May 25 2011 2:01pm

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned: How The Empire Strikes Back Ruined Everything

The Empire Strikes Back consistently makes it onto everyone’s Top Ten Science Fiction Films of All Time lists, and most fans and critics insist that it’s the best of all the Star Wars films. While debating that topic is a lost cause these days, Empire is certainly an example of how a sequel can not only be just as good or better than it’s predecessor, but how a great sequel can transform an audience’s understanding of a fictional environment. Empire proved to moviegoers that the Star Wars universe was a much darker, far more complex place than they had originally anticipated, full of war, betrayal and death. It showed the audience that being a band of rebels fighting for freedom means that most days you don’t blow up the Death Star. Most days, you abandon your base, your friends die all around you, and you have nothing to show for it except the fact that you’re alive. For now.

While that may have been a bit much for the movie-loving world initially (critical responses to the film were decidedly mixed when it first reached theaters), it grew in popularity over time. The middle chapter of that galaxy far, far away featuring a crushing defeat for the Alliance, a cliffhanger for the key romance, and an effective dressing down of the hero was something that no one had ever seen before. It also contained one of the greatest reveals in cinema history, one that was debated up until the release of Return of the Jedi: Is Vader Luke’s father? Is he lying? If he’s telling the truth, why would Obi-Wan lie? But despite all of that, there is a problem with the Episode V that no one is willing to talk about. It’s fairly simple when put down on paper:

The Empire Strikes Back has created an expectation in three-part storytelling that has weakened or outright destroyed many film trilogies that have followed it.

How many times have you been checking the buzz about a sequel and watched this phrase get tossed into the mix to rile up the viewership: “It’s going to be the Empire Strikes Back of the series.” What does that mean, exactly? Of course, you can make a few assumptions: a) it will be darker than the first film, b) it will contain unforeseen twists, c) the ending will likely be a cliffhanger and something of a downer. In fact, there is a general expectation that the second part of a trilogy will always follow the “darker before it gets lighter” mentality. While that is a natural function in good storytelling, it doesn’t mean that the entire second film needs to be a paragon of misery and brutal life lessons. But Empire is the film to beat in Trilogy Land, so Hollywood follows to the tune of the Imperial March every time.

Take Back to the Future II, for example. Plenty of fans were disappointed when this film came out, and it’s easy to understand why; the alternate reality caused by Marty leads to a future in which Biff Tannen has turned Hill Valley into a Gotham City lookalike. Watching Marty’s mother put up with Biff’s abuse and seeing Marty powerless to stop his temper and homicidal tendencies are a far cry from what audiences received in the first Back to the Future movie.

While it's not all that hard to imagine Biff becoming that sort of criminal, it does beg the question: why? Why did this movie need to be so depressing? Love it or hate it, it does seem like a bit of a stretch to jump from a light-hearted harkening back to saddle shoes and rockabilly into a reality where Biff is entertaining prostitutes in his jacuzzi and explaining, in detail, how he shot George McFly with the same gun he plans on using to kill Marty.

But Darth Vader killed an officer for every day of the galactic week in Empire, so we’re good, right?

Indiana Jones is another obvious contender here. Even Steven Spielberg willingly admits that Temple of Doom is the weakest adventure for our intrepid archaeologist, and the more gruesome elements of that story probably have a lot to do with it. Indiana Jones fought Nazis in the first film, but it looks like tearing a person’s heart out of their chest and beating child slaves might be just a little bit darker than even those swastikas were capable of providing. Frankly, the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark were treated with quite a bit of good old-fashioned tongue-in-cheek; the French potshots at their pet archaeologist Belloq, the potential torture devices that turn out to be coat hangers, the obsession (in German) over the state of Indy’s stolen undersized uniform.

But in Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones gets mind-controlled after tripping on god blood, he and his kid sidekick get whipped side by side, and we see a guy get dropped into a fiery pit of lava while he’s praying for his life. Even in terms of globe-trotting adventures, that could be termed a little extreme, especially when you’re viewing it live on screen (and especially before the advantage of a PG-13 rating).

But Han Solo was tortured on Cloud City in Empire—it’s probably fine.

Even the trilogies that many people take issue with altogether still fall into this trap. What about The Mummy? Even if it’s not your favorite, the first film was fun if you’re a fan of camp and plucky, wise-cracking heroes. It’s nothing like the Boris Karloff original, but if you’re not expecting it to be, you can have a good time. In The Mummy Returns, however, we see Evey O’Connell get murdered in front of her husband and son. She comes back, of course, but not before we’re treated to the sight of Rick O’Connell sobbing over his wife’s lifeless body. Then there’s my personal favorite turn in the plot, when Anck-Su-Namun leaves Imhotep to die, thereby nullifying the romance that had driven the entire first film. So much for everlasting love.

