will disagree. And that’s okay! The Star Wars fan community is big enough for respectful and civil disagreement about all manner of subjects.

With all of that out of the way, this is your last chance to jump ship if you aren’t interested in some potentially controversial Star Wars opinions!

“Hot Take” #1:
The sequel trilogy having problems hasn’t magically redeemed the prequel trilogy or made it any more enjoyable.

Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.

One of the strangest arguments, in my view, that has been put forward in recent years by critics of the Star Wars sequel trilogy is that the prequels look so much better by comparison. Although I find Revenge of the Sith to be an okay film, I’ve never been wild about the first two parts of the prequel trilogy in particular, and the fact that The Rise of Skywalker and, to a lesser extent, The Force Awakens have issues doesn’t change any of that.

The prequels had a planned story from the start, and George Lucas knew which characters he wanted to include, what roles he wanted to give them, and what their arcs would look like from beginning to end. There were changes and edits along the way, but the broad strokes of the story had been planned in advance. This is something that the sequel trilogy lacked, with different writers and directors being given free rein to tell whatever stories they wanted – something widely considered to be a mistake. But just because the producers of the sequel trilogy screwed this up, that doesn’t mean that the uninspiring, overexplained backstory that comprised much of the prequels is any better as a result. It was a planned story, sure, but an unnecessary, bloated, and occasionally just plain boring one that did a lot to detract from the intimidating nature of Darth Vader in particular.

Padmé and Anakin in Attack of the Clones.

Though it’s difficult – and perhaps even a little unfair – to try to summarise the main issue with an entire trio of films in just a few words, I’d say that the sequels went wrong by trying to be too much of a copy of the original films, and then by trying to course-correct following the divisive reaction to The Last Jedi. But the prequels went wrong by telling a story that was ultimately unnecessary; we didn’t need three films chronicling the minutia of Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall to know that he was an evil villain who could be redeemed by the residual love that he had for his son.

And in many ways, the prequels undermined the story that the original trilogy had told. The inclusion of things like a nine-year-old Anakin being the builder of C-3PO was just plain dumb, and smaller things like Yoda not being the Jedi who trained Obi-Wan, as he would later claim to Luke, ended up contradicting points in the original films. Some of these are arguably nitpicks, but in a story that was weak and muddled, smaller points like these become much more noticeable and begin to pile up.

A Republic battle cruiser in Revenge of the Sith.

At the end of the day, many of the prequels’ biggest defenders are folks who grew up watching them as kids. For many people in their teens and twenties, these films were their first point of contact with the Star Wars franchise. And there’s nothing wrong with loving the prequel trilogy – there are points from all three films that I enjoyed, and I even put together a list of some of my favourites for Star Wars Day a couple of years ago.

But just because the sequel trilogy had issues with its production and its narrative, that doesn’t mean that the prequels are somehow made better in hindsight. For me, the prequels remain a disappointment, and although I was scathing in my review of The Rise of Skywalker when I saw it in 2020, for me it’s still a toss-up as to whether it’s marginally better or worse than The Phantom Menace.

“Hot Take” #2:
Star Wars needs to end its overreliance on the same handful of legacy characters.

Darth Vader loomed very large indeed over the Obi-Wan Kenobi series.

Since it premiered all the way back in 1977, the Star Wars franchise has focused on a tiny number of characters, only a few of whom have been explored in any detail. Prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and even supposedly-unrelated projects have all brought back into play the same handful of characters again and again, and sooner rather than later I’d like to see that stop.

The Star Wars galaxy is, in my view, one of the finest fictional settings ever created. It has both a breadth and a depth that other settings could only dream of: dozens of factions, hundreds of alien races, thousands of inhabited planets, and tens of thousands of years’ worth of galactic history – all of which could be explored in a way that would be absolutely riveting. But so far, writers and creatives have been limited to one tiny corner of this potentially vast sandbox, forced to re-use the same characters, revisit the same planets, and stay within the confines of the same relatively short sixty-year span of galactic history centred around the rise and fall of the Empire.

Boba Fett reappeared in The Mandalorian Season 2.

One of the reasons I love the video game Knights of the Old Republic so much is because it stepped away from much of what was familiar about Star Wars. There were some recognisable planets, and of course we spent time with the Republic and the Jedi, but beyond that the story took place thousands of years prior to the events of the films and introduced an entirely new cast of characters. There were definite inspirations from the original and prequel trilogies, but Knights of the Old Republic was separate from them.

