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Spoiling for a Fight: Thoughts on Contemporary Spoiler Culture…

It’s happening again.

Last year, to mark the release of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos demanded your silence. This year, to mark the release of Avengers: Endgame, audiences are being told not to spoil the endgame. These campaigns are indicative of how a lot of modern pop cultural discourse works; for example, discussions around Game of Thrones or Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. There’s a strong push in modern pop culture towards the concealing plot details from these big monumental works, these pop cultural events. There is a strong push to preserve surprise and to avoid direct discussion of the material in any real detail, for fear that such discussions might possibly reach the eyes of somebody who would rather remain uninformed of any details about these phenomena.

To be fair, it is possible to sympathise with such a position. People want to enjoy media on their own terms. People do not want to have their responses to media shaped by outside factors like the opinions of others or the details of the plot. While one can readily cite studies suggesting that spoilers can actively improve enjoyment of a film, it is also entirely possible to find studies that argue the exact opposite. More than that, it is increasingly difficult for a person to avoid coming into contact with media talking about these pop cultural phenomenon; social media is built on the concept of immediacy and relevance, and so anybody connected in anyway to the internet is bound to have some contact with Star Wars, Game of Thrones or Endgame.

At the same time, there is something slightly suffocating in all of this. There has always been mass culture. There have always been people writing about mass culture. There has always been media that could be spoiled. There have always been press screenings. There was a seven month gap between the premiere of The Usual Suspects at Sundance and its release to the American public, and its twist remained a surprise to the general public. Generally speaking “just use your common sense” has always been good advice when talking about a particular film or television show. As such, the modern panic over “spoilers” seems unnecessary and counterproductive.

Note: This article contains a variety of spoilers, most heavily for Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel. Put proceed at your peril.

As ever, the issue is one of extremes. It makes sense for audiences not to want big twists and narrative developments spoiled for them before seeing a film. Anybody who enjoys and appreciates film understands that there are certain aspects of movies like The Sixth Sense or Memento which should probably not be discussed with somebody who has not seen the film in question. It would be perfectly reasonable to get upset with somebody who casually reveals the identity of the killer at the end of a mystery novel or film. However, even these are not hard and fast rules. It would be very difficult to talk about Psycho in any depth without acknowledging that Norman Bates was a psychotic killer.

In most cases, good judgement is enough. It seems fair to talk about the central premise of The Matrix, even though that represents a major reveal to the title character, if only because it is impossible to have any substantive discussion of the film without acknowledging the story beat from which the entire movie flows. In contrast, while the twist in The Village provides a lot of context for what came before, it arrives so late in the film and operates as such a profound game-changer that it should probably be discussed more cautiously and carefully. Similarly, there is a sense that time plays a factor as well. After all, the ending of Citizen Kane has become cinematic shorthand, while the ending of Infinity War has become a meme, so both are likely safe to discuss.

As with anything as subjective and elastic, there will always be room for disagreement and discussion. As unlikely as it may sound, it is statistically likely that there are people on social media who have never seen or heard of The Matrix. However, should the entire cultural discourse be altered in order to accommodate them? After all, they have had twenty years to watch the film, so there is very little excuse. More than that, what is a spoiler to one person might not be a spoiler to another person. “The good guys win” seems a pretty safe and generic ending to any mass media big budget blockbuster, and yet there will be audience members who will object to the mere acknowledgement of this fact. As such, spoilers are something to be navigated and negotiated.

The problem arises when this sort of spoiler-phobia ceases to exist in the realm of good sense and instead becomes something legislated and eagerly enforced. At the press screening of Skyfall, reviewers were asked not reveal details from the film. This was obviously designed to protect a particularly important and game-changing late-in-the-film development involving a major (and beloved) character. However, that this development was something that should not have been discussed before the film was released should have been self-evident. There was no need for the warning not to reveal any details, instead trusting critics not to reveal one of the film’s strongest emotional beats ahead of time.

Similarly, Blade Runner 2049 was screened to critics with very explicit and direct instructions about what they could and could not discuss before the film was released. This rather long laundry list of demands suggested that if asked about the plot or characters, critics should “please say we meet many striking characters over the course of the film.” This sounds like rote copy, and makes it very hard to talk about Blade Runner 2049 without sounding like more of a robot (or replicant) than many of the characters. It has been suggested that this inability to actually talk about what Blade Runner 2049 is like or about might have impacted on its box office performance.

