Like many, my first introduction to John Boyega was his brief appearance in the first teaser for “The Force Awakens”.
I remember being fifteen and completely entranced with everything about the buildup to Force Awakens; I went to Comic Con that year and was lucky enough to see the panel on the film, I spent most of my lunch periods analyzing every new mini-teaser that got posted on Instagram, and my friends and I all spent hours pouring over what each character was going to be like.
A friend and I got a lot of mileage over analyzing the dialogue of a Finn doll, most of which never even ended up in the movie or lined up with any of the final plot points. We were embarrassingly obsessed.
I have a tender spot for the sequel trilogy, despite it’s flaws, because of how intimately I’ve been able to see it come into form. I might love the prequels and originals, but it’s been through the sequels that I’ve been able to experience the excitement over a new Star Wars movie. It hasn’t existed so long within popular culture that I’ve already been exposed to the most important plot points and character beats. Everything about it is new to me.
Finn, perhaps, is most emblematic of that. From his first moment in the teaser, his mere existence in the film’s universe was marked by discourse and semantics about the existence of black Stormtroopers. Beyond that, he’s the first black character in Star Wars to a) be a part of the story from the beginning, and b) be a part of the main group of protagonists, not existing as a side character.
Despite insistence and debate from some sectors of fandom, Finn exists as a part of the central trio, a formula that exists throughout all the saga films (only absent from the spin-off features “Rogue One” and “Solo”). With this formula comes certain tropes to each member of that trio; typically there’s the Jedi, the diplomat, and the rogue/scoundrel.
To say Finn fits into the “rogue” categorization would thematically and technically be correct, but to limit his characterization to just that one term does him such disservice.
Subconsciously, I think we’re all aware of character arc in film. We can all watch a film where a character goes through a journey, be it emotional, physical, or both, and we’re aware of the change regardless of whether or not we can verbalize what we’ve taken in. In the case of Finn, his arc through “The Force Awakens” was the first time I watched a film and was able to marvel at each point in his journey. And here, four years on, I’m still captivated by it. I can fully credit this film with getting me as deeply into cinema as I am now.
“The Force Awakens” is undeniably a movie of shared protagonists, with equal development and devotion being given to both Finn and Rey (Daisy Ridley). While Rey’s arc is primarily concerned with her journey into becoming this trilogy’s main Force-user, Finn’s is technically on a smaller scale but of no less value, magnitude, or beauty.
Finn’s arc starts with the inciting incident of the film, as Kylo Ren (antagonist, daddy-issue laden bastard, and someone we will be discussing more in depth later) orders the execution of an entire village for the actions of one man within it. At no point during this sequence does Finn harm a soul; in a deleted scene, we pointedly see him allow a villager to escape. From his first scene- and to, ultimately, his last of the film- Finn’s primary focus is the protection of innocents. His movement is one from passive resistance to active, glorious defiance.
That’s why it’s vital that we are told Finn defected after his first battle — that we are told that battle was his first; there is no implication he totally killed some people just the week prior, which would thus make his breakaway from the First Order less impactful.
He never killed any innocents on behalf of the First Order, and his immediate desire to right a wrong he himself never committed is in direct contrast to someone like Kylo Ren, someone who would require a lengthy redemption arc, because he never indicates guilt over his atrocities nor the desire to change his views or beliefs.
Finn does not require a redemption arc because he’s done more to right the wrong of just simply having been in the First Order; and even then, he did not choose to join the Order in the same way that Kylo did (discussion of Snoke’s manipulation notwithstanding). Where both men were undeniably manipulated throughout their lives, it’s only Finn who maintains a sense of morality, he’s the only one that grows out of self-preservation and into selflessness. Despite several attempts to flee the conflict early on in the story, he chooses to stay every time; sometimes to protect his loved ones, and other times because he has come to realize that passiveness only aides the oppressor.
In the aftermath of my article about Kylo Ren, one take that was directed to me was this, the idea that “[if] you work for some giant corporation, it’s YOUR fault they invest in weapons and donate to right wing candidates who promise tax breaks and lobbying privileges”. The argument that if Kylo Ren is “so bad” for being in the First Order, then Finn is just as bad, because he also was a part of the First Order, because apparently I implied that somewhere.
