Star Wars Cage Match: Empire Strikes Back is Better Than The Force Awakens


We asked three therapists who were Star Wars fans to tell us why they thought Empire Strikes Back was a better film than The Force Awakens. All three are clear they liked the new movie, but gave strong arguments for why Empire is the superior movie. Proceed with caution, though, as there are numerous and enormous spoilers to come.

From Jonathan Hetterly:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is destroying it at the box office, having broken the all-time domestic record in roughly 2 weeks time. It took Avatar 72 days to break $700 million in domestic receipts. The Force Awakens will accomplish (or did) that same feat in 16 days.

The latest Star Wars film directed by J.J. Abrams exceeded my expectations. Given his track record as a filmmaker, I expected TFA to be a decent film, devoid of the camp and pompousness that plagued the prequels. I did not, however, expect it to be as fun and thrilling of a film that Abrams delivered.

But where does Episode VII rank among the Star Wars films? In terms of cultural impact and cinematic importance, none of the films can ever come close to what George Lucas accomplished when the original Star Wars debuted in 1977. But in terms of the overall quality of the film, I’d rank The Force Awakens slightly above Episode IV – A New Hope, but still nowhere close to Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

Where The Force Awakens Excels

Pacing and Tone
Simply put, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film. George Lucas recently spoke out about how the new film is more retro than innovative, but I appreciated that Jakku and other locations felt familiar and comforting, something that Coruscant never provided in the prequels. The dirt and grime, and the space opera tone that continues to echo Flash Gordon serials is in the DNA of The Force Awakens.

Focusing on the Right Ancillary Characters
I hate C3PO. To me, he was the original Jar Jar Binks. That annoying droid brought down every scene he was in. I never understood why he was given as much screen time. Fortunately, Abrams made the wise decision to have as little of C3PO in the film while still giving him an appearance. In his place and space, Abrams does something that the original trilogy failed to do – give the character of Chewbacca more depth of character. Rarely in the original trilogy is Chewy given any substantial role or task. In the new film, he’s given more nuance and humor. He no longer is a glorified extra in the scenes he appears in. Rather, his presence and contribution is actualized, essential, and appreciated.

New Characters
I found Rey, Finn, and Poe to engaging characters right from the start. Not only are they well developed characters, but each possess a degree of mystery that compels me to want to know more about them. I want to watch any movie that gives me more insight and information into these people. And Kylo Ren, the central villain, is about as complex and conflicted of a villain in the Star Wars universe.

This is actually where I think The Force Awakens can stake its claim and stand among the original trilogy. Simply put, The Force Awakens has the best pure acting of any Star Wars film. The casting was superb. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver all deliver exceptional performances. Sure, they may have to recite less clunky dialogue than the original cast, but don’t try to convince me that Mark Hammil’s acting isn’t the weakest of the core Star Wars characters. That tends to be a big issue when the story centers around his journey.

The newest Star Wars film is an exhilarating thrill ride. It is also a well-made movie. However, The Empire Strikes Back is still the BEST Star Wars film and here are all the reasons why:

Why The Empire Strikes Back is Better

No Death Star
There is perhaps no bigger lapse of logic in the Star Wars universe than (1) building a planet-sized weapon, (2) keeping it hidden from others, and (3) having a single piloted spaceship be able to single-handedly destroy it. The Empire Strikes Back is the only quality Star Wars film that avoids the trap of having a Death Star-type weapon be the climatic battle. Therefore, it gets bonus points for avoiding such a stupid and idiotic climax.

Boba Fett
Do I really need to write anymore? His character is the epitome of coolness, and the mystery of his character enhances his overall impact. I actually wish they were not planning on filming an origins story for him. Sometimes less is more and turns mystery into mythical!

Both of these characters added mystery and depth to the Star Wars universe and helped draw out additional characterization and backstory from the main characters.