But Princess Leia loses Han in Empire right after admitting her feelings for him, so this must be romance done right.

I’ve already talked about how the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy ran into this exact problem; it might even explain how vehement the negative reviews are for the current installment—people just stopped caring and lost faith in the series. Dead Man’s Chest is surely the darkest of the Pirates movies, and perhaps the most confusing of all the plotlines is Will’s determination to redeem his condemned father, Bootstrap Bill Turner. This, mind you, is after his father is forced to whip him in front of Davy Jones' crew. (Whipping again. Apparently it's a good way to get anguish across without having to kill anyone.) Will’s desire to save his father is more aggravating than anyone else’s plotting during the film because his desperate need to be heroic is simply getting in the way; why couldn’t he just let Jack stab the heart and ask him to free his father once he’s captain of the Flying Dutchman? It would have unfortunately negated that fantastic three-way sword fight, but the plot would have been a whole lot less convoluted.

But then, in Empire, Luke was horrified by the sudden knowledge that his father was a monster too, so Will’s journey obviously makes sense.

I am not endeavoring to make a case that all of these films are inherently awful, but I think the trend is lamentable. There is no real reason why the second installments of trilogies need to be such a complete turnaround from the initial material presented in the first films. There is only one Empire Strikes Back. Nobody is going to make the next one. Just because audiences liked Empire doesn’t mean they will be automatically disappointed by a second film that refuses to repeat that configuration.

The Empire Strikes Back deserves respect. It deserves a tender place in the memories of SFF and film fans everywhere. It also deserves to be a unique entity in filmmaking. In this case, imitation is not the best form of flattery. Please: use Empire with caution.

Emily Asher-Perrin's parents used to call her Yoda when she was a baby. The wrinkles probably had something to do with it, but she can't imagine her ears actually looked like that. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

1. Dairhenien
To play devil's advocate--if a sequel sticks to the same territory as the original, why make the sequel? I would imagine that sequel would open itself to even more critique if it did nothing but rehash the ground tread in the first film.

You may reply that the film should explore new territory, but not necessarily darker territory. I agree to an extent; I've never been a fan of the gritty reboot. Darkness for the sake of darkness just isn't my thing. But really, shouldn't the stakes be higher in the sequel than the original? The first Back to the Future already threatened Marty with some heavy, Neverending Story-style nothing. Where can you go from there? You threaten his family, maybe threaten the whole town. I would say that any sequel that doesn't raise the stakes from the original gets dangerously close to Scouring of the Shire territory. (Yeah, I know you just destroyed the greatest evil the world has ever known, but what are you going to do about these THUGS, huh?)

I think the biggest expectation that should be defeated is the idea of trilogy as the default expansion for a movie series. And it is the default--how many movie contracts come with an option for two sequels built right in? Some of the most successful film series (Bond, Star Trek, Shrek, Harry Potter) break the trilogy mold. Some are episodic, some adhere to non-trilogy source material. But they all go beyond the confines of the three act structure that defines the trilogy.

Empire may exemplify the modern "middle movie," but really, the nature of the trilogy itself is more to blame.
2. Jobi-Wan
Good read, from the title of the article I didnt think I was going to agree with your stance but I think your pretty much spot on of your assessment of sequals.
Marcus W
3. toryx
Well the problem is that most of the time trilogies are approached from the perspective of a single work. The first film is Act One, the second film is Act Two and the third is Act Three. The peak of Act Two is supposed to be the greatest conflict.

I think this is far older than The Empire Strikes Back. It just so happens that Empire did it better than most anyone else.
Emmet O'Brien
4. EmmetAOBrien
Dairhenien@1: I'm inclined to read that as the genius of the Scouring of the Shire, and to wish that pattern was followed more; too few stories these days get a decent denouement.

toryx@3: It's all Aristotle's fault.
Fake Name
5. ThePendragon
Yes, they should all strive to be Attack of the Clones for their second film!
rick gregory
6. rickg
The examples you cite aren't the fault of Empire, but of filmmakers who took the wrong lesson from it. Star Wars was conceived of as a trilogy and so follows the standard 3 part form - look at sonatas in music or Hegel in philosophy or the Greeks in theater. It's Thesis > Antithesis >Synthesis. It's Theme > Variations > Recapitulation.

The point isn't to make a dark, gritty second work, it's to provide an internally consistent counterpoint that creates tension which is then resolved in the third act. Back To the Future 2 fails because it's not a variation on the theme of 1, nor is is a counterpooint... it's a completely new theme.