To pretend for even a moment that this is a counter-argument of any sort of value, I redirect back to the previous paragraphs. Finn does not require a redemption arc because he has not committed the same atrocities as someone like Kylo Ren. The moment he was put in a situation where he was supposed to murder innocents, he refused to do so, even when it was at great risk to his personal safety. He has continually put his life on the line again and again with disregard to his own well-being, because, as he would put it, “it’s the right thing to do”.
Yeah, the “I-would-lay-down-my-life-for-these-people-I-just-met-because-they-are-good-people” Finn is not a bad person in contrast to Kylo “I-will-literally-kill-anyone-who-stands-in-my-physical-path-in-order-to-further-my-personal-goals” Ren.
(And comparing Kylo Ren and the First Order to underpaid laborers of mega-corporations is so fucking stupid and I could go into that for ages, but this article is about Finn, and Kylo is not going to derail that too, goddamn it. Just, enjoy your antagonists without infantilizing them?)
I know “The Last Jedi” is controversial for many reasons, some valid and some less so, but I can divorce the art from the artist enough to enjoy the way it completes Finn’s arc. In “The Force Awakens”, he goes from only caring about escaping the First Order, to being willing to stand up and fight against them — this is, however, at least implied to be limited to being for the sake of his friends.
At least within fandom spaces, many of us assumed that the subsequent film would send Finn on a different journey with different goals, assuming that his previous arc was complete.
Could Finn’s initial arc have ended in the first film? I think so. But I do also think that it’s important to realize that Finn wasn’t initially behind Resistance rhetoric for any wider reason than “my best friend is in danger and they can help me save her”.
And that’s okay! Characters are allowed to be selfish- that’s how conflict happens- and Finn’s whole arc is dedicated to helping him grow out of those self preservation tendencies he’d developed as a Stormtrooper. He puts his life on the line for his friends many times in “The Force Awakens”, but a not-insignificant portion of it is in the context that he fully intends to go into hiding at the earliest possible convenience.
I do wish that Finn’s arc in “The Last Jedi” had been more than just learning that centrism in a time of fascist resurgence is bad, but, well, it’s also not a bad lesson to have. Even though we all wanted different things for Force Awakens’ follow-up, “The Last Jedi” is still the movie we got; I’ll criticize the bad just as much as I’ll praise the good.
I like that it doesn’t allow for characters to metaphorically straddle the line of morality — just as Kylo seems to toy with the idea of redemption, both men ultimately plant themselves on one side or the other. Kylo rejects the idea of defecting (and thus, redemption as well) as Finn dedicates himself fully as a freedom fighter.
That’s what makes upcoming “The Rise of Skywalker” so exciting. Now that all the main players have firmly given themselves to a side, Finn can be properly explored, and we have confirmation that he will be. Just as it took Han two movies to finally side fully with the rebellion, Rise will now hopefully examine Finn as a similar sort of Resistance hero. He’s done dancing the line, and we can now explore all the possibilities that come with seeing him fully immersed in the fight.
The intended starting sentence I had for this section was “misunderstanding of Finn’s character arc seems at the forefront of fandom interpretation of him”, but I think that “misunderstanding” implies an accident. And there’s nothing accidental about the way Finn has been reinterpreted by people.
If you’ve been keeping up with Star Wars the past few years, you’ve maybe noticed the giant, whopping racism problem that has a tendency to keep popping up again and again. From John Boyega to Kelly Marie Tran to Ahmed Best, fandom’s largely racist responses to characters of color within this franchise is a trend. It is a trend of a general racism, and it is also a very specific trend of anti-black racism.
What’s interesting about “the backlash” (a term I use only because I can think of no other suitable replacement) against Finn is how much of it revolves around elevating Kylo Ren; not all of it, of course, but enough to take note of and examine.
Obviously online fandom spaces exist in a very specific way and don’t inherently “represent reality”, but it’s been impossible to ignore the way that people have pushed aside Finn, taken his most admirable traits, and given them to the primary antagonist of the new trilogy. In order to make Kylo fit into the role of the male lead- a square peg in a round hole- he had to be the one who was a conflicted but good-natured soul, looking for his place in the world. Kylo had to become the one with the worst history of abuse, and he had to be the one who adoringly looks up to Rey, respects her above all else, loves her.
