- Distinct film-making for its era. The thing that made Star Wars such a smash hit in 1977 (and every year since) was that even with all the acknowledged antecedents there had never been anything like it. George Lucas created a new cinematic vernacular both visually and narratively. The prequels, and all blockbusters since really, exist in that new landscape. How do you compete with something like that? As many fans have decided, you really can't.
- The prototypical rogue. Another signature element of the original trilogy that everyone and their mother has attempted to duplicate in the years since is the lovable rogue archetype embodied by Harrison Ford so successfully that it not only gave him a career (he'd been struggling for years and had gone to carpentering in lieu of acting roles, having even been an afterthought in Lucas's own American Graffiti four years earlier). My favorite Han Solo knockoff is Sawyer from Lost, but Ford was so good at it that he became a box office staple for years, twisting the type for another iconic character in Indiana Jones.
- Slow burn storytelling. The originals told their saga a lot more methodically. I suppose the prequels didn't have this opportunity because they were literally explaining something that fans already knew about. This wasn't the case in the first three films. Every piece was dropped into place very deliberately, from Luke discovering his aunt and uncle had just bought a differently kind of farm entirely to Han finally figuring out why Leia only had eyes for him.
- The humor of the humor character. The fact of the prequels will always be that the fans
will probablyhate Jar Jar Binks. Lucas acknowledged this in the second two films of the second trilogy by drastically reducing to practically eliminating entirely the controversial amphibian. Except Jar Jar was basically an update of C-3PO, who gradually obtains the honor of bugging the hell out of the most popular character in these films, Han Solo. The funny thing is, Threepio can very easily be viewed as just as annoying as Jar Jar, and Lucas seemed to get that, too. By Return of the Jedi, the protocol droid is far better integrated into the rest of the plot, spending less time dropping non sequiturs and more being involved directly in the story. Yet, and perhaps because fans always loved the beep-bopping R2-D2 (even though he could easily be considered annoying, too, from a certain point of view) and the droids spent a lot of time together, you don't hear fans grumble so much about this one while they relentlessly hate that one.
- The big reveal. It's the moment even non-hardcore Star Wars fans love to talk about, the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader reveals that he's Luke's father (sorry, thirty-year-old SPOILER ALERT). It's a huge, huge moment, capping a film that many still consider to be the best in the whole series. And it's the voice of James Earl Jones. The voice of James Earl Jones can do no wrong.
- A standout after a standout. Actually, my final three points all relate to Empire. The best way to create a continually beloved trilogy is to have at least two of the three become instant cultural institutions. The first one was a phenomenon. Like The Godfather Part II, Empire is the rare sequel that not only doesn't suck but can be argued to be superior to its predecessor. That's a great way to make a lasting memory.
- New icons introduced after the first film. Most of the icons in Star Wars were introduced in the first film. But then the second film added more. That's the sort of thing that makes institutions, folks. There was Yoda. Everyone loves Yoda. They love to quote him. There was also Boba Fett. For a guy who has far less to quote, he was another instant sensation. He remains the only thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special that anyone will admit to remembering, because technically he debuted in it as part of a cartoon segment. There was also Lando Calrissian, still my personal favorite! How do you do that? The Fast & Furious films did it by accident years later. Star Wars did it by design.
And they remain eminently rewatchable.