Jo Walton did a post here once about the kinds of series that authors write and drew a useful distinction between series that are one story arc vs those that are episodes. The latter see each work be a self-contained story. The characters in later volumes are familiar and it will help to have read earlier volumes for some background, but it's not necessary. Back To the Future is that sort of series. Star Wars is the former kind, where a story is told across multiple volumes. Trying to use the techniques meant for one sort of storytelling in another sort rarely work for the reasons you write about
7. N. Mamatas
How many times have you been checking the buzz about a sequel and
watched this phrase get tossed into the mix to rile up the viewership:
“It’s going to be the Empire Strikes Back of the series.”

I can't say I ever heard this, ever ever. I also loved Temple of Doom and think it's much more interesting than either Last Crusade or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. At any rate, ToD isn't part of a series in the way Empire is—the events of that film predate Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Emmet O'Brien
8. EmmetAOBrien
rickg@6: I don't believe Star Wars was actually conceived as a trilogy during the production of the first film - the first cinematic release was not tagged Episode IV - and if I recall correctly, Lucas was talking about it as a nine-film series around the time Empire came out, so the argument that Empire works because it was designed that way does not seem to me to hold.
Emily Asher-Perrin
9. EmilyAP
@Dairhenien & toryx - I understand what you are both saying in regard to three part structure, but if anything, that proves the point; most of the trilogies I mentioned were not initially designed to be trilogies. Yet they are constantly being framed as though that was the point all along:

Back to the Future built it in, but Indiana Jones is episodic. The Mummy wasn't going to have a sequel initially: in fact, the writers have admitted that there were a lot of elements from an alternate first draft of the The Mummy that got recycled into the sequel (which I always felt was the real culprit in that film). The Pirates series was not planned out as a trilogy--when they got the greenlight to make more, they filmed the next two together, which easily explains why Dead Man's Chest and At World's End have so much more linking them together than any ties they have to Curse of the Black Pearl.

Perhaps the real problem is going dark when you had no plan to do so in the first place. The Dark Knight, as others have pointed out, did work in that regard, but Chris Nolan always seemed to have a notion of what he was doing with Batman. The trilogy he offers will (hopefully) be a real structural trilogy, a three-part story.

But I do agree, Darhenien, that a trilogy should not be a default expansion.
Emily Asher-Perrin
10. EmilyAP
@rickg - In the interest of clarity, I was not trying to indicate that Empire should somehow "be blamed" for all of these problems. I agree with you entirely in regard to these filmmakers taking the wrong lesson from it. That is precisely the point! :)

@N. Mamatas - Confession?--I love Temple of Doom too. As a kid, there was nothing that affected me more than seeing Short Round tag along after Indy. As I said, I'm not making the claim that ToD is an awful movie, but I do think it is strange that there is such a tonal difference between it and Raiders. The shift seems needless. (And while you're right that the story itself takes place before the events of Raiders, a lot of audience members don't even realize that, and take it as Part 2 of Indy's story.)
11. Mary Arrrr
I am hearby outing myself as having seen Empire opening weekend and that the playground opinion was thumbs down.

Also remember that Empire was written by Leigh Brackett, who wrote many of Howard Hawks's best films. And teamed with William Faulkner on the script of The Big Sleep. She knew how to write big and tragic and epic. That talent appears to have been lost (or snuffed by the suits).
12. cheem
Note that the Empire mode has been done successfully... witness the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's a common form and it often works.
13. JoeNotCharles
In fact, the first three Pirates movies follow exactly the arc of the first three Star Wars movies:

The first is essentially standalone, and is a solid story that was mindblowing at the time but seems smaller in scope when looked at after the sequels. One character is a scoundrel who may just be after money, but helps the heroes in the end.

The second is the best of the three, and is both more complicated and more assured in the way it presents the mythology (just throwing stuff out there expecting the audience to keep up, with less time spent on establishment). Also darker, and ends on a cliffhanger with the scoundrel character being as good as dead, and the other heroes vowing to go rescue him.

The third is divided into two parts: the rescuing of the scoundrel character, and then a massive climactic battle. The two don't have much linkage. It has individual scenes which are as good as the previous movie, and in fact many of the pure spectacle scenes are better, but the script doesn't hang together well enough so taken as a whole the movie is a flop. (Also, a cool new villain that was introduced in the second movie is criminally underused.)
Marcus W
14. toryx
EmilyAP @ 9:

That's true but whenever a film does so well in the box office that the studio starts talking about doing another one, I think they always think of at least two more movies rather than just one. That's the point at which the perspective changes. The Mummy may be a little different but when The Matrix (which came out at the same time) did so well in the box office, they immediately decided to do two more. The same was true of Back to the Future.

Things tend to happen in threes far more readily than in twos and I think the studios are pretty well aware of that. I'd bet that whenever a movie does well enough to warrant a sequel they start thinking of it in terms of two more films rather than one right away.