That’s what I’d like to see Star Wars do more of. Instead of telling us another story about Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, tell us something else. Introduce us to a new Jedi, a new Sith, or better yet, new Light and Dark Side factions. Or abandon the Force altogether for once and show us how the 99.9% of the galaxy who aren’t blessed with space magic live! That’s what I hoped that a series like The Mandalorian might do.

Luke Skywalker in The Book of Boba Fett.

George Lucas once spoke of symmetry in Star Wars, saying that its stories should “rhyme.” But there’s a huge difference between rhyming and being a carbon copy of what came before, or between rhyming and diving ever deeper into less and less important chapters of backstory. Unfortunately, because Star Wars has never broken away from its previously-established characters, doing so now is something that must feel like a risk to the suits at Lucasfilm and Disney – and if there’s one thing that makes corporations uncomfortable, it’s risk.

However, as I’ve recently argued, Star Wars can’t just coast forever on nostalgia for its original films and the only real story it’s ever told. Sooner rather than later those characters and settings will be exhausted, spent of all storytelling potential. Then the only remaining choice will be to either try something genuinely new and different… or to bring the entire franchise to an end.

“Hot Take” #3:
The Last Jedi will be highly-regarded in fifteen or twenty years’ time.

Luke Skywalker heads out to meet the forces of the First Order.

I unapologetically love The Last Jedi – it’s the highlight of the sequel trilogy for me by far. But I recognise that it was divisive in the fan community, and that some narrative decisions seem to have been made to be deliberately challenging to the expectations its audience had. For me, those points succeeded – and just like Star Wars fans eventually came to accept patent nonsense like “from a certain point of view,” or the arbitrary and unexplained decision to make Luke and Leia into brother and sister at the last moment, in time I think many of The Last Jedi’s story beats will just become accepted part of Star Wars lore.

Moreover, as fans who are kids today grow up and look back on the sequels, we’ll probably see a reappraisal of those films within the wider discourse of the fan community. Just as the prequels are supported today by fans in their teens and twenties, in fifteen or twenty years’ time I think we’ll see a similar movement in support of the sequels from fans for whom those films were their first contact with the Star Wars franchise.

Ben Solo’s turn to the Dark Side was shocking and unexpected.

In particular, the merits of The Last Jedi will come to be reappraised. The film wasn’t perfect, but it got a lot of things right, and after The Force Awakens had played it very safe by basically copying large parts of the plot of A New Hope, The Last Jedi really tried hard to take Star Wars to completely different narrative and thematic places.

Unfortunately many of its successes were overridden by The Rise of Skywalker – which itself will gradually become accepted as part of the wider lore of Star Wars, too – but that doesn’t mean that the film can’t be enjoyed on its own merits. Decisions like Rey’s parents being “no one” of consequence or Kylo Ren fully embracing his inner Dark Side to claim the mantle of Supreme Leader are – at least in my opinion – storylines that had massive appeal and huge potential. I’m sure that they’ll be looked upon much more kindly in the years ahead.

The Holdo Manoeuvre.

If the Star Wars franchise continues its current trend of doubling-down on cheap nostalgia plays and samey, almost repetitive storylines, then The Last Jedi’s attempts to shake things up will come to be seen in a new light. Star Wars is in real danger of becoming stale – if every story focuses on the same few characters, or characters who are so similar as to fill functionally the same role, then the franchise will feel like it’s lost a step and stopped innovating.

It may take a while for attitudes to shift, and there will of course be some fans for whom The Last Jedi will always remain one of the worst parts of the Star Wars franchise. But I really do believe that in a few years’ time the film will find more defenders than detractors, and will come to be an accepted and even celebrated part of Star Wars’ cinematic canon. Hopefully there’ll still be a Star Wars at that point, with new films and shows being created!

“Hot Take” #4:
So-called “Jedi Robes” were originally just typical desert attire and not something ceremonial or unique to the Jedi Order.

“Old Ben” Kenobi with Luke and R2D2 in A New Hope.

One thing that’s always bugged me, even as far back as Return of the Jedi, is how so-called “Jedi Robes” are basically just the typical outfit one would expect to wear in a desert environment like Tatooine. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s outfit in the original film was never intended to be some kind of ceremonial marker of the ancient Jedi Order, but rather a costume inspired by desert cultures around the world.