There is some sense in which this approach can be weaponised by studios, in the same way that embargoes have traditionally been employed in efforts to limit the impact of bad reviews. Passengers was sold as a romantic comedy science-fiction adventure starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. In reality, it was a rather creepy story about a lonely man who decides to maroon a young woman with him on a long space journey. Trailers and publicity from the film were specifically constructed to conceal that first-act “twist”, leading some observers to speculate that this effort had been made to conceal from audiences the uncomfortable elements of a movie being sold as a science-fiction romance.

Of course, this gets at a broader question about reviews and the purpose of criticism. While there is obviously room for nuance, this sort of dogmatic “no spoilers” approach heavily curtails the power and effectiveness of criticism. It is very difficult to talk about a film in any meaningful way without talking about what the film is about, what it is saying, and how it has chosen to say it. For example, Thanos’ character motivations in Infinity War are a major part of the film, meriting discussion. They are essential to any discussion of the character, especially given that he is functionally the film’s protagonist. However, the Russo Brothers’ position was that “anything about the story constitutes a plot spoiler.” Which would seem to argue against any discussion of Thanos’ motivations.

Spoiler culture isn’t just impacting how films and television are reviewed. It is shaping how they are made. Actors are only given the scenes of the film involving their characters, or have meaningful plot developments withheld from them until the last minute. This naturally impacts performance. An actor’s process is to bring a character to life, and that involves having a clear sense of who this character is and what they are supposed to be doing. Detaching a character in a scene from context – whether the rest of the project, or even other scenes featuring that character – reduces them to a collection of plot actions rather than a fully-formed individual. It suggests that a character is not who they are, but what they do.

Similarly, spoiler culture impacts the way that films and television are talked about. It is debatable whether press junkets were ever the pinnacle of cultural journalism, but spoiler phobia means that actors and directors can no longer actually talk about the film that they are supposed to be selling to the audience. Journalists may not even get to see the film before interviewing the cast and crew, to preserve the secrets. While this leads to adorable memes about how certain actors cannot adhere to the unspoken spoiler code, it also means that the discussion of the film is as empty as the chairs left for the “fallen.” The highlight of the Endgame press junket is discussing Chris Evans’ beard. None of this is good for popular culture as a whole.

However, ignoring the debates around the merits of or issues with that approach, this modern discourse about spoilers reveals an interesting thing about how we approach storytelling in twenty-first century blockbusters. Spoiler culture insists that the most important aspect of a film is the plot, and that the plot is something to be protected at all costs. The logic of spoiler culture dictates that discussing the technical craft of a film does little to rob the audience of the joy of experiencing it first hand, just as praising a revelatory performance does not undercut a viewer’s potential appreciation of that performance. However, discussing the actual plot of the film, and the manner in which the story develops, is seen as a cardinal sin that might rob a movie of any real value.

Again, there is a degree of nuance involved here, a degree of judgement. As mentioned above, personal judgment is required. However, when spoiler culture is taken to its logical extreme, it reveals what modern pop cultural discourse considers to be the real worth of a film. That worth is not measured in terms of execution or craft, in terms of theme or technique. Instead, the worth of a movie is distilled down to a very simple and very straightforward question, “what happens in it?” This suggests that Infinity War or Endgame would somehow be rendered inert if the audience had any knowledge of what was to come, rather than appreciating the experience of watching it through their eyes and processing it on their own terms.

This is a flawed approach to criticism and discussion. Plot is important, but it is one aspect of a larger whole. To borrow a truism from Roger Ebert, “It’s not what a movie’s about, it’s how it is about it.” After all, this is why audiences routinely go to films where they already know the ending; adaptations of beloved books, remakes of earlier films. Indeed, for all the spoiler paranoia out there, it seems pretty safe to assume that Endgame will end with the heroes victorious and the villains defeated, simply because that is how most of these blockbusters end. Knowing a few basic details – where the film begins, how it develops, which characters are important, how a movie approaches a key thematic point – is just flavouring. It is not the meat itself.

