The common school of thought about the original trilogy of Star Wars films goes that A New Hope was a very solid adventure film but a little by-the-books, Empire is the true gem and stands out as a darker, more mature film, and Return of the Jedi is a mixed bag letdown. In general - Empire is the best, New Hope is pretty good, and Return of the Jedi is the worst.
But this is wrong. Return of the Jedi not only isn't the worst film of the original trilogy - it's the best Star Wars film ever made. Here's why:
Star Wars films have a knack for strong opening sequences - but none hold a candle to Return of the Jedi's rescue of Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt (which isn't the ACTUAL opening, I know - but Vader's visit to the Death Star Mk. II is also incredibly good and ominous). It serves almost as a little mini-movie contained in the larger whole - an entirely self-contained little adventure, featuring all of the characters, each getting their moments in the spotlight, in a thrilling almost James Bond-esque sequence. While A New Hope's capture of the Tantive IV blockade runner by Vader is a great set-up for that film, it's all set-up - and Empire's pre-battle of Hoth stuff is okay, but feels more than a little extraneous (Luke's capture by the Wompa seems to existence almost entirely to explain why Mark Hamill's face looks a bit different). But ROTJ kicks things off perfectly.
The biggest dangling question at the end of Empire was - what would become of Han Solo? The producers of the film knew Harrison Ford wasn't entirely positive whether he would return for a third Star Wars film, particularly with his leading man career taking off, so they created the plot point of Solo being frozen in carbonite and shipped off to Jabba the Hutt. If Ford decided not to return, they could easily explain why his character didn't appear. But, thankfully, Solo's fate is answered immediately in ROTJ - with a daring rescue by his ragtag pals.
The sequence works so well for so many reasons - after being teased from the first time we met Han, we finally get to see Jabba the Hutt, in all of his grotesque glory. The giant, slimy slug-man seems like such a commonplace idea, since ROTJ is nearly 40 years old at this point - but looking back, it was a pretty bold choice and a legitimately ballsy design. The concept of a fat, slovenly crimelord was exaggerated to the extreme with Jabba - he literally was an overgrown slug (much like Yoda was the alien exaggeration of the trope of the short, elderly kung-fu master). And we also finally get introduced to JEDI LUKE SKYWALKER (well, maybe not a formal Jedi yet, but at least a man finally in control of his abilities and with the calm resolve we would expect). No longer a scared, in-over-his-head farmboy, we finally got to see what Luke was always meant to be.
And that introduction gives way to a bevy of great sequences - Luke taking on the Rancor, the battle on Jabba's pleasure barge, and Leia getting to choke the grotesque slug creature to death with THE VERY CHAINS HE PUT ON HER.
Honestly, it's the only thing of its kind in the Star Wars film universe - a sequence that can completely stand on its own and be the perfect summation of what makes Star Wars so great - lovable characters, great relationship dynamics, crazy creature design, and a grand sense of adventure and action.
It's a weird thing to look back at the Rebellion in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back - for a film universe intentionally populated with all manner of weird alien species, the actual Rebellion is just...humans. When you consider the diverse make-up of the galaxy, the number of sentient species that fill every planet, it's sorta astounding no one thought to include ANY aliens whatsoever in the Rebellion. It almost gives the appearance that the Rebellion itself practices some kind of...species racism? Literally the only non-human in the Rebellion is Chewbacca, who is really only there because of Han and also DOESN'T GET A FUCKING MEDAL AT THE END OF A NEW HOPE (AND NO, I WILL NOT GET OVER IT, MOM).
And it gets worse! The Rebellion has pretty much no diversity whatsoever in terms of race and gender - the only woman shown as part of the Rebellion in the first two films is Leia, and the racial demographics of the Rebellion are..........well, whiter than Hoth during a blizzard. The Rebellion is supposed to represent the downtrodden, oppressed species of the galaxy - wouldn't we assume the racially and gender-segregated group should be the Empire? If the Rebellion is 99.9% human white dudes, who the hell is fighting for EVERYONE ELSE IN THE GALAXY?