Look at typical outfits worn in North Africa and on the Arabian peninsula as examples. The typical thobe (thawb) and bisht that are worn by men in those regions was part of the inspiration for the outfit, along with outfits worn by Bedouin and nomadic peoples. These outfits are designed to be worn in hot desert conditions, and that’s exactly what we see in “Old Ben” Kenobi’s costume when he encounters Luke Skywalker.

This mistake was first made with Anakin’s ghost in Return of the Jedi.

Luke is actually dressed very similarly to Kenobi at that point. The outfit he wears is similar to what Kenobi was wearing under his cloak – a kind of loose-fitting belted tunic. Again, this is something pretty standard in desert regions and makes sense for a planet like Tatooine. There’s nothing about either of their outfits that screams “religious order,” and it’s always struck me as odd – and more than a little arbitrary – that Kenobi’s desert cloak ended up being the basis for the ceremonial robes worn by everyone in the Jedi Order.

In-universe, it doesn’t even make sense for “Old Ben” to be cutting about Tatooine in his Jedi robes – if indeed that’s what they’re supposed to be. He’s in hiding on that world, and as we saw in the opening act of the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, changing out of his robes into civilian attire would help him blend in. Putting his robes on to go exploring would draw unnecessary and unwanted attention to him at a time when he’s still one of the Empire’s most-wanted Jedi survivors.

Members of the Jedi Council in their robes in Attack of the Clones.

It would’ve been nice to see more diversity in the outfits worn by Jedi Knights and Masters, particularly during the prequel era. We could have seen a whole new range of costumes introduced, including elaborate ceremonial attire if there was a need for that. But simply copying what “Old Ben” wore on Tatooine and slapping it on every Jedi character has never made sense.

While I accept that this is now an established part of the lore of Star Wars and isn’t going to change, it’s something that’s always bugged me!

“Hot Take” #5:
Star Wars doesn’t need the Jedi and the Force to tell fun stories.

Rey and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi.

When The Mandalorian was announced a couple of years ago I felt that it had a truly exciting premise. Following “the adventures of a gunslinger far beyond the reach of the New Republic” sounded absolutely fascinating, and would have been a huge departure from anything we’d seen the franchise do before.

But within two episodes the Force came back into play, and by the end of the second season we’d been reintroduced to Luke Skywalker himself. I still find The Mandalorian to be disappointing as a result; it didn’t live up to expectations and very quickly fell back to retread the same ground as other Star Wars projects.

Finn wielding a lightsaber in The Force Awakens.

The Book of Boba Fett likewise brought the Force and Luke Skywalker into its story, and again there was a missed opportunity to show us how the 99.9% of the galaxy who aren’t Force-users live. I’m hopeful that one day a Star Wars project will be bold enough to leave the Force behind entirely – and perhaps it’ll finally happen in Andor, Rogue Squadron, or one of the upcoming films or television shows!

As I said above, the Star Wars galaxy is massive and densely-populated – and the vast, vast majority of the population doesn’t use the Force or rely on it in any way. Characters like Han Solo didn’t even believe that the Force existed at first – and that attitude could well be prevalent across much of the population. Showing us characters like that could take all manner of different forms, and I’d be really interested to see some completely different projects set in the Star Wars universe.

A New Republic pilot in The Mandalorian.

Just as a couple of examples, we could see a kind of noir-inspired crime drama set in the underworld of a planet like Coruscant. Or we could see an ER-esque medical drama that follows the exploits of doctors and nurses at a hospital. There’s more to Star Wars than just Jedi Knights, Sith Lords, and the Force, and while we all love a good lightsaber duel… Star Wars can be more than that, if there’s someone bold enough in creative control to make those decisions.

So far, every Star Wars project has included the Force or Force-wielders to a greater or lesser degree. I’d like to see a film or TV show that completely sets the Force aside. Not only would it expand our knowledge of the Star Wars galaxy away from those familiar elements, but it would be thematically and narratively different by default. And telling new and different stories is something that the Star Wars franchise needs to start doing!

“Hot Take” #6:
The prequel trilogy told a story that was ultimately unnecessary.

Young Anakin in The Phantom Menace.