This preoccupation with plot as the most important part of contemporary blockbusters is borne out in the way that films like these sorts of blockbusters are developed these days. It has been argued that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is simply the world’s biggest and most irregularly scheduled television show, and that is reflected in a number of key details. Most notably, Marvel Studios has a tendency to hire directors with a wealth of experience in television; Alan Taylor on Thor: The Dark World, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Captain Marvel, Joe and Anthony Russo on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Even Joss Whedon was primarily known for his work in television when he was drafted in for The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

There is a cultural difference between television and film directors. Film directors are traditionally seen as auteurs, as the key creative force working on a film. In contrast, television directors are generally seen as the force in charge of production on an individual episode, secondary to the demands or intention of the writers and producers. This is very much in keeping with how these films are produced. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a very flat visual style, rather than allowing individual directors to embrace their own distinctive visual styles. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a largely bland and indistinct soundscape. As directors considered for Black Widow discovered, Marvel Studios even likes to handle each film’s action sequences in-house, rather than trusting the director.

All of this reflects a desire to file off as many rough edges and distinctive markers as possible, to strip out a director’s distinctive vision in favour of a broader sameness. There are exceptions, of course – Taika Waititi’s work on Thor: Ragnarok and Ryan Coogler’s work on Black Panther. However, there is a very tangible sense of why the plot of these films matters so much to both the studios and the fans. Everything else in these films is relatively interchangeable, so the plot becomes the most important part of these films. Indeed, fans might argue that character work is also important, but this is inherently subjective. Captain America: Civil War is perhaps the franchise’s most obvious example of subsuming character motivation to plot demands.

In Civil War, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark find themselves at odds with one another. However, the film is reluctant frame their disagreement in anything resembling philosophical terms. Steve nominally protests superhero registration because he is skeptical of authority, but most of his motivations come down to the fact that registration would directly affect his best friend. Similarly, the film gestures towards the idea that Tony Stark supports superhero registration out of a sense of guilt and responsibility, but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that Stark doesn’t really believe in enforcing the law in its closing scenes. Indeed, Stark is possibly motivated by guilt over the death of an innocent young man, but then recruits an untrained Spider-Man to the conflict.

It is obvious that Civil War is built by the demands of plot, rather than any of character. Tony and Steve must be at odds with one another, but not so profoundly or philosophically that they can’t move towards reconciling their differences in Infinity War and Endgame. Similarly, Tony might support the registration of superheroes in theory, but the film drafts in the villainous General Ross to be the “true believer” so Tony isn’t cast as the character spoiling everybody’s fun. Similarly, Civil War is clearly intended to introduce audiences to a new live action version of Spider-Man, and so a teenage Peter Parker is drawn into the conflict despite the fact that it completely undercuts any of Tony’s stated motivations.

This is also the case with Captain Marvel. The basic plot of Captain Marvel hinges on a “twist” that occurs around the midpoint of the film. The Kree are introduced as heroes and the Skrulls are introduced as villains, with a dramatic reversal coming at the midpoint in the movie. This has been heavily signposted ahead of time; the Kree are characterised by their obsession with racial purity, and the Skrulls are repeatedly likened to vermin. Indeed, many of the film’s early action sequences have conspicuously low body counts in order to ensure that the reveal remains moral. (That said, Captain Marvel does at least heavily imply that its title character has been actively complicit in the mass murder of refugees for years leading up to the start of the film.)

This development is organic and logical. After all, if the Kree were not revealed to be villains and the Skrulls were not revealed to be victims, Captain Marvel would inevitably resemble nothing so much as the scaremongering of the extreme right about the dangers posed by immigrants and refugees. This issue is not that the film turns in this direction. The issue is that the film treats this development as a major twist rather than simply a logical development. The first hour of Captain Marvel is given over to preserving the surprise of the film’s fairly straightforward reveal, which is obvious from the jarring editing and the clumsy oh-so-careful-to-reveal-only-what-is-necessary exposition.