Of course, Empire might be partly responsible for that. It could be that the second movie is always set up the way it is (in an Empire sort of sense) in order to attract the success for a third.
rick gregory
15. rickg
@emmett - Lucas was talking about is a a nine film series, but as 3 trilogies (sadly, I'm old enough to remember the press around this at the time... ). The idea was to have a trilogy of Luke... one of the times before and one after. I doubt he had details mapped out, but IIRC that was the overall plna.

So, yes, the Star Wars we know of was thought of as a trilogy (and even though I'm sure he didn't have detailed plans, the triology structure still implies things for the story arc, how you construct the first film and the nature of the second film.

Certainly Star Wars could have stood on its own, but it also fits an arc well. Back to the Future seems to fit a more episodic series format that would be, basically, The Continuing Adventures of Marty McFly.
16. Dairhenien
EmmetAOBrien@4: The scouring of the Shire was great, in book form. I don't think it would have worked in film. If it had been filmed, it would have come out as an "All New Adventure" in a 2-disc DVD bundle. (Are you listening, Dreamworks? Cut it out! They're only fifteen minutes long, so they don't need a separate DVD case, geez.)

I tend to think that the length of denouement should be in proportion to the length of the work in question. People complained about the length of the ending of Return of the King, because that ending was too long--for Return of the King. It was a perfect length for the entire trilogy. For the most part, though, when someone sits down to see a film, they're watching it in a 2-3 hour chunk, not as part of a larger whole. Reading is different. Reading is patient, reading is kind, it does not envy, etc... You can get away with a LOT in a book that your general movie audience won't tolerate.

EmilyAP@9: I guess what you're driving at here is the retconning implicit in redefining a single work as the first act of a larger work. Back to the Future did the same thing that you pointed out with Pirates, even down to filming the last two at the same time--something that was unprecedented back then.

I wonder if the real issue here is that "expansion trilogies" are really two stories, not one, not three. The second film often fails as a stand-alone film because it's not. The first half is full of fan service, all of the "Look! your favorite characters are BACK IN ACTION" moments, while the second half is all setup for Part III.

The exception to this that you mentioned was Indiana Jones, which is definitely episodic, not the middle part of an expansion to trilogy form. I don't know, that movie's a weird bird in lots of ways, all big hair and Asian sidekicks. It has more in common with Big Trouble in Little China than it does Raiders or Last Crusade. I blame the 80s.

If I didn't say it yet, though, great article. Lots of food for thought, and I love it when storytelling assumptions get questioned like this. :)
17. ariadnesthread
A major problem I had with the Pirates trilogy was that it couldn't decide whose story was being told. It should have been Will Turner's story throughout--he is our way into the world, and he is the only character who really grows as a result of the action. Instead, it seems to me, the filmmakers decided that Jack Sparrow was the more exciting, fun character and let him chew every piece of scenery. He doesn't grow or change, so the dramatic narrative progression stalls.

There's a plausibility gap, too, in the kiss between Jack and Elizabeth. She has found him contemptible, not alluring, from the get-go. I cannot buy her sudden attraction and her betrayal of Will.

And as a friend reminds me every time we discuss the movies, what happens to Norrington is unforgiveable. He's unjustly punished simply for doing the right thing.
rob mcCathy
18. roblewmac
untill God himself and (I don't mean Lucas I MEAN GOD) tells me otherwise I will never belive Star Wars was meant to be a series from the start. Watch Empire Vader is a much more important character than in Star wars and in the first movie Luke and Lelia were the couple!
19. Shard
I think the article illustrates why I love all the movies it mentioned. It got darker, things got more serious.
steve davidson
22. crotchetyoldfan
in re Star Wars history: it WAS planned as a 9 parter: trilogy before the first movie, trilogy with Star Wars (refuse to use the 'new' title) as the first part and trology after that trilogy.
It was also never conceived as a science fantasy embodiment of Joseph Campbell's theories - it was envisaged as epic Flash Gordon (which follows Campbell's hero's journey as much or as little as any other story).
The third film was supposed to be a trip to the Wookie's planet, but I guess they couldn't find enough 7 foot tall actors....
Darth Vader was Ming, Obi Wan a quasi Zarkov, etc., etc. That story track would tend to negate the 'I'm your father' bs of the later films. Quite obvious that story lines changed majorly from #1/4 to #2/5. (The dead giveaway is Leia never disabusing Luke of their true relationship during the entire first film.)
Confession: I went to the premiere, got all of the press freebies and was suitably wowed by the first film. One big promo hype at the time was how they were going to handle FTL, and judging by the gasps from the audience, they did a good job - though I would have preferred 'silent space' (aka 2001) with more scoring from Williams to fill it in.
I also remember that the advertising posters pre-release tended to give one a very negative outlook on the film. It had a very hokey, schlocky, 50s B flick presentation.
and yes - nice piece, as evidenced by the variety of comments it generated.
Michael Poteet
23. MikePoteet
I'm surprised only one person so far has mentioned the "Star Trek" film series in this connection, and only to say that it is one of the franchises that "broke the trilogy mold" and still proved successful. That's only a partly true statement, at best, since II, III and IV have long been thought of and are now even being marketed by Paramount) as a trilogy (sometimes called "the Genesis Trilogy"). Of the three most successful "Star Trek" films, only one -- "Star Trek: First Contact" -- falls outside that "trilogy"; the other two -- "Wrath of Khan" and "The Voyage Home" -- are the first and third chapters, respectively, leaving "Search for Spock" as the (I think) unappreciated middle.