This isn’t saying “the prequels were bad” and commenting on things like the quality of the writing or specific narrative choices. Instead, what I’m saying is that the story of the prequel trilogy didn’t actually add anything of consequence to the Star Wars saga. Everything we knew about characters like Palpatine, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and of course Darth Vader had already been explained in the original films.

At best, the prequels were padded backstory. They showed us the Clone Wars firsthand, instead of the conflict being left as a rather ambiguous part of the saga’s lore that was referenced but unexplained. They explicitly showed us things like the original duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan that had been referenced, and confirmed that Obi-Wan had been responsible for causing Darth Vader’s life-limiting injuries. But nothing that they brought to the table was necessary or couldn’t be inferred from the original films.

Palpatine seizes power in Revenge of the Sith.

By the time it had been decided to make Darth Vader Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, his pathway toward redemption was possible. He was an evil villain, but he had enough residual goodness and light inside him thanks to the love he had for his son that it was possible for him to betray the Emperor. We didn’t need three films charting Anakin’s rise and fall to tell us that.

Nor did we need to see Obi-Wan Kenobi training Anakin to inform their conflict. Darth Vader told us all we needed to know in a single line when they were reunited aboard the Death Star. Even Palpatine’s scheming and the way he played both sides in the Clone Wars didn’t really do much to explain his role in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi – and certainly wasn’t necessary to understand his position or role in either story.

The “birth” of Darth Vader.

There are things to celebrate about the prequels, don’t get me wrong. And there’s nothing inherently wrong or problematic about stepping back in time to look at characters in their younger days or to go into more detail about some of the events that preceded what we’d seen in the original films. But the Star Wars prequel trilogy padded out that story without really adding to it anything of substance.

The simple fact is that we knew all we needed to know at the time of the original films for those stories to be exciting and engrossing. I never felt that I was missing any crucial context to understand Luke, Leia, Han, Palpatine, or Vader, and while the prequels certainly expanded the story of Star Wars – and in many ways set the stage for its ongoing success – I feel that the reason the story never really resonated with me is because it never seemed like it was one that needed to be told.

So that’s it!

Han Solo.

I hope we’re still friends after all of that! Just remember that these are simply the opinions of one person, presented here for a bit of fun and perhaps to be thought-provoking.

Despite criticisms of some individual films and stories, I consider myself a fan of Star Wars. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I first sat down to watch the original trilogy at the insistence of a friend in the early 1990s, and I’ve supported Star Wars at the cinema, on television, and in the gaming realm ever since. There’s a lot to love – even if I have some controversial “hot takes” on the franchise sometimes!

Just this year I’ve enjoyed The Book of Boba Fett and Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Andor and Lego Star Wars: Summer Vacation will have to offer, too. So I hope this was a bit of fun as we look ahead to some of those upcoming Star Wars projects.

The Star Wars franchise – including all films, games, and television shows discussed above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The moment that Star Wars simply can’t live up to

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the entire Star Wars franchise, including The Rise of Skywalker and Knights of the Old Republic.

There’s one very powerful moment in the film most fans agree is the best in Star Wars’ cinematic canon that is both the high point of its success and a weight around its neck. This one moment defines Star Wars’ place in popular culture, and was a twist so unexpected and shocking that it transformed a couple of exciting space fantasy films into a franchise that continues to this day. You know the moment I’m referring to, right?

“No, I am your father!”

But this has been a double-edged sword. After the incredible success of The Empire Strikes Back, the next film in the series – which rounded out the Star Wars trilogy and concluded the series for almost two decades – felt, to some fans at least, like a bit of an anticlimax. It’s difficult to remember now, given all of the other controversies Star Wars has endured from the prequels to the sequels and beyond, but for a long time, Return of the Jedi was considered the weak link in the trilogy.

I vividly remember the first time I watched Star Wars – at the behest of a friend who was a pretty big fan – in the early ’90s. He had all three films on video, and as we sat down to watch them, his father, who was also a Star Wars fan and had introduced the films to his son, insisted to us that the first two films were great, but Return of the Jedi was absolute crap! Part of the reason why some fans felt – or still feel – this way is that Return of the Jedi has nothing that comes close to comparing to the “I am your father!” moment. Nor does any other Star Wars film.

Star Wars has tried – and failed – to come up with something that compares to this moment, even going as far back as Return of the Jedi.

