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The Empire Strikes Back has a reputation for being the darkest of the Star Wars films. In contrast to the triumphant mood at the end of A New Hope, Empire closes with our heroes having been thoroughly defeated and left scrambling. Han is frozen in carbonite, placed in the hands of a bounty hunter, and ferried to the crime boss he’s been trying to avoid for two films. Luke fails in his quest to neutralize Darth Vader and has his hand sliced off for the trouble. What’s more, he learns not only that the man he loathes most in this world is his father, but that the people he trusted–the ones who guided him on this journey–have misled him. And Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2-D2 are all lucky to escape with their lives after being imprisoned, strangled, torn apart, and dragged through the muck.
The title “The Empire Strikes Back” could easily have been a simple marketing ploy, something that looked good on movie posters and sounded cool enough to rev up Star Wars’s legions of fans. Instead, it became an animating principle for the film. Empire contrasts the unexpected blow struck by the Rebels in the first film, with the measured counterpunch delivered by The Empire in the second. The ending of Empire sent the message that this would not be the type of series of films where the good guys win every time just because they’re the good guys.
But there’s much more to the movie than that darkness. It’s easy to judge Empire based on where the characters are at the end of the movie, but the route the film takes to bring them to that point is not so much dark as it is meditative, not so much bleak as it is serious, and, if I’m being honest, a bit more uneven in the effort than its predecessor.