Well, obviously nobody expected The Empire Strikes Back to make as much money as Star Wars. Nothing had ever made as much money as Star Wars except for Star Wars, and everyone in 1980 knew that sequels always made less money than the original film.
In 1972, The Godfather was the highest-grossing movie of all time with a $134 million domestic gross — but Part II, released in 1974, only made $47 million.
Then in 1975, Jaws became the highest-grossing movie of all time, taking in $260 million at the box office — and followed it in 1978 with Jaws 2, which made $78 million.
The Exorcist II made half of the first film’s gross; ditto for Smokey and the Bandit II, and even more so for Damien: The Omen II. The Airport sequels dropped $20 million with every release. Herbie Goes Bananas was the fourth film in the Love Bug series, and I think they actually ended up owing the audience money.
The Superman films followed the same pattern: the first movie in 1978 made $134 million, Superman II in 1981 made $108 million, and in 1983, Superman III made an embarrassing $60 million, which didn’t even crack the top 10.
But that same year, the Star Wars series did something surprising: the third film actually made more money than the second one did. Star Wars got $307 million in 1977, The Empire Strikes Back made $203 million in 1980, and then in 1983, Return of the Jedi made $253 million. So obviously George Lucas did something right with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, because his series made more money as it went along.
Still, money isn’t everything. Oh, wait, of course it fucking is.
For the big-ticket tentpole Hollywood blockbusters, it is millions first, and everything else is a distant second at best.
For this kind of movie, “quality” as an aesthetic concept does not matter. There are a number of successful blockbuster films that also happen to be very good films. There are also many successful blockbusters that are terrible films, and even the people who made them would admit that they’re terrible. That is not an important fact about movies.
The thing that determines whether a blockbuster is good or bad is the number of millions: opening weekend, total domestic gross, and these days, total worldwide gross. Merchandise and home video and television sales kind of matter, if you add it all up and it’s a big enough number, but really those things only register in the sense that literally nothing else matters at all.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a very good movie ($402m domestic). The live-action version of The Lion King is a great movie ($544m), and Jurassic World is even better ($652m). Avengers: Endgame is the second-greatest movie of all time ($858m). Avatar was the greatest until Endgame came along, and then last year they re-released Avatar in China, and now Avatar is the greatest film of all time again. That’s how it works.
Now, my working definition of “blockbuster”, from my post about Jaws, is that a blockbuster is designed to get as many people as possible into a theater at the same time, and then generate an intense emotional experience that’s magnified by the responses of all the other people around you. It’s a communal moment of emotional catharsis that you experience in the dark, with a group of complete strangers.
The thing that made Jaws and Star Wars so effective is that people kept going back to the movie theater to see them again, all summer long. Both movies pull the same trick at the very end: there’s a huge buildup to an enormous action-packed climax, and then almost immediately the movie is over. Brody and Hooper paddle back to shore, Luke and Han get fancy medals, and before you’ve had time to catch your breath, the movie is over and you’re outside, still buzzing from the adrenaline rush.
But Jaws was only good enough to get you to see Jaws again; it didn’t drive people to the sequel. At the end of the movie, they killed the big shark, so the only thing to do in the sequel was to go out and get a different big shark, which didn’t work.
The Star Wars trilogy, on the other hand, pulled off the incredible trick of sustaining audience excitement for two more films. The Empire Strikes Back is the awkward middle child, which only managed to make twice as much money as anything else released that year — but watching Empire, it’s easy to see why the Star Wars series became a neverending media juggernaut, while the Superman series fizzled.
If you’re not familiar with Star Wars, it’s basically The Muppet Movie in space.
Star Wars begins with a young man in a remote backwater who meets a representative from the dream factory, and learns that he’s got a destiny. The hero sets out on the road, first stop: the El Sleezo cantina, a wretched hive of scum and villainy where he picks up a new best friend. Then they drive a beat-up Studebaker across the cosmos, and along the way, they rescue a beautiful princess and pick up an assortment of weird-looking puppets.
Throughout the journey, the hero is haunted by an implacable force of evil, who wants him to join the dark side and make commercials for french-fried frog legs. The group finally reaches their destination, and they do a big musical number that ends with the destruction of a movie studio and/or a planet-crushing space weapon. Then they become rich and famous, and they all get fancy medals. But in space.
The first movie was all about collecting a group of awesome new friends, so the second movie starts with everyone together — and then over the course of the movie, the friends all disperse in different directions. (So it’s kind of like the first half of The Muppets Take Manhattan, but at that point the Muppet analogy sort of breaks down, so I’ll leave it there.)
That’s a weird structure for an exciting movie sequel. One of the major sources of pleasure in the first movie was watching this ragtag crew become friends, and then Empire splits them up again. The lead character spends a big chunk of the movie alone in the swamp with a puppet (so maybe the Muppet analogy is still relevant).
Meanwhile, the romantic comedy couple takes the other puppets and they go on a different adventure, where they smash one of the characters to pieces, and get caught by the villain that they were trying to avoid. At that point, the most popular character is put in a box and shipped off to a completely different storyline that has nothing to do with what anybody else is doing.
The rest of the characters try to come together again at the end, but they’re broken and sad and scared, which is basically the opposite of the way that the first movie ended.
You’d imagine that this depressing sequel would kill the franchise, and nobody would be interested in the third film. For all its flaws, at least Superman II made the effort to defeat the villains by the end of the movie. So why did the third Star Wars film feel like a worldwide must-see event, while the third Superman film landed with a thud?
The answer is that the Star Wars trilogy told a complete story in three parts. The end of Empire is a downer, but that’s because it’s setting up plot points and character arcs which it explicitly promises the audience will continue in the third film. The events of the second movie actually matter, and happily, the filmmakers managed to pull off a satisfying conclusion by the end of the third.
Meanwhile, in Metropolis, the story at the end of Superman II is in exactly the same place as it was in Superman. Clark’s love for Lois is still unrequited, Luthor’s back in prison where he belongs, and the flag is still flying at the White House.
The filmmakers are operating on the idea that Superman is a premise, not a story, and once they’ve established that premise in the first movie, they’re not allowed to change it. For the rest of the series, Superman will be working undercover as Clark Kent at the Daily Planet, with his pals Lois, Jimmy and Perry, and Lex Luthor is safely tucked away in prison, until the next time he breaks out. Superman II, III and IV are practically interchangeable, except that everybody looks a little older and the scripts get worse.
If you recall the 1977 Super Symposium where the Superman writers and editors agreed that Lois should never marry Superman, The Empire Strikes Back is the movie that proves how utterly wrong they all were.
The story should move forward from one installment to the next, because a story is more engaging than a static premise. To get people to show up to the third movie, you need to demonstrate that the events of the second movie matter. If you feel the need to go back in time and undo stuff at the end of two movies in a row, then maybe telling stories is not for you.
2.23: The One Where Lois Finds Out
— Danny Horn