Chances are reading the words Star Wars and politics in the same sentence brings to mind confusing trade embargoes, ponderous sequences of bureaucratic incompetence, and less-than-thrilling votes of no confidence. But in spite of this, one profound historical truth keeps drawing us back to these ambitiously flawed movies: they have something meaningful to say.
A New Hope boldly critiqued the Vietnam War in 1977. It’s a potentially incendiary metaphor for a crowd-pleasing blockbuster to propose, to be sure, but one that comes straight from George Lucas himself. Then the prequels debuted under the shadow of 9/11 and America’s subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The core identity of both trilogies remain fervently and unmistakably engaged with the politics of their time. Yet in stark contrast, the political ideology of the sequel trilogy feels oddly muddled. Unfortunately, one character suffers more than any other from this utter disinterest in politics.
Here’s how shying away from Star Wars’ most fundamental responsibility came at the expense of its most promising hero, Finn, played by John Boyega.
The Force Awakens Overreacted to Prequel Complaints
By all accounts, constant jokes about the prequels made director J.J. Abrams hesitant to include any such material in Star Wars‘ triumphant return to pop culture dominance. For better or worse, the critical and general response to Lucas going full Lucas—not to mention the enduring cultural impact of the prequels in some circles—dictated the extreme overcompensation towards familiar, nostalgic aesthetics throughout The Force Awakens.
Consequently, Finn’s backstory as a child who is kidnapped and brainwashed into the First Order’s stormtrooper army becomes the first overtly political concept to be jettisoned. And it happens almost as soon as the film introduces it. Upon his conscience awakening during his first military engagement, any conflict Finn may feel appears to immediately vanish. Scant minutes of screen time later, the soldier-turned-rebel remorselessly blows his old comrades away in a daring escape. The story never pauses to reflect on the lives—potentially redeemable ones, mind you, which Finn is living proof of—being snuffed out without a second thought.
Is it a dealbreaker that some nuance was overlooked for the sake of pacing and avoiding complicated politics? Not necessarily, but a trip through the next two films nonetheless reveals a mounting problem.
The Last Jedi Drops Finn’s Background Altogether
The Last Jedi is, in a word, remarkable. Forced to juggle a handful of generalized archetypes with varying degrees of depth and haphazard plotlines left from its predecessor, writer and director Rian Johnson delivered a sequel that deepens our understanding of these characters. His story interrogates the very idea of Star Wars itself and why we love it so much.
But while nearly every returning character (and even a few new ones!) receives a properly fleshed-out arc, it’s hard to ignore how the apolitical precedent set in The Force Awakens continues to haunt Finn.
Though the repeated refrains of “Traitor!” from Kylo Ren or Captain Phasma (or internet sensation “TR-8R”) mostly come across as toothless and ineffectual in the previous film, at least this acknowledged his backstory to an extent. Not so in The Last Jedi, where Finn’s journey necessitates confronting his future rather than his past. One key moment in Canto Bight, however, provides an opportunity for Finn and newcomer Rose. They could have bonded over a shared trauma at the hands of the First Order. Instead, Finn displays a jarring ignorance of the galaxy’s suffering and oppression. It feels entirely at odds with his established history.
Even in the sequel trilogy’s most unabashedly political film, the most politically potent character is once again undercut.
The Rise of Skywalker… Well, Ugh
Oh, what could have been. Though rife with its own series of questionable choices, the alleged script by initial Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow contains at least one politically charged plotline most fans agree would’ve resolved Finn’s arc: a stormtrooper rebellion led by Finn himself.
As we all know, Abrams’ and co-writer Chris Terrio’s version unfolded much differently. Our favorite former stormtrooper is all the poorer for it (though he’s far from the only character this threequel mishandles). Even with the confirmation of Finn’s Force sensitivity and an overdue exploration into rehabilitated stormtroopers through the introduction of Jannah, these clunky and tacked-on subplots feel more like half measures than any sort of character revelation. Considering the constant teases of Finn’s Jedi potential throughout the marketing for The Force Awakens, it’s almost egregious that this amounts to nothing more than a confusing narrative dead-end that dilutes what could have been a defining character trait. Worse still, the script dismisses Jannah’s identical backstory. She promptly joins Finn in the wanton slaughter of even more hordes of stormtroopers.
Might they have followed in Finn and Jannah’s footsteps on the path to redemption if given half a chance? Would a truly politically engaged Star Wars sequel trilogy have given Finn the dignity of a coherent arc? The answer to both questions is, frustratingly, the same: we’ll never know.
Featured Image: Lucasfilm