As with Civil War, character is secondary to plot in Captain Marvel. For the first hour, the three primary characters in Captain Marvel are given no development because it would potentially undercut the dramatic reveal. So despite the fact that Carol Danvers has been introduced suffering from a very serious case of amnesia, there is never any sense that she is particularly interested in finding the missing moments from her past. This is a very strange character choice, given that the movie eventually has her discover the missing moments from her past. The reason that Carol is completely disinterested in discovering the cause of (or what is hidden by) her amnesia is not character-derived, but instead rooted in plot necessities.

This applies to other characters as well. The audience cannot spend any real time with either Yon-Rogg or Talos in the first hour, because that would give away the big twist that is obviously coming. So scenes with Yon-Rogg very awkwardly adhere to Carol’s perspective of him, awkwardly cutting around any interactions that he might have with other members of his squad or with Ronan the Accuser. Talos is similarly confined to awkward voice-over during one early scene, rather than allowed to develop his motivations or desires, until it is advantageous to the plot for them to stated out loud. This is how studio films increasingly play into spoiler culture, by prioritising plot over other aspects of film making.

However, this is a two-sided relationship between studios and their audiences. Audiences also desire and encourage spoiler culture. However, there is an interesting dynamic at play. As much as fan audiences might claim that they want to be surprised by films, this is very rarely the case. After all, most of these comic book movies are adapted from decades-old stories, in an industry and culture that increasingly favours visual and textual fidelity. The ending of Infinity War could only have been a surprise to those in fandom who had never read Jim Starlin and George Perez’s The Infinity Gauntlet, or even browsed the wikipedia summary of it. Even outside of that, how many studio blockbusters contain genuine surprises, plot beats not readily predictable.

After all, there is a paradox here. As much as fan audiences might claim that they want new things and to surprised, it is revealing how aggressively fan audiences respond to things outside of their expectations. Critics generally loved the surprise twist in Iron Man III, which represented a clever departure from attached lore. In contrast, loud segments of fandom insisted that this clever subversion was an insult to a classic yellow peril villain who deserved his day in the sun. Of course, Iron Man III predated the real schism between critics and fan audiences in terms of which departures from fan expectations were acceptable and which were not.

The years since have seen an explosion of fan-based anger towards otherwise well-reviewed films that committed no greater offense than denying the expectations of the fanbase. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi garnered impressive reviews, but sparked a fandom civil war by denying fan audiences what they expected from the film. Similarly, Star Trek Into Darkness played very well with critics, and was very quickly rejected by a fanbase who got a different sort of Star Trek movie than they had been promised. So it seems clear that fans do not actually want new things or surprises. They want the comfort of the old and the familiar.

If fans are so quick to react against surprises and twists, then what is the point of spoiler culture? What does purpose does spoiler culture actually serve if films that upset expectations find themselves subject to this sort of backlash? Again, it seems likely that the prevalence of spoiler culture is down to the priority afforded plot as part of a film or television series. In some ways, this reflects the approach that studios find themselves taken towards spoilers, bundling and packaging information. However, it may also hint at more fundamental shifts within popular culture over the past couple of decades.

The priority afforded plot coincides with broader movements. In recent years, there has been a large push towards the idea that arts criticism can (and should) be “objective.” The appeal for “objective” reviews, after all, was a large part of the GamerGate movement. (This is, of course, absurd; as if the appreciation of art can be reduced to a set of binary criteria.) This trend is perhaps connected to the broad pull towards pseudo-rationality within modern right-wing movements, the notion that everything can be boiled down to simple true or false statements, without any room for argument, debate or compassion. (In fact, it could be argued that one of the strongest trends in modern science-fiction is against this blinkered narrow-minded pseudo-rationalism.)

Liz Ryerson has contended that the current alt-right movement can trace its roots back to technocratic hyper-rationalism. The extreme right enjoys strong connections to the skeptic community, rooting a lot of its ideology in the idea of rational skepticism. This is why one of the most important figures in the contemporary alt-right movement is Professor Jordan Peterson, who provides an academic veneer to the movement’s political ideology. In purely political terms, this engagement with pseudo-rationalism also filters through the manner in which nominally “scientific” racism crept back into the conversation as a justification for abhorrent beliefs.