ST III does fit some of the marks of "middle chapter syndrome' outlined that Emily outlines:

1. Unanticipated "down side" of a victory? Check. Turns out David used protomatter in the Genesis matrix, "a wildly unpredictable substance that every ethical scientist in the galaxy has rejected" (or something to that effect). This feels shoe-horned in, to give David some "sin" for which he must "redeem" himself. Couldn't the Genesis Planet just be unstable because, oh, I don't know, Khan didn't follow the label instructions when detonating the darn thing? It's a planet formed ex nihilo, or "ex nebula," at any rate, when the Device was designed to be used on a pre-existing "moon or other dead body." David's putzing around with protomatter really diminishes the awesomeness of the Genesis Team's achievement. (To her credit, Vonda McIntyre went a long way toward making this revelation acceptable in her brilliant novelization, still the finest Star Trek novelization, save perhaps Roddenberry's own of ST:TMP. But I digress. As is my wont.)

2. Torture. Well, it's hinted at, anyway, as Kruge orders one of the prisoners killed.

3. Romance -- Not really an issue here, although McIntyre makes much of Saavik and David's relationship, unfortunately cut from the final version of ST II. If anything, the real "romance" in the film is the love between Kirk and the Enterprise ("She's a beautiful lady," he once told Norman the Android, "and we love her!" -- and, beneath the "outtalk and outthink the computer" gambit, he was speaking the truth) -- a "romance" pushed to the breaking point as Kirk finally must choose to sacrifice "her." I remember this being fairly controversial among my circle of Trek fans, anyway, back in those pre-Internet days, when "Trek Roundtable" in Irwin and Love's "Best of Trek" volumes was the only fan forum I could read. Looking back, though, it's still heartbreakingly beautiful and never fails to move me.

In other ways, though, ST III successfully steers clear of "middle chapter syndrome." There is an amazing amount of levity for what is the "dark, second act" -- McCoy's abortive nerve pinch; Scotty's "up your shaft"; Uhura's run-in with "Mr. Adventure" -- and the movie ultimately has a "happy ending," despite Our Heroes being fugitives from Starfleet. (Which is a whole 'nother can of worms -- since when did Starfleet become a mindless bureaucracy that wouldn't want to get one of its most valued people back from the dead?) I can still remember thinking that, had ST III been the final series, it would have proved emotionally satisfying, even though so many loose ends are left dangling. (And to some extent, the filmmakers must have agreed, since ST IV strikes out in such a different direction; even when it is dealing with the fallout of II and III, it feels set in a different universe.)

Didn't mean to ramble on so, but thanks for a thoughtful article!
24. JLHanke
Just a fair warning - Wall of Text below!!

While I generally agree with the point I think you're getting at here Emily (which I believe is that filmmakers have taken the wrong lessons from Empire and, in trying to emulate it too slavishly, fail to make an interesting story), I think that you definitely cherry-picked the parts that supported your thesis and left out ones that did not.

First, I wholeheartedly agree with Dairhenien@16 - the main problem with lots of movie trilogies that are marketed as "one continuing story" such as BTF, Pirates, and The Mummy, is that they were not originally trilogies. The first movie of those franchises were great movies and great stories and had surprising success. After this, studios greenlit sequels (and probably took the wrong lesson from the Star Wars universe and decided to make a trilogy by default) but wanted it to all be one continuous story. Problem is, the first movie was NOT conducive to a continuing story. Thus, the middle installment is half "Look at your heroes!!" nostalgia and half setup for the 3rd movie. This has gotten more blatant in recent years with Pirates and The Matrix (which I am shocked was not pointed to in the original article, as it's the epitome of this discussion) actually filming 2 and 3 simultaneously.