Then rolls in Return of the Jedi - and while the demographic ratios are still DEEPLY skewed, there's at least some progress: Admiral Ackbar is a Mon Calamari fishman in command of the Rebel fleet, along with Mon Mothma, a high-ranking rebel who just so happens to be a woman. Not only that, but Lando Calrissian, the only black man in the galaxy, has joined up with the Rebellion, been promoted to general, and leads the fighter attack on the newly-rebuilt Death Star...as well as getting to be one of the key figures in destroying it and saving the entire goddamn galaxy (along with one other rebel alien, Nien Nunb!).
So not only does ROTJ address the diversity issues of the Rebellion head-on - it makes sure that none of it is done as background characters or simple tokens - all are high-ranking and important members of the Rebellion, and suddenly the world of Star Wars finally makes a lot more sense.
There are three big lightsaber confrontations throughout the original trilogy
And while the Cloud City battle gets all of the attention, the best one BY FAR is the three-way, emotionally-charged battle for the soul of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. Why? Well, for one, it's the only lightsaber battle where the characters and the audience actually understand the drama of the fight and what's at stake.
But also, it's way more badass in general.
I'm not saying Vader vs. Obi-Wan sucks, but let's face it: it sucks. The battle is extraordinarily lame, even considering Alec Guinness was an old man and David Prowse was dealing with an uncomfortable outfit and no one in the production thought they would need to make this some kind of epic final sword battle because they all thought they were making some small obscure sci-fi film that might never see the light of day. But it did - and the battle looks so unbelievably stupid, slow, and lacks anything resembling tension.
But beyond the basic choreography being a total bore, it commits one of the cardinal sins of storytelling: they tell us why this is dramatic and meaningful - but they never show it. And it turns out there's good reason why they never show it - in the making of the first Star Wars, Obi-Wan's story to Luke about his father and Vader wasn't some elaborate twisting of the truth - it WAS the truth. Vader was just some evil dude who killed Luke's dad, and we only know that because Obi-Wan talked about it. The audience doesn't REALLY have any emotional stakes in this battle, other than the fact we like Obi-Wan and think Vader's an asshole. But we don't really FEEL the drama between these two - we don't feel their history that's led to this. We're invested in them as characters, but their specific relationship doesn't cause sparks because this is literally the first (and only) time we've ever seen them interact with one another.
Vader vs. Luke in Empire is certainly a step up from that - for one, the choreography is much more interesting and dynamic, and the scenery is much MUCH cooler than the bland hallway that A New Hope's battle takes place in. But still, the emotional heft of the fight is obscured - while they tangoed a bit in A New Hope, they never really came face-to-face: Luke saw Vader striking down Obi-Wan from afar, and then later came sorta close to being shot down by him during the trench run. But Luke fighting Vader in Cloud City is the first time they've actually looked at one another's face - and all Luke knows about Vader is that this big robot-lookin' guy is evil and (supposedly) killed his dad. A dad he (and the audience) never met, nor really knew anything about, other than an anecdote by Obi-Wan about how he was a good pilot and fought in the clone wars. We never really FEEL the loss of Luke's dad, so Luke's rage at Vader over that feels foggy - and this is partially the fault of having the fight lead into one of the biggest twists in film history. Hiding the secret of Vader being Luke's father means that the cards are never really on the table for the audience through the fight - we don't really get a good sense of WHY Vader is so invested in this Skywalker kid or why he's bothering to duel him because the movie keeps that information from us.
But the fight in ROTJ is the one where sparks really fly - for once, all the cards are on the table: Luke and Vader know each other, they know their relationship with one another, and they both have a full awareness of what's at stake. More importantly, we (and they) know they're not fighting to kill one another - they each think they can save the other. Vader thinks the Rebellion is doomed and the Empire is all-powerful - and wants to bring his son into the fold, since he believes that not bringing him to the Dark Side means certain death for Luke - either being killed by an Imperial fleet somewhere down the line or at the hands of his master, Emperor Palpatine.
For Luke, he wants to save his father's soul - he sensed his hesitation and an inkling of humanity when he fought Vader on Cloud City, and wants to believe that the good man he always believed his father to be was still alive under the mask of Vader. For once in the series, we actually understand the drama being channeled into a fight - we know what each participant is fighting for and the contradictory emotions both are feeling.
And the actual beats of the battle become emotional ones - over the trap the Rebellion has been led into, Luke's surge of anger when Vader taunts him about bringing his sister Leia to the Dark Side if he would not join, and finally Vader finding the last shred of humanity in himself, turning on his master and saving his son as one final act of penance. For real - is there ANY sequence as impressive in Star Wars as seeing Vader's change of heart while his son is being electrocuted by the Emperor? They say acting is all in the eyes - yet director Richard Marquand was able to capture the inner turmoil and the turn from desperation to infuriated resolve on a plastic face mask with literally no moving parts. That's incredible.