It is undoubtedly a stretch, but these attitudes are mirrored in aspects of fan culture. Although critics like Roger Ebert standardised the idea that a film’s worth could be reduced to a binary pass or fail state that determined its overall worth, the idea has really taken root in the era of review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic. These sorts of numbers, compiled from a wide variety of sources in a pseudo-scientific manner, have weight to these fans who prize objectivity above all else. A film can be reduced to a simple number which denotes its value or asserts its worth, and that score can be used for contrast or comparison. This is why these groups so aggressively bomb Rotten Tomatoes or Internet Movie Database scores, because these metrics have value to them.

The emphasis on plot inherent in spoiler culture may represent an extension of that idea. If the value of a film can be reduced to a binary thumbs-up or -down, or to a grade out of one hundred, then maybe a film can also be reduced to nothing more than a description of the events that occur it. There are obviously abstract films with plots that are subject to subjective interpretation, like the works of David Lynch or Shane Carruth. However, most blockbuster plots are fairly straightforward. Plot summaries are strings of things that happen, objectively. This may be why plot holes have such currency in these communities; plot holes are demonstrable absences in this objectively verifiable stream of information, and so can be treated like an objective failing of the film.

Of course, art is inherently subjective. The worth of art is inherently subjective. What works for one audience member or critic might not work for others. Everybody has a few films that they love, but which few other people endorse. This is because the things that make a film come alive are unquantifiable and unmeasurable. Whether a performance works, and to what degree, depends on the audience watching the film. It is up to each viewer to determine whether the music is effective, or overwhelming, or clumsy. Even the construction of the shots migth work for some and not for others. Some audience members will respond to a particular approach to characterisation, whereas others will be left cold by it. Some people cry at Up. Others cry at Inception.

Spoilers are an issue in an increasingly connected and globalised age, where everybody has access to everybody else almost immediately. There is a degree of judgement required in navigating the question of what is or is not appropriate to discuss; ultimately, that must be a judgement call for the critic talking about the film. Attempts to turn spoiler culture into a driving force in the cultural conversation reflects a broader effort to diminish and reduce cinema down to just one of its ingredients, to suggest that how a story is told is fundamentally unimportant when measured against what the story is. It feels like an attempt to strip out any subjectivity or personality from cinema.

It also risks stripping out the heart.

3 Responses

  1. I feel like there is a simpler reason why spoilers in movies are a bigger deal now than they used to be, and it’s that many movies are expected to be part of a long-running series rather than standalone pieces, which shifts the importance of an ongoing plot upwards compared with a standalone movie. Especially since many directors and staff nowadays are coming over from TV and bringing those attitudes about spoilers with them. Even in cases where that attitude is probably unnecessary because the movie isn’t going to start the next big thing (Sorry, Blade Runner 2049…the truth hurts sometimes).

    While there may be a statute of reasonable limitations on discussing spoilers, I think it’s important to keep in mind that after a certain point, the older a film is, the less likely it is than many of your peers have seen it. Just as an example, I watched Star Trek: the Motion Picture last year with a friend, and one of the plot reveals in the movie completely blew his mind, and now TMP is his favorite Star Trek film.

    This came up in a recent NYT review for the new ‘Murder on the Orient Express’:

    Christie’s novel derives much of its notoriety from the solution to its mystery. It’s very novel; whether it’s ingenious or just ostentatious is still debated by mystery lovers. But even more than 40 years after Mr. Lumet’s film I had presumed that the ending was so well-known that there would be little point in a remake. And yet, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said in a different context, generations have trod, have trod, have trod, and there are plenty of millennials who haven’t read the book.

  2. Yeah, that’s fair enou-
    >`despite the fact that Carol Danvers has been introduced suffering from a very serious case of amnesia, there is never any sense that she is particularly interested in finding the missing moments from her past. `

    only every action she takes after landing on Earth?!

    • To be fair, she only crashlands on Earth (a.) about half-an-hour into the film, and (b.) after spending years with the Kree. Even then, it’s the plot that pushes her towards finding her past rather than any internal characterisation. Carol’s immediately preoccupied with being rescued and chasing the Skrulls. She almost stumbles on to her own history. Which is efficient as far as plot construction goes, but which removes any sense of character agency from her.

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