I firmly believe that The Empire Strikes Back (ESB) is the best movie ever made by mankind. It's everything a movie should be: thrilling, amazing, shocking, tragic, funny, and beautiful. Even if everyone doesn't agree that ESB is the greatest ever, it's almost universally acknowledged to be the best movie of the original trilogy (and by default the best Star Wars movie ever, since the new trilogy can't compare). And if ESB is the best of the trilogy that means that Return of the Jedi (ROTJ) isn't.
You will rarely ever here someone complain about that. ROTJ is a good movie. It's just not ESB. It can't be. ESB is a cinematic masterpiece, something that's generally agreed by critics. ROTJ is a fantastic end to the Star Wars Trilogy and a good movie in it's own right. But it's not as good as ESB. And that's ok.
Somehow in our recent world, I think we've lost sight of that. Each successive movie in a series doesn't have to better than the last. It needs to be good, but it's ok if its not better.
I hear people complain about how The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) isn't as good as The Dark Knight (TDK). Now if you have legitimate complains about TDKR, about it's pacing, storytelling, characters, or other parts of movie making, that's fine. But I've heard several people say "It's just not as good as TDK" and that's their only complaint. And they say it like it's a make or break it thing. They couldn't appreciate or enjoy TDKR because it's not as good as TDK.
And I call foul.
It's ok that TDKR isn't TDK. It can't be. TDK has many similarities to ESB, similarities that work because they're a middle movie. In both of the them, the good guys suffer extreme set backs, to the point where we can say the good guys lost. The Rebel base at Hoth was destroyed. Luke abandoned his Jedi training, lost a hand, and discovered a horrifying truth. Han was put in carbonite, possibly to be never heard from again. The only good thing was that Lando joined the Rebel cause, but at the price of Cloud City coming under complete Imperial control. That's depressing. That's dark. And you can only end it like that because it's a middle movie, it's setting us for the Rebels to come back in the third movie and set everything right.
And that triumph in the third movie only works if we're shown that our good guys, the Rebels, have suffered and lost. It's all the more poignant for the fact that we know they're mortal. ESB shows us just how ragtag a band the Rebels are, and just how insanely more powerful the Empire is. And it makes ROTJ all the more epic because of it.
The same can be said for TDK. In case you didn't notice, Batman really loses at the end of that movie. Sure the Joker went to jail, but the Joker is a man without a plan. His goal isn't to take over the world or even to destroy Gotham City. His goal is to foil Batman, to show him the world is chaos, to show him there is nothing he can do. To break him.
And the Joker succeeds. He breaks Harvey Dent, the man Bruce Wayne had pinned all his hopes and dreams on. Joker kills the love of Bruce's life. And due to the plans the Joker enacted, Batman becomes a criminal. In fact the Joker broke Bruce so badly, that at the beginning of TDKR (mild spoiler) we discover Batman has gone into hiding for like seven or eight years.
And that's part of the epicness of TDK. Batman comes up against his ultimate foe, and though he puts him in jail, he actually loses.
You just can't end a final movie like that. You need to end a trilogy with the Rebels celebrating in the Ewok village, the Death Star in pieces over their heads. You can't end it with the Rebels all dead. You can't end it with Luke defeated by the Empire.
So if you're only complaint about TDKR is that it's not as good as TDK, just remember Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back is better than The Return of the Jedi.
And that's ok.