The Empire Strikes Back legitimized Star Wars. It didn’t happen immediately – it grossed less than A New Hope and many people who loved the original film didn’t like the movie’s big reveal. But over time, it’s become difficult to find a ranked list of the franchise that doesn’t list Empire at the top (though, it is number 4 for me).
This movie does so much to play with your expectations, bring in interesting themes, and tell a great story all at the same time. The introduction of Yoda gives a great insight into George Lucas’ mind and his ideas about the world. Yoda imparts so much wisdom on Luke in a short amount of time, and it encapsulates many of the movie’s main themes.
The Triumph of Evil
A New Hope trained Star Wars viewers to expect the victory of good over evil. There’s a faceless bad guy dressed completely in black who wears a menacing mask that our hero (Luke) must defeat. There is no draw to the Dark Side for Luke – all he wants to do is fight the giant evil Empire. Then after he meets new friends (who are also good) and learns his new powers, he blows up the Death Star, defeats evil, and gets a medal.
Then The Empire Strikes Back came along and told the audience that they shouldn’t be so secure in their belief that everything will turn out right eventually. Instead, this movie ends with Darth Vader winning and Luke losing his hand after he finds out Vader is actually his father.
This was the perfect way to follow up the original film. It works narratively because after a clean and simple introduction to the characters, the audience is ready for a darker and more complex story. Similarly, since the world of Star Wars is so different from our own, the audience needs the first film’s thematic simplicity to get their bearings. But with the second movie, we have a basic understanding of ideas like the Force, so we’re ready to be taken to brave new places.
The new place it decides to take us first is to the idea that good will not always triumph. Movies are often a great place for escapism, but they’re also a place for us to learn more about life. Because it seems as if it is more common for good to not triumph in real life. There are often large roadblocks in the way of a morally good goal. Just as destroying the Death Star is just one step in actually defeating the Empire, Darth Vader’s victory over Luke and the Rebellion in this movie is just one step in a potential complete takeover of the Empire.
But even though the prevailing idea about this movie is that evil wins, what is usually not mentioned is the fact that the good guys are planning to come back in the next movie. It’s a simple reminder to never give up hope. Even when it looks like all hope is lost – when Luke loses a hand, Han is frozen in carbonite, and Luke’s world is changed forever by finding out Darth Vader is his father – there is still the hope that good can eventually triumph.
Black and White Becoming Gray
It seems obvious, but the most prominent area that immediately becomes gray is when Vader reveals he is actually Luke’s father. Luke went from thinking that Vader was his enemy, full stop, to realizing the situation is more complicated than it originally seemed.
Very rarely does pure evil arise in the world. If you watched the Prequels, then you know the backstory of Darth Vader. There was so much fear and confusion that caused him to cease to exist as Anakin Skywalker and instead turn into Darth Vader. Even though the Emperor refers to Anakin as a completely separate person from Darth Vader, Vader certainly isn’t pure evil. Conversely, he is a dense and complex character with large amounts of internal conflict.
But if you’re Luke or a viewer watching in 1980, then you think that Darth Vader really is unequivocally evil. Just finding out that he has a son and that his son is a character that seems to be totally good can change your entire perception of the character.
This reveal turns everything on its head and it’s great. It makes the story infinitely more compelling and primes itself to say something about either redemption or full corruption.
Luke’s visit to Dagobah is ripe for analysis. There is a lot here for Yoda to say and show Luke about the world.
First and foremost, there are new insights into who the Jedi actually were. Luke tells Yoda he is looking for a great warrior (he means he’s looking for Yoda), and Yoda responds, “War makes not one great.” This is less a comment about war and warriors than it is one about what actually does make someone great. With this comment, Yoda is either saying that he wasn’t great at all because he was unable to stop the rise of Darth Vader and the Empire, or he is saying that what actually makes him (or the Jedi in general) great is his wisdom and ability to teach.
The Prequels are all about war and action, but they saw the rise of evil. The Original Trilogy are more about Luke’s training, and they saw the triumph of good over evil. And as the Sequel Trilogy seems to be saying, what truly matters is the blurred lines between good and evil. The Jedi’s wisdom may not always be correct or successful, but their philosophy of peace over war is well-grounded.
Here is where Luke trips up, though. He wants to get his training over quickly so he will be ready to go and fight, without giving thought to what his training actually means. Yoda emphasizes that Luke is lacking patience, which is subtly one of the largest and most overarching themes of the entire saga. Luke is too focused on the future, says Yoda, and that is taking away from his training in the present.
This idea is all too true to life. There is always that big dream or goal that we are trying to achieve. Whatever it may be, it is our endgame in a certain area. But we can’t achieve our future goals without working on ourselves in the present. It is all mental – having the correct mindset in the present can only be beneficial for us in the long run.
And this idea goes along with Yoda’s training regarding Luke lifting the X-wing. Yoda tells Luke that the only difference between lifting the X-wing and lifting some rocks is his mind. When what you’re doing is in your mind, one thing isn’t heavier than another. It’s all about believing in yourself and what you know you are able to do.
Eventually, Yoda proves this idea to Luke by lifting the X-wing out of the water with ease. Once Luke sees this, he finally believes in himself and what he can do. In a series all about having faith in something (the Force), it’s interesting that proof is shown for faith to thrive.
Additionally, when Luke wants to leave before his training is complete, Yoda tells him that the quick and easy path leads to evil. Anakin took the quick and easy path and it did of course lead to evil. This is both foreshadowing about Luke almost turning in Return of the Jedi and a necessary warning.
Connections and Loyalty
Lando learns some new things about the importance of knowing who to trust in this movie. After he cuts a deal with Darth Vader, everything goes awry for him. On one hand, it is ironic because of his tendency to lie and cheat to get what he wants, but on the other, it’s scary to know that anyone can turn on you at any moment.
There is also some fault to be placed on Han here for not learning this very lesson. He knew the problems that Lando posed from the events in Solo, but he trusted Lando again anyway. For this, he was put in Carbonite.
Similarly, Darth Vader has no actual loyalty to the Emperor. The Emperor is as much of a pawn to Vader as Vader is to the Emperor. Vader wants to bring Luke over to the Dark Side and overthrow the Emperor. This whole situation foreshadows what happens in The Last Jedi with Kylo Ren and Rey. Kylo never has any real affection for Snoke – he just wants to team up with Rey. It shows the constant power struggle that will always be taking place.
In Harry Potter, Voldemort says, “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” This is just as true here in Star Wars, showing the lines to be constantly blurred.