Though the prequel trilogy didn’t try to outright replicate that moment, I think it’s not unfair to say that nothing in those three films compares to the revelation of Vader being Luke’s father – and perhaps that’s because fans already knew the broad strokes of the prequels’ storyline before sitting down to watch any of the films. There were bumps and twists along the way, but we all knew before we sat down to watch The Phantom Menace in 1999 that Anakin would betray the Jedi and become Darth Vader, and that the mild-mannered Palpatine was a Sith in disguise. It’s hard to have a shocking twist under such circumstances!

But the sequel trilogy definitely tried to recapture the magic of the moment between Luke and Vader on Cloud City – not once, but at least three times. In The Force Awakens, Kylo removing his helmet for the first time was an attempt at a shocking surprise. In The Last Jedi we can point to the reveal of Rey’s parents as “nobody,” as well as the death of Snoke, and in The Rise of Skywalker we again have Rey’s parentage but this time Kylo explaining to her that “you are a Palpatine” – one of the worst lines in the trilogy.

This moment between Kylo Ren and Rey was clearly intended to recreate the magic of the scene between Vader and Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.

None of these moments, and many others in Star Wars, have come close to achieving the success of the Darth Vader line in The Empire Strikes Back, and it feels like the franchise doesn’t really know how to respond to the overwhelming power of that one moment. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Star Wars’ entire success is based on one moment in one film, nor that it’s the franchise’s sole accomplishment. But it’s undeniably one of the high points in the whole franchise, so if Star Wars is to see continued success the creative team in charge need to understand what the moment represents, why it worked, and most importantly they need to understand why recent attempts to replicate it have fallen flat.

For me, the closest Star Wars has ever got to recreating the magic of that Darth Vader reveal came not in a film but in a video game. In Knights of the Old Republic, toward the end of the game it’s revealed that the player character is, in fact, one of the game’s principal villains – a Sith Lord named Darth Revan. Revan had their mind erased after being captured by the Jedi, and was re-trained in order to follow the path of the light side. I remember sitting there with the Xbox control pad in my hand with my mouth hanging open, stunned!

The revelation that the player character is Darth Revan in Knights of the Old Republic was shocking, and about as close as Star Wars has ever managed to get to the Luke-Vader moment.

So why don’t I feel that way when Kylo is revealed to be Ben Solo? Or when Rey is revealed to be a descendant of Palpatine? Figuring this out is important, because I’m not the only one who recognises that Star Wars is trying and failing to live up to this moment.

By the time of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey’s parents had been established, and changing that arbitrarily to follow a fan theory just felt wrong – and more than a little stupid. Not to mention that the execution was clumsy and it came in a film with myriad other problems. But the reveal that Kylo Ren is, in fact, Ben Solo – the son of Han and Leia – should have garnered more of a reaction, surely? After all, this is the son of two of Star Wars’ principal characters and biggest heroes, yet he’s the villain having fallen to the dark side.

The buildup to Kylo Ren’s reveal wasn’t as intense, and by the time it’s finally understood who we’re dealing with, perhaps elements of that had already been teased in such a way as they weren’t as big of a shock. Then there’s the fact that The Force Awakens is where we first met Kylo Ren; he didn’t have an entire film to grow on us as his own character – mere minutes after meeting him for the first time we learn his true identity. Darth Vader had almost two entire films as the “big bad” before it became known to us who he really was – and I think that has a bearing on how we perceive these different moments in the two films.

Kylo Ren’s unmasking – and the reveal that he’s Ben Solo – just doesn’t compare to the Luke-Vader moment on Cloud City.

Partly this is a consequence of the way the original trilogy was created. Darth Vader was not Luke’s father in the original film; this is an addition that came later, during the writing of The Empire Strikes Back. There was nothing in the first film to set up or telegraph this moment – because no one, even those involved with the film, knew that the moment was coming. In The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker, the moments which attempt to recreate it were planned, and the films were almost constructed around what the creative team hoped would be the big shocking twist.

Overall, though, I think the fundamental problem is this: The Empire Strikes Back didn’t set out to create a story that all depended on a single moment. The film has many other truly fantastic sequences that would still make it an outstanding film even if the Luke-Vader moment didn’t exist or came in a different film. The creative team behind The Empire Strikes Back weren’t trying to recreate something from a prior story, they were pioneering something new. And while they knew it was going to be a seminal moment in the film, I don’t think anyone involved could have predicted just how important that one moment would turn out to be for the entire Star Wars franchise.

