The Empire Strikes Back is often regarded as not only the best Star Wars movie but one of the best sequels in cinema history. So high is the pedestal upon which Star Wars: Episode V rests that its follow-up could never hope to reach the same lofty heights, and in many fans’ eyes, it didn’t. However, enough time has passed since the original trilogy came out that it’s time we start being honest with ourselves: Return of the Jedi kicks Empire‘s butt.
Look, the original trilogy earned its place as the best three-part story ever told in cinema. There’s no denying that. Only Lord of the Rings comes close to taking the crown, but to quote Randall Graves in Clerks II, “There’s only one return, and it ain’t of the king, it’s of the Jedi.
Enough time has passed since the original trilogy came out that it’s time we start being honest with ourselves: Return of the Jedi kicks Empire‘s butt.
But within the trilogy itself, the movies must be ranked—the Nerd Gods demand it!—and we’re here to tell you that contrary to popular belief, Return of the Jedi actually surpasses The Empire Strikes Back in several ways.
Empire’s Leia Problem
To start with, Empire Strikes Back has a Leia problem. Princess Leia starts A New Hope as a damsel in distress—a sassy and spunky damsel, but in distress nonetheless. Upon being sprung from her cage, she flips the script and becomes an active part of her own rescue, gunning down Stormtroopers like nobody’s business despite watching her home planet get obliterated just hours earlier.
Sure, she gets sidelined in the final act, but a ’70s movie about a kidnapped princess can only be expected to be so progressive.
Logically, the Empire Strikes Back would continue to portray Leia as a kick-butt feminist icon, right? Not a chance. the Empire Strikes Back reduces Leia to set dressing. Her whole role in the entire movie is to follow men around and complain.
There’s no other way to say it: Leia is a badass in Return of the Jedi.
First, it’s Han, and later, Chewie and Lando. She exists to further Han Solo’s character development, and that’s pretty much it. Now, Return of the Jedi, on the other hand…
Leia attempts to rescue Han from the most vile gangster hideout in the galaxy, casually brandishes a live grenade to do so, gets caught, dressed in a demeaning outfit, and forced to be Jabba the Hutt’s slave.
Instead of waiting for one of the boys to rescue her, she strangles her oppressor to death with the very chains he put her in. That’s right, the most dangerous criminal in the galaxy was taken out by not Luke, not Han, but little old Princess Leia! Oh, and that’s just the first act.
Throughout the rest of Return of the Jedi, Leia joins the rebels on the front line, gets her speeder shot down., meets a race of fuzzy cannibals—more on them later—, saves her friends from getting eaten by said cannibals, becomes the only main character to get actually get shot by a stormtrooper, shakes it off and throws Hans “I know” back in his face while she does so.
There’s no other way to say it: Leia is a badass in Return of the Jedi. So now that we’ve established that Return of the Jedi is a feminist masterpiece compared to its predecessor, what else is so great about it? Well, let’s just say that Leia isn’t the only Skywalker who gets to show their full potential.
Superior Luke In Return of the Jedi
Luke Skywalker spends most of Empire Strikes Back training with Yoda on an isolated swamp ball with one heck of an evil dream tree. While that’s fun, and Yoda is a great character, fans don’t get to see that training pay off until Return of the Jedi.
The second Luke Skywalker gets to Jabba’s palace, we finally get to see what a Jedi is truly capable of, and it’s awesome! Luke’s one-man takedown of Jabba’s goons may pale in comparison to all the Jedi gymnastics in the prequels, but it’s light years ahead of Obi-Wan’s geriatric sword swinging in the first movie or Luke’s rock levitation in the second.
Return of the Jedi‘s Luke vs. Vader II isn’t better because the fighting is more brutal and visually exciting—although both are true—it’s better because of the emotional stakes.
Everything Luke does in Return of the Jedi is an improvement over his performance in the previous film, but nowhere is this improvement more evident than in his second fight with Darth Vader. Luke’s awkward duel with Vader on Cloud City pales in comparison to the emotional battle he wages against his father on the second Death Star. That’s because the stakes are higher.
Luke isn’t just fighting to beat Darth Vader physically. He’s fighting for Anakin Skywalker’s soul.
Return of the Jedi‘s Luke vs. Vader II isn’t better because the fighting is more brutal and visually exciting—although both are true—it’s better because of the emotional stakes. You can see the conflict on Mark Hamill’s face as he portrays a Luke who doesn’t want his father to win but can’t bring himself to kill him either.
The fight culminates with Luke doing the most Jedi thing ever—throwing away his lightsaber midbattle and refusing to fight—and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. The Empire Strikes Back fight, by comparison, is just Darth Vader throwing pipes and stuff at Luke to see if the barely trained padawan can dodge them. Yawn.
Finally, the two most controversial things that make Return of the Jedi better than Empire are Han’s character arc and the Ewoks. Both elements of the trilogy capper are often brought up as reasons why Return of the Jedi isn’t as good as its two older siblings, but that’s just because they’re so misunderstood.
Most fans hate the Ewoks because they see them as nothing but cute teddy bears made to sell toys. In reality, the Ewoks represent the Viet Cong fighting against a more technologically superior enemy and winning against all odds—yes, that makes the Empire America, make of that what you will.
The Ewoks represent the purest distillation of the theme central to Star Wars, that of good triumphing over evil despite evil having bigger and better guns. Empire Strikes Back has no such political allegories and instead offers fortune cookie logic like “Do or do not, there is no try” that doesn’t hold up to any degree of serious scrutiny.
Han Solo on the Backburner
And then there’s Han. Harison Ford famously wanted Han Solo to die in Return of the Jedi to give his character some weight, but Lucas wisely chose not to indulge Ford, and Han is all the better for it. It’s often said that Han Solo has nothing to do with Jedi’s second and third acts, and that’s kind of the point.
By humbling Han and not making him the center of attention, Return of the Jedi shows us that the character has matured.
Han Solo is the kind of guy who shows up at the last minute to save the day, guns blazing. So when Han and Leia’s roles are reversed in Return of the Jedi and the former smuggler spends a lot of the film just tagging along after his better half, it serves to illustrate that Han has grown as a character. He doesn’t have to be the cool, lone wolf cowboy.
Being part of a team or a family means sometimes you’re put in a supporting role. By humbling Han and not making him the center of attention, Return of the Jedi shows us that the character has matured. Heck, he’s even willing to step aside when he thinks Leia has the hots for Luke—to be fair, he doesn’t know they’re really siblings at the time—with no hint of any macho posturing or a willingness to fight Luke over it.
In Empire, Han is basically the same character he was in A New Hope. He’s not with the rebellion because he believes in the cause but because he thinks Leia has feelings for him. If it weren’t for the Empire’s attack on the rebel’s Hoth base, he would have been long gone.
Technically, he does quit the rebellion and is only flying around with Leia because he’s trying to escape the Imperial Fleet. He ends the movie as the same character he was in the last film. The only difference is now he’s in a relationship and frozen in a block of carbonite.
Bottom line, Return of the Jedi repeats some concepts from A New Hope, like the Death Star, and lags a bit in the middle. Is it a perfect movie? Not by any metric. But what it does have going for it are themes that are deeper and better executed than those in The Empire Strikes Back.
Jedi has great character development, gives its female character agency, and features the most emotionally gripping and dramatic lightsaber battle in the whole saga. Empire has “I am your father!” and that’s about it.