Yoda and The Force
Yoda is the single greatest character to expand the concept of The Force. He uses of The Force in non-battle. His size and stature provides more exposition about the mystical power than anything that is said. The scene where Yoda raises Luke’s sunken X-Wing fighter is one of the most awe-inspiring moments of Star Wars and further contrasts his power and strength with Luke’s reckless failure.

The Best Lightsaber Battle
I love the lightsaber battles in The Force Awakens. I appreciate the gritty physicality of it, and the contrast of the battle in the snow is a delight for the eyes and ears. However, no lightsaber duel can outdo the Luke-Vader battle on Cloud City. The amount of geography covered, the phsycial exhaustion and toll – the editing and choreography evoke real threat and danger.

Defeat and Retreat
The Rebellion is defeated on the ice planet Hoth. Han is nearly killed by carbonite freezing and is in the hands of a Bounty Hunter. Luke is defeated by Vader, loses his hand (and lightsaber) and narrow escape from Darth Vader. The arc of the story in Empire provides ample tension, loss, and defeat. These setbacks elevate the film above its pulpy source material to mirror the classics from Greek or Shakespearean tragedies. Although Han’s death in The Force Awakens feels earned and mournful, the plot quickly presses forward and moves past the grief and loss. There is no such relief in Empire.

Other than its timeless theme song, the best music to come out of the Star Wars universe is introduced or used to its maximum effect in The Empire Strikes Back. The Imperial March, coupled with the first appearance of the Executor Super Star Destroyer, still gives me goosebumps. And John Williams’ Han and Leia piece evokes romance, nostalgia, and sadness all rolled into one unforgettable musical number. It is my favorite piece of music from Star Wars. Its use is especially poignant in the final scene of the film. Hearing John Williams’ score as Luke and Leia watch the Millennium Falcon fly away in search of Han evokes exhaustion and uncertainty. It’s a powerful ending to the greatest Star Wars film.


From Ryan Kelly:

In my opinion, Empire Strikes Back (ESB) is better than the Force Awakens (FA).  I do not say that lightly.  I loved Star Wars VII and have seen it three times, but there are a few things that I just can’t get over.

1) No one seemed to care about the destruction of the Hosnian system: Remember when Bill Weasley General Hux gave that Hitler-esque speech, coating the front row of stormtroopers in spit?  What he was getting all worked up about was the New Republic, the 30-years-strong government that had replaced the Galactic Empire (i.e., Palpatine and all his tom-foolery) with a democracy similar to the old republic (i.e., Jedi counsel, senate and friends).  Basically, the New Republic had allowed for love and happiness to thrive and that made Caleb from Ex Machina General Hux a grumpy bunny; so, he decided to STRAIGHT MURDER IT!  When they fired the Starkiller weapon, it destroyed the ENTIRE Hosnian system, which included the New Republic capitals and nearly their entire starfleet!  To put that into perspective, that would be like if in The Phantom Menace, someone blew up the Coruscant system (where the Jedi and Senate were based), as well as the bulk of their military power.  How would you expect the remaining characters to react?  Would a few seconds of sad facial expressions do it?  How about zero discussion on the implications of such a catastrophe? Granted, it would have saved us from two more (terrible) prequels and we would have found solace in Jar Jar’s death, but the point is, I did not find the reaction to such an event in FA to be even remotely fitting.  I mean the destruction of the Hosnian system is arguably the most influential event since Order 66, and was certainly more influential than the destruction of either (or possible both) of the deathstars.

A First Order/Ewok celebration on the Starkiller base may have sufficed.

2) A weaker score:  Look, you can’t go wrong with John Williams, but unfortunately for him many of his fans expect him to be 100% on-point all the time.  I suppose I am one of these fans, because although the score was good (and at times great), it was simply not comparable to his work in ESB.  The new characters’ themes were only OK and there wasn’t a great new addition.  I mean remember the Han Solo and Princess (Love Theme) added in ESB! So solid.  I will say, though, the nod to Snoke actually being Darth Plageuis via Snoke’s Theme ( is intriguing.

