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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.

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Non-Review Review: Captain Marvel

The biggest problem with Captain Marvel is one of spoiler culture.

“Spoiler culture” is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, and one that is interesting as a facet of cultural consumption that arose parallel with the internet. It is perhaps a logical extension of the manner in which information flows these days. Information travels instantly and in all directions, quickly consumed and quick disseminated. In the nineties, it was easy (or easier) to avoid spoilers to films like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. After all, there was no Twitter or Facebook to share information. If somebody had already seen the film, they had to be physically talking to somebody else to discuss it, and it was posisble to establish the ground rules for the flows of information before the conversation progressed.

In an era where simply being on the internet exposes a person to torrents of information, the advent of “spoiler culture” seems logical and rational. People want to be surprised. People don’t want to know the finer points of a story before witnessing it first hand. People do not want the easter eggs given out or the finer details dissected. This is an understandable response. Having an experience described is no match for actually having that experience first-hand. So a culture has grown up online about preserving surprise and controlling the flow of information. This is fine. This is healthy. This is good. Mostly “spoiler culture” is just common courtesy and common sense. A reviewer should not reveal anything to a reader that they themselves would not want to know.

As with any philosophy, there is a tendency to take things too far. Sometimes “spoiler culture” descends into self-parody. Reviewers were famously told not to reveal any information about the plot of Blade Runner 2049, which ironically made it very hard to sell the movie to a potential audience. Some more extreme adherents felt betrayed when Sony released a trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home before Avengers: Endgame, as if the fact that Sony was making another Spider-Man movie would give away the resolution to the cliffhanger from Avengers: Infinity War. Naturally, Infinity War came with its own massive spoiler-warning from the studio, with reviewers told that “Thanos demands [their] silence.” This despite the fact the ending was lifted directly from a comic.

Captain Marvel embodies the worst impulses of “spoiler culture” because it confuses a logical and organic narrative development for a big twist. There is a reveal that comes around the half-way mark of the two-hour film which fundamentally changes the nature of the story being told. It plays against the story that had been set up to that point, and is positioned as a game-changer. It is a “twist.” It is a “big” moment. It is the kind of development for which Thanos would demand silence. Except it’s not really. It is not an actual twist. It is a plot point. It is a story beat. It is a part of the story that makes a great deal of sense in the context of the story as it is being told. However, Captain Marvel decides to play this game-changing story beat as a revelation.

There are a couple of big issues here. Most obviously, the actual narrative development is quite literally the only way that Captain Marvel could go without becoming something completely and irredeemably monstrous, so it is entirely predictable. (The twist is only a surprise to audience members who genuinely believe that Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie is likely to play out as extreme white nationalist propaganda.) More than that, though, it creates a larger problem with the flow of the story. The decision to play this story beat as a twist means the film has to conceal its hand for the first hour and fifteen minutes. This means that Captain Marvel is almost half-way over before any member of the cast gets any real character development.

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