The story of Darth Vader was not known or planned out in the first couple of films – which made the revelation all the more shocking.

But even by the time of Return of the Jedi a couple of years later it was apparent that Star Wars was in danger of feeling like a one-trick pony. A new Death Star had been created to replace the one Luke destroyed in the first film, which is hardly anything original, and after the big twist of the Luke-Vader connection in The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi made the first attempt to recapture that moment by arbitrarily making Luke and Leia siblings. Neither moment lived up to the comparable moments in previous films, and perhaps that’s a contributing factor to why some fans felt let down. Star Wars had already begun living in its own shadow.

Mimicking or recreating a story or narrative moment almost never results in something better. The most that Star Wars can hope for is to hit the same high notes – but trying to copy something it’s already done won’t ever lead to the franchise exceeding it. The Empire Strikes Back succeeded because it pioneered a storyline that no fan could have expected. Subsequent Star Wars projects – from Return of the Jedi to The Rise of Skywalker – failed to live up to that moment because they didn’t try to create their own unique moments, they tried to copy the successful one from The Empire Strikes Back.

Star Wars won’t ever succeed at recreating this moment – and the sooner the writers and producers realise that, the sooner the franchise can move on!

I’ve spoken on a number of occasions about Star Wars as a franchise being trapped by its own past, unable to move on from the shadow of the original trilogy and tell truly new and different stories. But because the new films rely so heavily on nostalgia for the originals they weren’t allowed to stand on their own two feet – and when The Last Jedi tried in its own way to branch out and do something different, the result was controversy and a divided fanbase. It’s almost unsurprising, in that context, that Star Wars would simply choose to retreat to safer, more comfortable ground – even if that means it won’t ever surpass its original incarnation.

For me the question is this: is that moment in The Empire Strikes Back all Star Wars can ever be? Or will it one day aspire to do something different, maybe even something better? Right now the answer is that Star Wars seems to want to stay firmly in that nostalgic space, chasing the one moment the creative team knows fans adore; the moment on which Star Wars’ modern iterations hang. But for all the films and television shows produced since that moment in 1980, forty-one years ago, the franchise has never succeeded at recreating its magic.

Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to emulate past success, to move on to newer and different things. There are amazing stories in the Star Wars galaxy waiting to be told – but first the creative team in charge of the franchise has to come to terms with the fact that nothing they do will ever match the revelation Darth Vader gives to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. When they finally realise that, and desist from trying to forcibly make it happen, the franchise can finally start making its own magical moments again.

The Star Wars franchise – including The Empire Strikes Back and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of LucasFilm and the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking back on The Empire Strikes Back on its 40th anniversary

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for The Empire Strikes Back and the rest of the Star Wars franchise.

On the 21st of May 1980, The Empire Strikes Back arrived in cinemas. Its release would set the stage for Star Wars becoming the greatly-expanded franchise we know today, and it remains for many fans – myself included – the high-water mark which subsequent entries have struggled to live up to. The Empire Strikes Back also gave us the first hint of a potential prequel series, as it adopted the moniker “Episode V”, retroactively making 1977’s Star Wars, which had of course been the first film released in the series, the fourth part of a larger story.

It wasn’t at all clear, even in the months leading up to Star Wars’ 1977 release, that the film would be a success. Lucasfilm had created a number of options for a Star Wars sequel depending on what kind of budget might be available – something which was dependant on the scale of the first film’s success. One option was to make a film version of the 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which had been written as a sequel story to the original film. This story had been written specifically to allow the reuse of many props and sets – which would have allowed a film version to have a relatively low budget. It’s also a story that, if circumstances required it, could have been a conclusive end to the Star Wars story – potentially killing off Darth Vader. However, Star Wars went on to be a greater success than expected, allowing for a different sequel story, one which was far broader in scope than Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

Early work on the project that would become The Empire Strikes Back – which was then simply titled Star Wars Chapter II – seems to have kicked off while the original film was still in cinemas in the summer of 1977. Emboldened by the success of Star Wars, George Lucas was able to negotiate very favourable terms for a sequel, and though production was hampered by the loss of some special effects people and artists, by 1978 The Empire Strikes Back was taking shape. Sequels were, at the time, relatively uncommon and success was by no means guaranteed. Nevertheless, the original cast returned for the sequel and filming began in 1979.