3) Kylo Ren almost lost a saber-duel to a janitor: The lightsaber battle between Ren and Finn was frustrating to watch.  The fact is, if Ren was actually trying to win, the duel would have lasted only a few seconds.  He would have force froze him like he did Rey earlier, then stabbed him sans contest.  If he was just angry and wanted to hurt Finn, he CERTAINLY wouldn’t have been critically injured by a non-force user.  In addition to that, Rey then proceeds to defeat Ren solid.  The power differentials and inconsistency just don’t make sense at times.  Granted, we may discover that Rey had some notable force training as a youngling, but we know that Finn didn’t.  Can you imagine if in ESB, Han walked into the conference room in Cloud City, saw Darth Vader and then somehow injured him?  Droid please.

4) Han died and people went STRAIGHT to acceptance:  This is more of a preference on my end regarding acting/directing than it is an objective problem, but here’s the deal.  Han Solo, guys.  Han nerf-herding Solo.  He DIES!  I needed more than a glassy eyed Ben Solo.  I needed more than a Princess Leia hunched over, seemingly suffering from mild indigestion.  True, Rey and Finn appeared to be very upset, but unlike Luke and Obi-Wan in A New Hope, I didn’t feel like they had enough time to connect to Han for their grief to be sufficient for me.  To me, it feels like the smuggler who shot first died irreverently and ungrieved, and as his loyal companion of 25 years, that does not sit well with me.  What I would’ve liked to have happened (at least) is for General Organa — the incredible strong-willed, permanently composed leader — to lose it entirely (if only for a moment) for the first time in 30+ years.  I’m talking legit blubbering, with boogers bubbling out of her nose, spit dripping off her downturned lips, howling like a donkey dying from asthma.  Basically I wanted someone to have the same response I had.  Interesting enough, I found the emotion Luke expressed at the end to be the most moving emotive from the film.  I’m really looking forward to his part in SWVIII.

To reiterate, I REALLY liked FA, truly.  There are a lot of fantastic things about it, and in some ways it may be better than ESB, but after centering the values of these two movies, ESB comes out on top because (in large part) of the above reasons.  FA is quite possibly my second favorite Star Wars movie.

From Jonathan Anslow:

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens (hereto referred to as TFA) was finally unleashed upon the eager masses, comparisons to the original movies were inevitable. The Empire Strikes Back is arguably the best in the series, a subjective opinion shared by many fans, but could TFA dethrone Empire as THE penultimate Star Wars movie? Let’s consider what makes each work so well, shall we?

I recently re-watched Empire with my kids to hopefully foster some appreciation for the classics. As far as their reactions, well the results were mixed. I got more engagement out of my daughter when I showed her a YouTube video featuring a bad lip reading of the Yoda’s hut scene (check it out, it’s pretty hilarious: In any event, I found myself every bit as captivated with this viewing as I was when I originally saw it in a packed mall theater as a 6 year old in 1980. Simply put, it’s a timeless classic.

Generally speaking, one thing that sequels require to be effective is take established characters and put them in new situations. Empire sparked our imaginations because it took us away from the bleak darkness of space and the harsh Tatooine desert of A New Hope, displaying new worlds to frame our heroes in different tones, whether in the unforgiving frosty environment of Hoth or the pastel dreamscape of Cloud City. Beyond planet changes, romance is added as Han and Leia heat things up a bit.   Luke also becomes formerly trained in the Force, developing his character from a farmboy with piloting aspirations to a skilled lightsaber wielder.

Empire also continued the tradition of introducing characters, however briefly, to get fans excited about their role in this seemingly vast, yet very much interconnected and somewhat insular universe. Boba Fett had about six and a half minutes of screen time in Empire, but that was sufficient to kickstart a devoted following. Rest assured, if any character had but a second or more of screen time, they were getting an action figure.