One problem with this is that you have to retcon the 1st story into a trilogy structure. Another problem is that these trilogies have to build interest in the last installment - which basically ensures that you will get a cliffhanger. Also, you want people to be worried for their favorite characters, so you generally get dark. Suggesting that this is due to Empire is a bit of a reach if you ask me. Star Wars, though the MOVIE was also designed to stand on its own, was definitively NOT made as a stand-alone STORY. Read The Making of Star Wars by Rinzler sometime, and you'll see how much the story of SW evolved from the initial draft, but the intention all along was of a larger story than just Star Wars Ep IV. BTF was not designed as a trilogy at all - so as
Dairhenien said, it's really 2 stories (BTF 1 and the combined story of BTF 2 and 3). Pirates was a movie based on the ride, and no one thought it would go to sequels, so again, it's really 2 stories (1 and then 2-3). I'm not as familiar with the Mummy, but I'll use the example of The Matrix as well - again, 1 is a stand-alone, and 2-3 are a combined storyline that retcons much (or all, depending how you view The Architect and The Oracle) of the first.

The examples of series that are more serial in nature (Indy, Star Trek, Bond, etc) work differently because they are generally structured as self-contained stories about the same group of characters. Obviously, there is continuity, but it's more with the characters than the story itself. The problems with Temple of Doom, I think, are less to do with influence from Empire and more to do with poor story choices that were made.

Though the general tone of Empire (and BTF 2, Pirates 2, etc) is certainly darker than the first, that's an oversimplification. Recall that they blew up a WHOLE PLANET in the first movie, killed Luke's only known relatives horribly, killed Luke's best friend (who he just reunited with), killed almost every pilot in the final attack, and killed Luke's Jedi mentor. It's easy to say that Empire had a darker tone, but there's actually MORE lighthearted humor in Empire than SW, in my opinion, and you're overlooking the darker parts of the first movie.

To (finally) conclude, I think the points you bring up in the article Emily are more due to bad storytelling and general archetypal story structure than the influence of Empire Strikes Back. Maybe that's just because I don't want anyone messing with my Empire Strikes Back, though!

(Also, as an aside to crotchetyoldfan@22 - Lucas has expressly admitted that although the inspiration was Flash Gordon, during rewrites he read about archetypal myth and incorporated that in the structure)
25. tathel
I hardly think you can blame starwars for following a standard three act structure.

It's been a pretty basic story telling practice when breaking things into three parts to have the second act embody 'things geting worse', so that you are excited for the third part to see if it's possible for things to turn around.

Really the only two other forms I can think of is to simply be building the entire time over an evenly paced story, which unless the story is really complex and long enough to warrent three parts sometimes leaves the middle pointless and poorly paced, or the parts aren't distinct enough to stand as seperate peices and really it's just one story that didn't fit in the bounds.

tragedy you can have the second act as the happy high point so that the thirds tragic end has contrast.

If you try to mix this up usually one of the parts isn't as satisfying, or they are very self contained stories in a shared world. Or you feel no urge to seek the ending because each part leaves you in a happy ending.

Other movies that don't follow one of those structures aren't really one tight story. Like if you take Nolan's batman trilogy. You can watch any of those movies independantly (i'm assuming the next one will be ok like this too). And it really makes no difference the only real thing you miss watching out of order is likely to be batmans origin story so you might not have a full appreciation of the character.
The same is true for indiana jones. I'm not sure that you can compare movies like nolan's batman, or indiana jones to proper trilogies. Because you could insert other movies into those series and they would not be out of place or feel tacked on. If the new indiana jones had been better and had been released around the time of the earlier 3 there would probably be no seperation in peoples minds between the trilogy and the new one. it'd just be considered a quintet.
26. Bluejay
@17: I disagree that Will Turner was meant to be the main character of the Pirates films. The screenwriters have gone on record as saying that Elizabeth is really the central character of the trilogy, and she is in fact the one who changes the most, from sheltered governor's daughter to Pirate King (and she has her love for Will tested and loses her father along the way).

I agree that Norrington's ultimate fate was handled rather abruptly, but I find another aspect of it intriguing: it makes Elizabeth into a sort of harbinger of death. Notice that all the men who are attracted to her -- and kiss her -- die in some form or other: Norrington, Sparrow (temporarily), Will (stabbed by Davy Jones), even Sao Feng. I'm not sure what this means; maybe the underlying message is that Elizabeth is meant to be cruelly and absolutely alone? Even at the end she's alone on the seashore, doomed to be separated from Will for decades at a time.
27. Madeline
I have also heard the "This is the Emprie Strikes Back of the series" and I agree with you, Emily AP, that it's a setup that dooms a story.

A couple notes from the comments: 1. the main character does not have to grow or change. Robin Laws has been talking about this in the last couple years... There are dynamic protagonists who do grow and change, and then there are iconic protagonists, where we're happy just to watch them be themselves. James Bond? Growth is fine, but I'm also happy to just see him quip and drink and get into fights. Wolverine. Miss Marple. etc.

