Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder.
While the 1977 original may have launched the Star Wars phenomenon, I would make the case that this film was responsible for creating the enduring franchise. Had The Empire Strikes Back fallen flat on its face, had it not been, in many eyes, a superior film to the original (or equal in quality at the very worst), there would have been no special editions, no prequels, no Disney sale, and no one would be talking about whether J. J. Abrams wants to direct a seventh film.
I think the strength of this film lies in one simple fact. This is Darth Vader’s movie, more than any other in the franchise. Most importantly, this was his story when Vader was still the galaxy’s ultimate bad ass rather than just Natalie Portman’s whiny boyfriend. He drives virtually every plot point in the story, the invasion of Hoth, the betrayal of Han and Leia, and the trap for Luke. Even the best music in the whole film, maybe the entire franchise, is his theme.
Another strength is that Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is still Han Solo, and not the dopey, indifferent goofball of the third movie. I can only conclude that what happens at the end of this movie causes permanent damage to the Captain’s gonads, because they appear to be missing during the whole of Return of the Jedi.
While technically the lead character of the story, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) spends most of the movie separated from the main action, his ordeal a solitary one. I understand that this is by design, but it means that this movie doesn’t really become his movie until he faces Darth Vader near the end. He’s not really in jeopardy or a driving force in the story until he lands in Cloud City.
George Lucas would probably disagree but I think there are two key reasons that Empire stands so tall in the franchise, perhaps the best film of the six so far. One, Lucas allowed Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan to pen the actual screenplay. As the prequels so ably demonstrated, the bearded one does not possess an ear for dialog. I believe that handing direction over to Irvin Kershner was a fortuitous choice as well. Had Lucas taken a similar approach 20 years later, I think we would all very different opinions of the prequels.
I really can’t overemphasize the degree to which Empire stands tall among the films of this franchise, its story arc is genuinely epic compared to the others, the level of storytelling possessing a degree of maturity not found in in the four films that followed it.