I’ve always maintained that the score is an additional character of the series. Star Wars is just as much about Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, R2, and Threepio as it is about stirring orchestral arrangements and Empire definitely delivers on that account. Yoda’s theme evokes the playful wonder of discovery, whereas Vader’s Imperial March accurately captures the might and intimidation of the Empire, and the sweeping Finale leaves the despondent viewer with hope that the Rebels will recover. Taken together with the iconic heroes, the groundbreaking and timeless special effects, it simply completes the movie.

Now The Force Awakens was certainly riding on a hype-train leading up to its release. At first I was resolute to not watch ANYTHING at all, but that proved to be impossible when I came across people’s reactions to the multiple trailers on social media. I particularly enjoyed one meme that touted “I’ve waited 32 years for another Star Wars movie!”, a sentiment that conveniently overlooks the much lauded prequels. We’d been burned before and many were rightfully tentative, that is, until we caught our first glimpses. Some expressed concern about Star Wars being under the Disney umbrella (were we going to have the heroes breaking out into song and dance?) and others focused their distrust on JJ Abrams. How could a director effectively tackle two different sci-fi franchises (having previously rebooted Star Trek) and would he be able to do it without copious lens flare?

Well I must say that Abrams nailed it! One might forgive him for rehashing an old plot involving droids with data and assaults on planet-destroying mega weapons because it’s part of what makes the movie seem so familiar. We accept these previously used plot devices because we understand that that’s just what you do in a Star Wars movie (to be fair, Return of the Jedi brought back the Death Star for another go).

Plot aside, Abrams insisted on using a lot of practical effects. His insistence helped make this movie feel grounded and tangible. It helps suspension of disbelief when BB-8 is an actual functioning rolling astromech and Rey’s AT-AT home is something that was actually constructed, not to mention the lifesize replicas of the Falcon and X-Wings that were featured.

I have mixed feelings about the liberal use of fan service. On the one hand I feel like it does nothing to further the plot, yet one can’t deny the giddiness you feel upon discovering the various references (like the floating ball droid on the Falcon, the holographic chess set). I was just waiting for someone to say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” and, sure enough, it was uttered at one point. Some people are looking at Rey’s climbing around the base as a purposeful homage to Ben Kenobi, as if to imply that they could be related.

Star Wars movies have always been about incredible design and this film does not disappoint! Ralph McQuarrie directly shaped how we see the worlds and characters of Star Wars. Iain McCaig continues the tradition by taking pre-established iconic designs, like those of the Stormtrooper, and bringing them in bold new directions. I loved the design on this film so much that I purchased the book The Art of Star Wars The Force Awakens. I may have to exercise some restraint when the toys of the various creatures and droids inevitably release.

After the initial excitement wore off, I started to look at this movie with a more critical eye. While many things work well for TFA, I do have a few things to nitpick. One criticism that immediately came to mind is that the score is not as evocative here and is, in fact, somewhat forgettable. It seems to be a means to an end rather than an integral part of the experience and that is utterly disappointing, especially since this is John Williams we’re talking about here! Another thing that took me out of the experience a little was the use of a colloquialism. Star Wars needs to feel familiar enough to our world, but not so familiar as to overlap completely and I think the writers tread into that territory, at least on one occasion where Finn said something to the effect of “Droid, please!” I was also not at all impressed with the Rathtar creatures in Han’s ship. The design of these creatures was uninspired and there was way too much use of CGI. Lastly, I have a hard time accepting Leia’s reaction to Han’s passing. I get it that she’s a General now and must keep morale up, but it seemed hardly a fitting response to losing such a beloved character.

Gripes aside I really, really enjoyed the flick. Collectively my criticisms are enough to give Empire the distinctive edge. Whereas I initially felt like this was the second best Star Wars movie I have ever seen, upon reflection I’m more inclined to put Return of the Jedi ahead of TFA, but perhaps that’s an argument for a future article.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree?
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  1. “Kylo Ren almost lost a saber-duel to a janitor” with all due respect, that´s not true. You should check out Before the Awakening.


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