The Battle of Hoth.

The biggest story point that everyone remembers from The Empire Strikes Back is, of course, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. This scene has become iconic not just in cinema but in popular culture in general, to such an extent that I’d wager most people, even if they’ve never seen the film – or indeed any film in the Star Wars franchise – could tell you what happened! It’s also one of cinema’s most misquoted scenes: Vader doesn’t say “Luke, I am your father”, as so many people seem to think. Instead, after hearing Luke say he knows that Vader killed his father, he responds with “No, I am your father!”

This moment was incredibly shocking, and I was fortunate enough on first viewing the film as a kid to go into that moment unspoiled and unaware of what was about to unfold. There was no internet in those days, and my friend, whose VHS copy of the film we were watching, was kind enough not to have spoilt it for me! I have an article that I wrote for Star Wars Day earlier this month in which I go into a little more detail of my own early history with the franchise – those of you interested can find it by clicking or tapping here.

One of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema.

I do feel that this moment has its downsides, though. The semantic gymnastics required to get around Obi-Wan’s statement in A New Hope that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father are kind of ridiculous, and before the prequels were released, the line that what he said was true “from a certain point of view” was one of the low points of the entire franchise (along with the Ewoks)! In fact, if you’ll allow me a complete tangent for a moment, with the prequels and sequels attracting negative attention from sections of the fanbase, it’s almost easy to forget that Return of the Jedi was considered Star Wars’ weakest film for a long time. When I first watched the original trilogy with my friend, I remember discussing it afterwards and his father in particular was adamant that Return of the Jedi was atrocious! But we’ve gone way off-topic.

The other major downside from the Vader-Luke revelation is that subsequent entries in the franchise, most egregiously the prequels but also key points in the sequels too, rely on similar familial connections, usually thrown in just for cheap nostalgia. There’s a sense in the Star Wars universe that because Force powers can be inherited that every major character needs to have inherited their powers from someone else in the franchise. Return of the Jedi continued this trend by making Luke and Leia brother and sister – something which similarly came from nowhere. The prequels kicked that into high gear by making practically every character related or connected to someone else, and finally we have the sequel trilogy, which focuses on the son of Han and Leia battling the granddaughter of Palpatine – the latter being either the stupidest or second-stupidest character relationship along with Anakin building C-3PO.

This moment in the prequels? Not good.

By changing Luke’s character from an everyman, someone who showed the audience that anyone from anywhere could step up and play a major role in saving the galaxy, The Empire Strikes Back laid the groundwork for what would become a story about destiny. Luke was the one to take down the Death Star and face Vader and the Emperor because he was destined to play that role. Or even worse, Luke was simply being manipulated the entire time by Palpatine – as every major character seems to have been – robbing him of any agency over his own story. But that latter point in particular would only become apparent later on, and once again I’ve veered off-topic!

None of that means, however, that the revelation was not incredibly powerful and shocking within The Empire Strikes Back itself. There’s a reason why that scene has become so iconic, after all! But there are drawbacks, some of which we’ve really only begun to see with recent Star Wars projects trying desperately to recapture that magical moment.

On a more positive note, The Empire Strikes Back introduced Yoda for the first time. When Luke was sent to the Dagobah system to continue his Jedi training, we as the audience – like Luke himself – expected him to meet someone not dissimilar to Ben Kenobi: an older, wiser, stronger man who will help Luke unlock his potential. Yoda is so far removed from what we expected that it could have ended up being comical, yet this is actually a great example of how to properly subvert an audience’s expectations! It also has a simple message, both for Luke and for us: don’t judge a book by its cover.

Yoda debuts in The Empire Strikes Back.

Dagobah is such an atmospheric setting, as indeed most of the locations The Empire Strikes Back visits are. A jungle-swamp shrouded in thick fog feels very eerie, and Yoda being the only sentient creature we meet there adds to the sense of isolation. Hoth is a wonderful setting too – the frozen wasteland is symbolic of the Rebels being on the run and having to hide off the map, so to speak. We often associate frozen, arctic locations with being inaccessible due to the polar regions of Earth being so difficult to get to, so this in particular was a masterstroke in my opinion. Seeing the Rebel base invaded at the beginning of the film also served to show just how powerful the Empire was – they could track the Rebels anywhere, even this remote outpost.

