Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (A), directed by Irvin Kershner, deepens the human emotions of the Star Wars characters, giving Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia a witty repartee and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker a more self-assured step into his destiny to becoming a Jedi Knight. But the villains – Darth Vader and his boss The Emperor – are ready for some payback, and tragedy and disappointment may be on the menu. This is the movie that introduces us to AT-AT imperial walkers that move like giant beasts through frosty terrains, freezing people in carbonite, a fantastic city in the clouds, Tauntauns, Wampas, Yoda and so much deepening of the folklore. Billy Dee Williams joins the cast as Lando Calrisean, and he’s a refreshing addition; like many other elements in the film, it’s hard to know whose side he’s on! It’s lush and lyrical, passionate and poetic and all the while still adventurous. This is the epic “space opera” that comes from George Lucas’ story with someone else directing and Lawrence Kasdan writing. The stakes are higher, and the adult drama comes brilliantly to life. It’s still basically a comic book storyboard come to life, but it’s epic as hell.
Richard Lester’s Superman II (A) plunges viewers right into the action with a spectacular Eiffel Tower stunt showdown evocative of a James Bond prologue leading up to a showdown with the three villains from Krypton, led by a deliciously diabolical Terence Stamp. Christopher Reeve’s Superman decides that romancing Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is worth spilling his secret identity secret and possibly foregoing his superpowers in this film that balances the weight of the world versus the limits of love. Lester adds a tinge of additional tongue-in-cheek anarchy to the proceedings, which make the showdowns in the streets of Metropolis and in Middle America a whole lot more fun. This sequel flies high.
Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (A-) perfectly captures the zeitgeist of comic strip wonder as the natural charmer Christopher Reeve suits up to play the American hero opposite a marvelously modern Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. Following an appropriately somber special effects laden origin story with Marlon Brando playing Superman’s father and a lovely pastoral wheat field coming of age passage in Smallville, the movie plunges into Metropolis and a megalomaniacal plan by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) to sink California and jack up coastal real estate prices. Donner paces the film precisely for the right tone and tenor to showcase a blossoming romance with Lois and Clark (and his more suave alter ego) and flights of fancy. Except for a misstep in the final reel that too easily resolves some of the plotlines, this is the template for what a great superhero movie can be.
George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (A) is a swashbuckling outer space adventure inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Reluctant hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) teams up with a surly smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and a mysterious wizard (Sir Alec Guinness) to help rescue the strong-willed Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the clutches of the Evil Empire, lead by villainous Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones). Exotic desert spaceports filled with amazing creatures, just-in-time escapes in battleships and military-precision missions all factor in to the plot as our heroes venture forward to save the “Rebellion.” This film is amazing fun for all ages and is the one movie from this series that stands alone or can be viewed as the first part of the “classic trilogy.” Borrowing from fantasy serials such as Flash Gordon, the film creates its own good-versus-evil mythology and consistently entertains with cliffhangers and close calls. John Williams’ superb score and many of the film’s classic lines have simply become iconic.