2. There doesn't have to be a dark weak-plot movie in position 2. Continuing the atmosphere of the first movie and just elaborating it is a legitimate, and IMO the best, way of going on. Look at X-Men and X2. X2 is an even better version of X-Men, and I really liked X-Men. Then in X3 the director missed the point of all the characters and the world, and gave us a heaping plate of poo, and the whole series died. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Alien, Aliens, same thing. Aliens is an elaboration of the theme... The same thing in a different genre, horror to action, but no sudden turn into suuuuper dark. And then they lost it.
Emmet O'Brien
28. EmmetAOBrien
Madeline@28: I'm inclined to think Aliens is a disastrous mess made of the virtues of the series, Alien^3 is the sequel worth having, and Alien Resurrection sort of humdrum with teeth-grating moments. I prefer my horror-of-the-alien without John W. Campbell human triumphalism, thanks.
Anthony Pero
29. anthonypero
Just a correction on star wars lore from previous posts: In the original outline (not the original screen play), there were 9 acts. In Act 6 (originally entitled Revenge of the Jedi), they were supposed to go and destroy the Death Star which was being made by Wookie slave labor above the Wookie home planet. However, when Lucas realized that he was never going to get funding to make all of what he wrote, he decided to tell Episode 4 first, and moved his best peices into it, like the Death Star. Chewie came around because Lucas wanted a Wookie in the movie, and didn't know if he'd get to make any more Star Wars movies.

So, when it came time to write the screenplay for Return of the Jedi, Lucas realized that (at least in 1981-83) it would be impossible to find enough Peter Mayhews to film the Wookie home planet. So he decided to cut the Wookies in half and make them Ewoks... which, of course, worked on a whole different level. And is also an obvious anagram of Wookie. Anyway.

Its funny, after watching all the special features on every DVD, something jumps right out. In the original trilogy, Lucas was severly hampered in telling the story as he intended it to be told. It was the creative solutions that he and the team he surrounded himself with that made the movies so fantastic, and iconic. When the second trilogy was made, Lucas got everything he wanted. It was as close to his vision as he could make it. And they sucked. Looking back, its obvious why. The handicaps of the first trilogy allowed many people to have large input in the story. And there was wisdom in the many.

More than any other artform, movies are a collaborative effort. And there was far more collaboration, out of necessity, in the first Trilogy than in the second. Hence, one is iconic and stands the test of time, while the other sits on my shelf, never to be watched again.
Peter Stone
30. Peter1742
I've always considered that the problem with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was that in that movie, they made up the Sankara stones, whereas the artifacts of the Lost Ark and the Holy Grail were taken from real mythology. This gave the writers too much freedom to do whatever they wanted, and it felt more fake to the audience.
William Fettes
31. Wolfmage
I must say, I did not find the point the OP was trying to make here.

For a start, it's not at all clear to me that each of the sequels being cited above are consistent exemplars of the kind of failure being alleged. That is, I do not agree that they all show some kind slavish devotion to the darker Act Two structure, such that the original's special sauce is lost, displacing other valid forms of continuity, and creating a discordance.

For example, Back to the Future II is a perfectly satisfactory sequel IMO. I certainly don't know anybody who thinks it's an notably inferior film; indeed, most people I know hold it up as a clear exception to the rule of mediocre sequels. The alleged disservice to the IP, a brief sojourn to Biff's dystopian timeline, just does not grab me as a compelling example of discordance -- the objection seeming to boil down to the subjective comment that the safe family tenor has gone. But this is missing a plethora of faithful continuity provided through film's exploration of the same McFly relationships and situations temporally (awkward Mum moment, Biff fight, etc), the terrific realisation of future-Hill Valley, the dilemma of the time paradox (the almanac), and the return to the old Hill Valley dance in another guise. It's strength as a sequel holds together pretty clearly - which makes it a very distracting example that ultimately undermines the argument. The flaws of Back to the Future are the incoherence of its model of time travel that affects the entire IP, not some schematic rigidity in Part II.

Second, the individual strengths of each of these IPs, and where they stand in relation to cinematic history, is just so disparate that it makes it hard to distil the central point from the general mediocrity of a formulaic Hollywood blockbuster. For example, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean are two popcorn summer movies. That is all they are. They are entertaining for what they are, but hardly the proper locus of analysis, and so when you try to say their sequels are bad because of an off-the-shelf approach to sequels, the easy answer to that is to say that the IPs were always going suffer when elongated because they were never all that interesting, well-written or ripe for character development in the first place - and the box office success of their predecessors simply belied that fact. Maybe this is heresy in relation to Pirates, as many critics compared it the Goonies upon its release, however, there it is. Take away the charisma of Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush and you're obviously left with a predictably flat Keira Knightley movie. Try to coast on that charisma again and again, and even the most credulous popcorn audience is going to get bored.