Yeah, totally like Kylo. Not like Finn in the slightest, there.
This is not going to turn into an article about ship discourse, but I will take a brief moment to mention that a lot of this specific racism takes place in these conversations about shipping. People contrast images of Kylo and Rey touching hands with Finn and Rey holding hands; only instead of the latter being formed as it was in the film- as a moment of bonding and trust forming between the two- it’s put across as proof of Finn’s inability to respect women. It’s insinuating Kylo as the better man, because he doesn’t grab Rey’s hand without her permission.
Holly also makes a good point about Finn and Kylo’s connection; while of course they are similar in a number of ways, and intentionally so, the intention of the films is not- or at least should not be- with the prioritization of Kylo over Finn:
“Kylo highlights Finn’s heroism, not the other way around. If anything, Finn’s story highlights Kylo’s lack of anything resembling heroism, because Kylo was actually handed freedom from the F[irst Order] on a silver platter multiple times and refused, while Finn, who made the choice to leave all on his own, had to fight his way out, and put himself at a grave risk by leaving… Finn and Kylo are each others’ foils, as they contrast each other in every way.” — Holly Quinn
That’s what a lot of fandom seems to have backwards, intentionally or not. Finn does not exist as a foil to Kylo, as a contrast to see how great and ‘truly misunderstood’ Kylo is. Finn is not proof that a #Bendemption is on the horizon.
Kylo is Finn’s foil, as any good antagonist should be to his protagonist.
Every time Kylo takes another willing step into darkness, Finn takes a willing step into the light. Kylo is remorseless and manipulative, where Finn cares so deeply for every person and creature he comes across.
And I don’t mean to insinuate that this fandom misinterpretation exists completely in a vacuum — the canonical shifts in writing and marketing absolutely play a factor in how people view Finn’s role in the franchise. My personal thoughts on The Last Jedi aside, there’s no denying that Finn’s part in the film was a significant downgrade from his role as a dual-protagonist in Force Awakens; it’s likely that plays a role in John’s seeming dislike of the film, and I do not blame him for that in the slightest.
There’s no denying that the marketing has no problem minimizing him or flat-out erasing him from promotional material (something fans have taken note of and responded to with #WhereIsFinn hashtags on social media). And while this is not inherently surprising, given Star Wars’ history of portraying non-white people, it’s still aggravating, it’s still insulting. John Boyega and every black fan of Star Wars deserves leagues better than what they have so far been given.
John was introduced to the series as the male lead. He is the dual protagonist alongside Daisy Ridley. And it’s a huge missed opportunity that the series fell off of that track for a bit, and that its allowed so many people to try and place John’s rightful mantle onto the man playing the antagonist. As much as I enjoy Kylo (and Adam, by extension), he was never the male lead. That’s not up for debate.
I titled this article the way I did because I truly think Finn is the best of what Star Wars should have to offer.
At the core of it, Finn’s story is one of the power of goodness and love not seen since since Luke’s arc through the original trilogy. Finn fights as Luke did, and neither character becomes particularly hardened or angry. They are both individuals who love first and foremost; Finn is a prioritization of gentleness in the face of violence. And, like Luke, even though they have their weak and selfish moments, those actions and feelings don’t ruin the character, they simply make them full, complex, realized.
I cannot overstate the level of excitement I have going into “The Rise of Skywalker” and thinking about the various ways that we’re going to see Finn grow and change. There are so many different theories and varieties of speculations out there about what’s going to happen, but probably my biggest hope is that Finn’s return to the dual protagonist role is as glorious as I imagine it in my head.
No matter what else happens, I want justice onto Finn. I want justice onto John Boyega, who’s gone through nearly five years of unspeakable racism and abuse for this part. The fact that he has stuck by this series and its fans in spite of all this speaks volumes about his character and how much of a genuinely good person he is.
Finn is quite possibly the best thing modern Star Wars will have ever done, and I hope that he is the legacy of these new films. He is powerful, capable, beautiful, selfless and kind. He’s special. Every decent person should strive to be Finn. That is all.