Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The ’80s blockbuster era really began with Return Of The Jedi and the millions of toys it sold

Screenshot: Lucasfilm, Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

Eight years after the official end of the Vietnam War, George Lucas turned the Viet Cong into adorable teddy bears that could be used to sell toys. The Ewoks, the cuddly, frequently derided scene-stealing insurrectionists from the end of Return Of The Jedi, are tribal jungle warriors who repulse a technologically advanced foreign military force attempting to use their home for strategic purposes. They’re clearly modeled on the guerrilla army that had only just humiliated America’s massed forces, and Lucas turned them into decorations for the lunchboxes and bedsheets of half the kids in early-’80s America. If there’s a better illustration for cinema’s transition from the ’70s to the ’80s—the process by which onetime radicals became businessmen—I don’t know it.

By the time George Lucas made Return Of The Jedi, his Star Wars movies had become, quite possibly, the first sure thing in the history of the moviemaking business. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back had both been historic global smashes. The last movie in that initial saga was inevitably going to clean up. Lucas financed the film himself, and he kept all his own merchandising rights. He treated the whole project like the business enterprise that it was. He risked nothing.

As with The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas opted not to direct Jedi himself, instead bringing in an outside filmmaker to finish up his big story. Lucas initially wanted Steven Spielberg to helm the film, since the two men had just had enormous success making Raiders Of The Lost Ark together. (If Spielberg has taken the job, he would’ve directed the box office champ of the year for three years running, a ridiculous feat.) Contractual complications made that impossible. Lucas also approached David Lynch and David Cronenberg about the job. Both were rising independent auteurs at the time; hiring them would’ve been the kind of move that Marvel routinely makes now. It’s wild to think about what either one of them would’ve done with Jedi. Both of them turned Lucas down.

Finally, Lucas hired Richard Marquand, a Welsh director mostly known for the 1981 spy thriller Eye Of The Needle. Marquand, a former BBC documentarian, had never worked with special effects before. Lucas had the idea that he was good with actors, though at least a few of the actors from Jedi didn’t get along with Marquand at all. But even with Marquand in the director’s chair, Lucas was the clear voice behind Jedi. He co-wrote the picture with his Empire/Raiders collaborator Lawrence Kasdan, and stayed on set throughout production. Lucas made all the big decisions, and he made at least a few of them based on how many toys he might sell.

Harrison Ford, who’d only been contracted for the first two Star Wars films, had to be convinced to return to play Han Solo again in Jedi. (Han had been frozen in carbonite at the end of Empire in part so Lucas would have an out in case the star didn’t return.) Ford wanted to give Solo a heroic death, and Kasdan thought that would be a good idea. But Lucas knew that the kids who loved Star Wars movies didn’t want to see Han Solo die. (Solo wouldn’t get to die heroically until decades later.) Lucas also nixed the idea to have Luke Skywalker leave stoically before the fireworks celebration at the end of Jedi. He didn’t want anything working against the purity of that final triumph.

Jedi has a rep for being the weakest of the first Star Wars films. In Jedi, Lucas repeats many of the tricks that had worked so well in the first Star Wars. Near the beginning, he gives us C-3PO and R2-D2 bitching at each other as they schlep across the Tatooine desert landscape. He ends it with rebel pilots celebrating after their overmatched fleet blows up a Death Star. The Ewoks introduce a slightly overbearing cuteness factor, though it’s nothing compared with what Lucas would try to bring into later movies. Lucas turns the already-incompetent Imperial Stormtroopers into ultimate jobbers, hapless before the Ewoks’ rocks and sticks. And with almost no character development, he forces Darth Vader’s transition from iconic villain into conflicted hero. Years later, Lucas also made rewatching Jedi into a supremely aggravating experience by piling on the jarring, superfluous CGI additions. Jedi earns its rep.

But as one of the American children that Lucas was targeting with those toymaker calculations, I have to tell you, Return Of The Jedi fucking ruled. The moment where Luke Skywalker springs off the plank of Jabba The Hutt’s skiff, flips through the air, and light-sabers a bunch of grizzled-looking alien motherfuckers into the Sarlacc pit, was just about the coolest thing that my toddler eyes had ever beheld. (I didn’t even mind that Boba Fett, an iconically cool bad guy who became one of the faces of the series, dies quickly and without ceremony, almost by accident.) Jedi is full of moments like that—breathless, kinetic adventure set pieces that made kids feel like their blood was on fire.

The episodic structure of Jedi is one of its great strengths. For the movie’s opening stretch, Darth Vader and the Empire barely figure in. Instead, Lucas and his collaborators set about reuniting the story’s heroes, pitting them against a formidable and repulsive but ultimately inconsequential tertiary villain. Lucas had teased the looming presence of the usurious interplanetary crime boss Jabba in the previous two movies. In Jedi, he paid all of that off, making an iconic film character out of a giant slug puppet.

Jabba’s palace—a place sort of like the cantina from the first Star Wars, if it had been made mostly out of shadows and tentacles—works as a reason for the cast to reassemble and a reminder of why we like all these people in the first place. C-3PO cowers. R2-D2 bleeps sassily. Chewbacca roars soulfully. Princess Leia struts right up to danger and then wears a gold bikini that’s the closest any of the films come to noticing that sex is a thing that exists. Even blind and disoriented, Han Solo acts as a sort of sarcastic viewer surrogate, snarking at everything around him: “I’m out of it for a little while, everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” And Luke Skywalker, the whiny kid from a few years back, makes a badass entrance, displays both his powers and their limits, and kills a giant rubbery tooth monster.

