I read, the other day, the suggestion that Return of the Jedi was the most “adult” of the Star Wars movies. Reading that, I experienced a bit of momentary confusion? The one with all the teddy bears? And the impossible ending in which the bad guys are defeated, the family unit redeemed, and not one, but two, villains meet their end after falling/being thrown into a deep hole in the ground? Really?
The notion of ranking the Star Wars movies is one often contested by fans of the space saga, with such discussions quickly discarding the prequel trilogy for reasons that boil down to “I didn’t see them when I was a kid, so they don’t have the same magic as the original movies.” (To be fair, the prequel trilogy is weaker than the original series — with the arguable exception of Revenge of the Sith — but for reasons greater than a lack of nostalgic appeal. For one, they’re too self-aware and cautious to feel sincere. One of the more charming things from the original movies was the worn-down, casual nature of each movie; that was lost almost entirely in the over-mannered prequels.)
Star Wars — or, if you’re one of the faithful, A New Hope, the original movie’s subtitle since day one and quasi-official title since the 1990s re-releases — has a lot going for it, and often wins arguments about which installment is the best. T Intended to be the first in a multi-installment franchise, the movie more than works as a stand-alone adventure. And though it’s the fourth episode in the timeline, Star Wars opened our portal to the heroes and villains and monsters that populate the Galaxy Far, Far Away. You can see why those who love the movie can make impassioned defenses of its place on the top of the heap.
The second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, is one of those movies that appeared to gain a second wind some time after its release. I remember, as a kid, that it was my least favorite of the three original movies because it felt too fragmented and incomplete, The characters split up and go on different quests — and don’t even get back together at the end! And, to my young and confused wonder: it let the bad guys win. Clearly, the under-10 audience doesn’t fully understand the concept of three-act structures (To be fair, maybe it was just the under-10 that I was at the time; I was definitely pissed that Han Solo was captured and taken away, and that Lando guy who’d betrayed them all to make that happen got to join the gang instead).
At some point, though, Empire underwent a critical and fan re-evaluation and was judged to be the Star Wars film for discerning grown-ups. Which is why the notion that Return of The Jedi should, or even could claim that title surprises quite so much. After all, Empire is the movie that tells the audience, Hey, sometimes bad guys do win, and also You know how you think your dad is a monster? Well, sometimes he really is a monster. It’s also the movie in which the Leia and Han romance really gets underway, as messy and dysfunctional as it is, and everyone is forced to make hard choices. If that isn’t what you want from a movie for grown-ups, what is?
And yet, the more I think about it, the more Empire feels like an adolescent movie. Sure, things don’t go to plan and everything goes wrong, but isn’t that exactly what being a teenager feels like? Even the Darth Vader reveal feels particularly overwrought when viewed from a certain angle; it’s the ultimate justification for shouting You’re not my father!, after all.
Return of The Jedi, in contrast, sees everyone settle into pre-determined roles and just get the job done, despite whatever ridiculousness gets in their way (Ewoks). Perhaps that really does make it the more mature of the movies, in terms of outlook. That it ends with a happy ending may be the kind of thing that upsets some, but accepting that life isn’t always doom and gloom is also a sign of growing up, as well. Maybe now, 30 years after it was first released, it’s time to give the third Star Wars movie some more credit than it’s previously received.