This odd grab bag of examples is made more puzzling when you consider that there at several clear killer examples of sequels that really mess up from a good original which should have been the starting point for more forensic discussion. For example, the second Matrix film. Now, I'm not entirely sure if it was bad because of the legacy of Empire, but at least it was clearly worse despite the fact that original contained enough interesting material that it genuinely offered a non-zero chance of us finding something equally interesting in our second view into the expanded universe. Accordingly, at least the contention under discussion would have a fighting chance of flexing its conceptual muscles from the general grist of Hollywood's mill.
32. JohnPaul
I feel we're putting too much blame on one film here without examining what a trilogy should be. Should a trilogy always have the same pace, lightness and fluffiness throughout? I doubt many people would have been as enthralled with TESB had it just followed the same facile shallow plot that ANH did, even if as many had still gone to see it. If you're making a trilogy instead of a stand alone film, then you instantly inject the extra dimension of needing to keep the audience interested that you tantalised in the first film, so that they come back for the second and third installments just as eager to find out how things end up. Without twists and turns, darkness and cliff hangers, problems to overcome, and emotional involvement, the chances of achieving what you set out to do satisfactorily will be diminished.
Emily Asher-Perrin
33. EmilyAP
@Everyone - Loving the conversation going on here, and much thanks to everybody who's enjoying it! Great points and counterpoints, and lots of things to think about. Can't stick around all holiday, but while I'm here:

@ariadnesthread - If Pirates had continued under the guise of more traditional mythology, then it likely would have been Will's story. However, lots of modern epics tend to focus on the character who would traditionally be called "the sidekick." It really does play to a modern sensibility--while youre standard hero is too noble and good for most people to relate to, characters like Jack are both good and bad enough for us to love them. For instance, while I myself happen to adore Luke Skywalker, most people I know are a lot more fond of Han Solo. I think you're right that the producers of the film did not realize straight off how popular Jack would be, and that does lead to narrative confusion about who the story belongs to, though.

I disagree a bit on Elizabeth finding Jack attractive, however. She wanted to be a pirate, and he was a pirate. The attraction makes a lot of sense from that angle. Wanting to be like someone can lead to a certain type of allure, and unfortunately, Jack knows she feels that way. He's also a really disarming fella. While it may not have lasted, I can absolutely understand why that little side plot came along. (Incidentally, I was very unhappy with what they did to Norrington too. Particularly that he died for Elizabeth, who really wasn't worth it after how she treated him. He seemed like a smarter guy than that.)

@Mike Poteet - I'm surprised you were the first one to bring up Trek too! I think you're absolutely right: Search For Spock managed some of the darker aspects of a sequel without being disorienting because the tonal quality was still very true to a traditional Star Trek story. Trek is usually pretty good about keeping those things in mind and working with them.

@JLHanke - All good points, though I would disgree on the darkness of Empire versus A New Hope; while Alderaan was destroyed, we never see those people and how it affects them. In addition, there is a lot to be said about scope in tragedy--many people are more moved by individual plights because the idea of blowing up a whole planet and killing millions is kind of unfathomable. Every time I watch ANH, the person who I feel most for in that scene is Leia because I can see how it's affecting her. But in Empire, we hear Han scream as he's tortured, and while more pilots may have died on screen in ANH then in ESB, the fact that those deaths are accompanied by defeat in Empire is traumatic because those sacrifices suddenly seem so meaningless. It feels darker because it starts going downhill and only proceeds to slip down further.

Also, you're absolutely right, The Matrix is one of the worst offenders in repeating this structure to its detriment. That second film was really unfortunate, and belongs on the list perhaps more than any othe Part 2.

@Bluejay - The harbinger of death idea with Elizabeth is fascinating! I had never thought of that, but your absolutely right.

@Madeline - Alien and X-Men, yes! Sometimes you don't have to go into three-act structure and it works incredibly well! I feel like certain comic book films are a little more understanding of that since you are dealing with a canon that transcends three acts by, oh, decades of stories. :)

@Peter1742 - Very interesting pointing out the lack of a real artifact in Temple of Doom. In some ways it's almost sad that they were so lazy, when they had such a great chance to explore eastern mythology and legend.

@Wolfmage - As an avid fan, it pains me to say this, but technically Star Wars is "popcorn film" by many standards too. So while I completely understand the points you are making, I think it's a tad unfair to simply write off Pirates and The Mummy on that basis alone. I do agree wholeheartedly that The Matrix belongs on that list. :)
34. Madoogliani
I think you're right that the producers of the film did not realize straight off how popular Jack would be

Riiiight. That Johnny Depp guy, NO-one likes him...

This trilogy effect might explain why SATC2 was so depressing. Let's hope not.
As in let's hope there is never a SATC3.

The movie I would hold up as a clear exception to the rule of mediocre sequels is Terminator 2.
35. Spurwing Plover
You learned that failing darth vader is always fatal and certianly is not a option

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