The moment after the Rancor’s death, when the monster’s keeper cries over its carcass, is one of the tiny character moments that make a movie like this special. That bit didn’t need to be in there, and yet it somehow makes the whole affair seem more tangible and real. That monster had a story and its master had some kind of story, and Jedi only just hints that it exists.

When the Jabba The Hutt adventure is over, it’s over. In a different era, this could’ve been some kind of between-movies interstitial—a streaming-service special, or a YouTube video. It took the arrival of The Mandalorian for me to realize how much I like the way all the original Star Wars movies are structured. We meet people, get to like those people, and then follow them on a series of adventures. The adventures might connect, but they don’t have to. The movies all have builds and climaxes, but they could’ve worked just as well as a mega-budget TV series.

Return Of The Jedi doesn’t hold together particularly well as a cohesive whole. There are breath-catching interludes, like Luke’s final visit to Yoda, that feel slight and needless, mostly there to clarify various plot points. (There’s no real emotional catharsis in watching a rubber puppet fade away into the air, and I wonder how much the Yoda death scene was influenced by the much more effective death scene that Steven Spielberg put in E.T. a year earlier.) Other character moments, like the revelation that Leia is really Luke’s sister, feel arbitrary and tacked on. Certain actors—Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness in a Force-ghost cameo—wearily trudge through their scenes, killing time until this story finally ends. Jedi really comes to life during expertly constructed set pieces like the speeder bike chase through the forest. The film’s energy is in those scenes, not in the parts where people are forced to act.

As with so many blockbuster-series finales, the end of Return Of The Jedi is mostly just one big, long action marathon. But it’s a great action marathon. Lucas, Marquand, and the film’s three editors expertly juggle three different stories, building all of them in tandem. On Endor, Han and Leia lead the Ewoks in a bunker assault that looks a whole lot like a World War II men-on-a-mission film from a previous generation. In space, Lando Calrissian, getting a redemption arc after betraying his friends in Empire, leads the dogfight attack on the new Death Star. And onboard the Death Star itself, Luke comes face to face with the new final-boss villain, an Emperor who delivers every line of dialogue as a Shakespearean schoolyard-bully taunt.

When Darth Vader finally turns good at the end, throwing the Emperor into a questionably functional throne-room pit, it’s a jarring and out-of-place moment. David Prowse, the former bodybuilder who plays Vader’s physical form, does what he can to telegraph Vader’s conflicted feelings, but he can’t stop the story from ringing false. Ultimately, Vader’s redemption reminds me of babyface turns from villains like The Rock or Venom. When you’ve got a monumentally cool and popular bad guy, someone will eventually come along and make him good. But Vader’s story at least ends with that redemption, and his final goodbye to Luke is both awkward and touching.

If Jedi’s ultimate goal was to sell a fuckload of toys, then it succeeded wildly. I was born two years after the first Star Wars came out, and the first Christmas morning I can remember is the one where I walked down to find Jabba and an X-Wing in my living room. I’d seen Jedi in the theater with my dad. But I mostly remember playing with the toys.

For years, those toys were everywhere. Kenner made more than 100 Star Wars figures in the early ’80s. Characters who were barely on screen, their faces in shadow, were given names, and they became huge-selling plastic figures. In the years between 1978 and 1985, Kenner sold 300 million of those little plastic guys. I played with those things more than Transformers or Thundercats or G.I. Joe or He-Man figures. Those toys made a whole lot more money than most movies, and they probably also helped tighten Star Wars’ grip on entire generations that had been too young to see the first two movies in the theater.

It’s almost unfair to compare Return Of The Jedi to anything else that was happening at the 1983 box office. Other than one segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas’s only real competitor, didn’t release a movie that year. Other blockbusters came out in ’83. Plenty of them made an impact on the culture at large and influenced the blockbusters that would arrive later in the decade: the neon hard-body sensationalism of Flashdance, the high-concept sitcom-style irreverence of Trading Places and Mr. Mom, the Reagan-era high school intrigue of WarGames and Risky Business.

Terms Of Endearment, the year’s No. 2 movie, earned $108 million and dominated the Oscars. It was a huge deal, but it barely earned a third of what Return Of The Jedi made. And anyway, kids weren’t exactly running out to Toys “R” Us to buy plastic Shirley MacLaines. The Star Wars movies were working with a whole different set of mathematics. After Jedi, Lucas took a 16-year break from the franchise. The rest of Hollywood rushed in to fill the vacuum. And thus, the ’80s blockbuster was truly born.

The contender: These days, Paul Brickman’s Risky Business, the 10th-highest earner at the 1983 box office, is mostly remembered for the sight of a 21-year-old Tom Cruise sliding down a hallway in his tighty-whities. But the film itself is a sleek, stylish, beautifully made piece of work and a fascinating fever-dream image of yuppie capitalism in action. Cruise’s Joel Goodson, left alone for a weekend, accidentally becomes a pimp and suddenly thrives. The film’s producer-imposed happy ending blunts a lot of its impact and removes all its irony, but the finished product still sings.

With its polished surfaces and its twinkling Tangerine Dream score, Risky Business exaggerated the streamlined ’80s aesthetic that was still only just taking shape. And it announced the strange hungry-mannequin charisma of Cruise, a figure who will become important in this column before long. The ’80s gave us plenty of horny teen comedies, and plenty of those horny teen comedies are great. But none of them is anything like Risky Business.

Next time: Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop, two vehicles for former Saturday Night Live sketch comedians, use their stars’ anarchic chops in service of sleek Hollywood spectacles.