When constructing a trilogy, there’s an inherent problem when it comes to the middle act, as by the very nature of its structure it will automatically end up with no proper beginning – which was all in the first part, since you don’t want to be spending any more time than is needed resetting the characters and their situations – and no proper end – which you should be saving for the last part, wrapping up all the plotlines from all three segments and pulling out a climax that dwarfs the other two endings. The middle section of a planned trilogy is often just shuffling characters about, preparing them for the final chapter and leaving so many questions open – they’re often considered the weakest moments of three-part arcs.
The massive glaring exception is The Empire Strikes Back, which takes the campy universe of Star Wars to darker and more mystical places, replacing the big explosive finish with a stinging character-driven revelation and the greatest twist ending in all of cinematic history, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Star Wars fan who does not consider Empire the best film.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) journeys to find the mysterious Yoda (Frank Oz) to further his Jedi training; meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) struggle to keep out of the grasp of the Empire and Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones). The film allows for a lot more downtime than the first and all the character-growing moments that come with it, courtesy of director Irvin Kershner; the focus of Empire is not in goals (ie. find/rescue the princess, destroy the Death Star) but on Luke’s mastery of his emotions required in his training, Han and Leia’s growing relationship, and of course the big reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. By placing more emphasis on character it adds a greater emotional weight to the action setpieces that do exist, and the Flash Gordon-esque universe as a whole – these are no longer archetypes acting out their parts in the monomyth but characters with investments and motivations – and to add further heft the protagonists do not walk away victorious in any sense at all. Instead of defeating an enemy that opens the way for the final encounter, they are set back on all fronts, without a clear plan for how to proceed and how to win the day. It makes the middle section stand out, not just within the trilogy itself but in cinema in general, because how often is it that, in high-action settings with clearly-defined sides, the good guys lose?