The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t called Star Wars 2 for a blunt, but effective reason. The Empire Strikes Back was the long-awaited follow-up to Star Wars, the 1977 film that launched the entire franchise. When Star Wars, later retitled A New Hope, was released, the producers at 20th Century Fox weren’t sure what to make of it, but quickly changed their tune when the movie made over $420 million at the box office by the time The Empire Strikes Back was set to debut. In today’s money, that equals over $2 billion, making the original Star Wars one of the most successful movies of all time.
Given the sheer influence of the Star Wars title, one would think that creator George Lucas, Star Wars‘ producers, and the distributors at 20th Century Fox would have been raring to use the power of familiarity to market the sequel. Star Wars 2, while perhaps not as eye-catching a title as The Empire Strikes Back, would have let audiences know immediately what kind of movie they were in for. And yet, from the beginning, the Star Wars sequel was always going to be titled The Empire Strikes Back, forever proving the belief the production team had in their movie.
Empire Strikes Back Wasn’t Called Star Wars 2 Because Lucas Knew It’d Be Better
An old article from The New York Times dated December 2, 1979, included an impressive quote from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz.
“We didn’t call it “Star Wars II,” because films with “II” in the title usually aren’t as good as the first. This is better.”
They were ultimately proven right, of course. Though the original Star Wars changed cinema forever in terms of special effects, reignited the general public’s love of science-fiction, and created an entirely new storytelling world, the movie’s narrative is effective, but simplistic, easing audiences into foreign concepts, planets, and lore.
The Empire Strikes Back, however, could build on the foundation laid by Star Wars, continuing to push the boundaries of cinema while also getting right to the heart of the story and the underlying emotion and darkness of Luke Skywalker’s journey. Its twists and turns were undeniably effective, especially the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, which remains one of the most compelling and iconic storytelling beats in the history of cinema. Many movie sequels, often simply titled “part 2,” rely on the safety of what came before to please their audience. The Empire Strikes Back pushed itself to be bigger, bolder, and better.
How George Lucas Frequently Changed Star Wars Movie Titles
Though The Empire Strikes Back has always maintained its original title, creator George Lucas has been known to tinker with the names of his movies both before and after their release. The original Star Wars movie was later retitled A New Hope, as Star Wars slowly became the overarching title for the entirety of the franchise, not just one film. Additionally, the final installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was originally marketed as Revenge of the Jedi, though it was changed right before its release, as Lucas reasoned that Jedi don’t seek revenge.
Other Star Wars movies have also undergone minor title changes since their release. The Star Wars prequel movies have their episode numbers in the official titles, though none of the other Skywalker saga films do – despite most of the Star Wars audience often referring to them as such. Since Disney’s takeover of Star Wars, other titles have been shuffled around as well – for example, the Star Wars Extended Universe became Star Wars Legends when the canon was instituted. Despite these minor alterations and more, the legacy of the original Star Wars movie and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back has never wavered, propelling the franchise to where it is today.
More: Empire Strikes Back Visually Reinvented Darth Vader – & Made Him An Icon