In other words, this is some TOP SHELF DRAMA INFUSED INTO A DAMN COOL FIGHT, PERFECTLY BRINGING A CLOSE TO THE ARCS OF BOTH LUKE SKYWALKER AND DARTH VADER. Luke has rejected the Dark Side when it was at its most tempting and solidified himself as a Jedi, and Vader finally found his lost humanity and threw his boss off a ledge. It's unbelievably satisfying.
There's always been a lot of griping about Ewoks on the internet, for several reasons - the biggest being that they represented George Lucas giving in to his worst instincts, altering the story of his films purely for merchandise-driven reasons. And secondly (and tied in with that first reason), that the forest-dwelling denizens the rebels were originally going to run into on Endor would have been a bunch of Wookiees, which are objectively cooler-looking than cuddly lil Ewoks. So we were denied a cooler-looking species (that could have given Chewie some more character development) and for the most cynical of reasons - that sucks, right?
WRONG. Ewoks rule, so fuck you. Here's the thing: the story of the Star Wars original trilogy is one of underdogs. It's about scrappy rebels fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful and oppressive empire - it's about orphan farmboys saving the day, rough 'n tumble scoundrels coming to the rescue, and dainty princesses being the best shot in the galaxy. Star Wars is about the little guys making a big difference - and that's why it HAD to be Ewoks.
Wookiees are huge, unbelievably badass creatures - they're massive in size, overwhelmingly strong, good with weapons and tech, AND don't need to wear clothes. An entire village of Chewbaccas would have wiped the floor with the Empire's crew in no time - and it wouldn't have been even close to a fair fight. Hell, it would have looked like a goddamn horror movie, with an army of Bigfoots tearing limbs off of Stormtroopers left and right. It would have been the exact opposite of the themes Star Wars was built on.
But Ewoks? Ewoks are tiny, weak little teddy bears with no understanding of the larger galaxy beyond their forest. They don't have any experience with technology AND they think C3PO is a god. All they know is that the Empire is up to some bad stuff on their moon, and the rebels need their help in order to save their way of life. And they step up - they leap headfirst into danger, against an army that's got them outmatched physically and technologically. That's about as underdoggy as you can get.
Holy shit, I love the Battle of Endor - since it's the first ACTUAL BATTLE in Star Wars, and the one where it feels like things are actually at stake and could go sideways. The Battle of Yavin IV is hardly a battle - just a few attackers trying to sneak in to hit one weak point and get out. The Battle of Hoth has a similar problem - it's not really a proper battle, just the rebels trying to buy a little time while they retreat. But the Battle of Endor? OH BABY.
For one, it flips the script on the original Death Star battle - there, the rebels had the advantage, knowing of the base's secret weakness and being able to make an unexpected attack. Here, the rebels only THINK they have an advantage - when in reality, the entire thing has been a trap orchestrated by the Empire to finish them off once and for all. The stakes are high, the rebels' position couldn't be more dire, and we get the BEST space fightin' action yet in the series. The scene is chaotic - but not so cartoonishly overstuffed that it's basically impossible to tell what's going on (*cough* REVENGE OF THE SITH *cough*), and for once you feel like this could actually be it for the rebels.
Of course, it isn't - and there are also important battles going on within the Death Star and on the surface of Endor, but it's that space battle that always thrills me - Lando's horrified realization that the Empire knows they're coming, the desperate move to attack the Star Destroyers, the distant view of the fight from the Emperor's throne room, the A-Wing crashing into the Super Star Destroyer's control tower, and the grand finale of underrated heroes Lando Calrissian, Nien Nunb, and Wedge Antilles getting to save the day by destroying the Death Star FROM ITS VERY CORE. It's an awesome multi-stage battle that is still possibly the most effective battle in Star Wars history, despite not having the advantages of modern day special effects.
I'm not saying it's a perfect film, but it does SO many things SO impressively well and concludes the original trilogy in such a fantastic way, I can't get over how well it weaves together complicated relationship dynamics and fun-filled adventure. Return of the Jedi kicks ass.