While we’re on the subject of locations, Cloud City is also a really interesting place – the bright, sunlit, futuristic city makes the betrayal that happens there all the more shocking. And the lower reaches of the city, where Vader and Luke have their duel and where Han is frozen, is also absolutely iconic. With the exception of some of the outdoor scenes set on Hoth, which were filmed in Norway, almost every location in The Empire Strikes Back was filmed on indoor sound stages. I’ve been championing this choice for current and upcoming productions recently; one of the (few) disappointments from the first season of Star Trek: Picard is that all of its planets looked samey due to being filmed within a few miles of its Los Angeles base. The Empire Strikes Back makes a great case for using indoor filming locations instead of going on expensive outdoor shoots all the time.

After only being referenced in A New Hope, in The Empire Strikes Back we’re finally introduced to the Emperor (who would remain nameless until the prequels; I never could figure out where the name “Palpatine” came from!) In the original version, the Emperor, who only appears to Darth Vader via hologram, was a composite of actor Clive Revill, painter Marjorie Eaton, and the eyes from a chimpanzee to create a weird, creepy look and sound. The role would, of course, be recast for the Emperor’s expanded role in Return of the Jedi. The scene was rerecorded for the “special editions” of the films in the early 2000s.

Palpatine’s original appearance.

What makes The Empire Strikes Back really stand out, at least for me, is that it’s a film where the heroes lose. A New Hope told the story of a desperate last-ditch effort to transport the stolen Death Star plans and destroy that weapon of war. Aside from Obi-Wan’s death, the heroes come out victorious – and one life is a tiny price to pay compared to destroying a planet-killing superweapon. But The Empire Strikes Back does what its title says – the Empire retaliates for the Rebel victory, destroying their new base, causing friends to turn on them, capturing Han Solo and maiming Luke. By the end of the film, the destruction of the Death Star seems a long time ago, and there’s a mountain to climb if Luke, Leia, and the rest of the Rebels are to ever be victorious.

That’s something that very few stories nowadays would be prepared to risk. There would be a three-year wait before Return of the Jedi picked up the story, and that’s a long time to leave fans hanging, especially as the ending was, in many ways, a real downer. As we’ve seen from the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy, they weren’t bold enough to let either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi end on such a note. Some television series do have end-of-season cliffhangers, but for these the wait is usually only a few months. In short, they don’t make films like The Empire Strikes Back any more!

However, there’s a valuable lesson in the film’s narrative of successive losses and defeats, and it means that the Rebels’ ultimate victory in Return of the Jedi is even more sweet knowing how close they came to defeat. It demonstrates clearly how powerful the galaxy-spanning Empire truly is. And Luke learns that he needs to train and study if he’s even going to have a chance at standing up to Vader and the Emperor. As the audience, we expect our heroes to prevail. The Empire Strikes Back says that sometimes, merely surviving to fight again another day can be just as important.

At the same time, the film ends with optimism and hope – Luke and Leia are alive, despite everything they’ve been through. And though initially someone who betrayed them, Lando has come around to be a new ally. The Rebellion is also still alive, despite losing its base, and Luke’s lost hand is replaced with a mechanical one. As dark as parts of the film were, and despite the successive defeats, there is still hope for the Rebels in the film’s closing scene.

The heroes look across the galaxy at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

For me personally, one of the things I remember most from my earliest viewing of The Empire Strikes Back was how genuinely frightening Darth Vader was. The unmoving masked face, the slow, mechanical breathing, and the relentlessness he showed in the duel with Luke combined to make him terrifying – and The Empire Strikes Back is the pinnacle of Vader being an intimidating villain. Sadly, the prequels would go a long way to undermining that, at least in my opinion.

The Empire Strikes Back is still the best Star Wars has to offer, and after forty years and with ten other films and a television show, that’s quite a legacy. Although, perhaps that says more about the decline in quality in subsequent projects than it does about the film itself! Regardless, it’s the high bar that the Star Wars franchise – and many other science fiction and fantasy titles too – aim for. It’s a film which has quite understandably become legendary, but in a time where nostalgia and reboots trump originality, it’s hard to see when another film, either in the Star Wars franchise or not, will come close to matching what The Empire Strikes Back accomplished.

The Empire Strikes Back is available to stream on Disney+. The Star Wars franchise – including The Empire Strikes Back and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.