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New Escapist Column! How Disney Have Monetised Spoiler Culture…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine over the weekend. I’ve been thinking about this for a little while, since the release of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and it came bubbling to the surface with the announcement that the first episode of The Mandalorian would include “a dramatic Star Wars-universe spoiler in the first episode.”

This got me thinking about the way in which, more than any other mass media company, Disney have weaponised spoiler culture as a selling point, to create urgency among consumers and to use that to drive the market. They have also used it to shape the conversation, to control what can or cannot be said about their films and at what point. Spoiler culture has grant Disney a surprisingly strong control of the fandom-driven market. It’s an incredibly canny move from the company, one which has exploited a core part of current nerd culture.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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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: Avengers – Infinity War

There is a solid argument to be made for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as blockbuster television series that only releases three or four films in a given year.

There’s a lot of evidence to support this argument, perhaps most notably the directors chosen for “phase two” of the grand experiment. Joss Whedon might have directed Serenity and Much Ado About Nothing, but he remains known for his game-changing work on television series like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. Removing Patty Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World and replacing her with Alan Taylor only reinforced this sense. Drafting in the Russo Brothers from Community to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier cemented the notion.

Purple reign.

Indeed, the elevation of the Russo Brothers within the Marvel Studios hierarchy with Captain America: Civil War and with Avengers: Infinity War suggests the obvious similarities between managing the sprawling continuity of the shared cinematic universe and the day-to-day management of a television show, where individual instalments might be credited to individual authors, but it is also important to maintain consistency of tone and vision across the entire line. Infinity War suggests the sort of organisational ability associated with long-form television storytelling more than any single cinematic narrative.

There are moments in which this approach works. Infinity War is full of knowing winks and callbacks, allusions and references. There is a sense of set-up and pay-off to certain threads and arcs seeded across the eighteen previous films within the established brand. Characters get emotional scenes that play upon established relationships and dynamics, which are clearly articulated within the film itself, but building off years of watching (and rewatching) these actors play off one another in these roles. There is an undeniable weight to Infinity War that simply would not be possible without that television storytelling style.

Avengers assembled.

At the same time, there are reminders of the limitations of this approach, of the challenges of balancing individual stories with a larger plan for the narrative universe in which they unfold. This is particularly notable because Marvel Studios recently shifted towards a more director-friendly approach in some of its standalone productions. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are both undeniably James Gunn productions. Black Panther could only have come from Ryan Coogler. Thor: Ragnarok worked as well as it did because of the unique directorial stylings of Taika Waititi.

Watching Infinity War, it becomes clear how far these directors deviated from the established style sheet, and the difference in approach between these directors and the Russo Brothers. It occasionally feels like Infinity War was constructed by people who watched those movies, without understanding why they worked as well. There is a tonal awkwardness when these characters are woven back into the fabric of the shared universe, in a manner that is occasionally unquantifiable but sometimes fundamental.

Guardians… Get In There?

Infinity War is good, clean fun. Perhaps too good and too clean. In order put the jigsaw pieces together, all of the rough edges have been sanded off. Anything that might generate friction has been stripped away, creating the impression of a very smooth and very functional storytelling engine. Midway through the film, Thor ruminates upon the existence of fate and how it has led him towards this particular moment and beyond to a greater purpose. Doctor Steven Strange perceives one single happy ending to this crisis.

There is a sense that Thor and Strange perceive the vast narrative machine of Infinity War working around them. It is an impressive machine, if a somewhat inhuman one.

Things look pretty Stark.

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Trial and Trailer: The Perils of Publicity in the Internet Era

It is a cliché to suggest that trailers are spoiling movies.

Clint Eastwood was complaining about the trend more than a decade and a half ago, lamenting, “Half the time you go and watch a film, you see eight or 10 different trailers and you’ve seen the whole plot line. There’s really no reason to go see the film.” While film fans might look back nostalgically on classic trailers like Alien or Point Blank, the truth is that movie trailers have always been a bit of a haphazard artform. The trailer for Carrie is as spoilery as any modern trailer.

At the same time, there is a definite trend in contemporary trailers – especially for big blockbuster releases – to ensure that the audience knows exactly what they are going to get. This is most obvious in trailers like Alien: Covenant or Spider-Man: Homecoming, which go beyond spoiling the entire plot thread to spoiling big moments from the film; memorable cameos or distinctive sequences. When dealing with spectacle driven films like Kong: Skull Island, there is a conscious effort to load the trailer with spectacle, revealing monsters and set pieces.

To be fair, this is arguably more of a problem with big budget summer releases. These trailers typically belong to blockbusters that have to absolutely saturate the market in order to build hype, releasing trailers more than a half a year before release or even offering trailers for trailers. It is inevitable that this desire to effectively carpet-bomb the media landscape with footage will reveal far too much about the film in question, particularly for those who task themselves with keeping track of this information. The sparse understated trailers for smaller films like Get Out are a blessing.

It is interesting to wonder what drives these creative decisions, why studios are saturating the market with trailers that seem to lay out every beat ahead of time and which effectively promise every twist that will be delivered over the course of the narrative. There is a lot to be said for the joy of seeing a film blind, without knowing exactly what is coming and how it will be delivered. It seems reasonable to argue that the job of a trailer is to tease, to offer the viewer a hint of what is in store, instead of mapping out how they might spend two hours of their lives.

However, while these views are quite common on the internet and among film fans, it is interesting to wonder whether they reflect the opinions and taste of the mass audience. Is this increasing tendency towards spoiler-heavy trailers that plot out the entire arc of a film are driven by the tastes of audiences? Is this how the majority of viewers want their entertainment delivered, even if they would never frame it in those terms?

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Daredevil – Guilty as Sin (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Part of what is so infuriating about the second season of Daredevil is that fact that there is a lot of good material here.

The issue is nothing as simple as saying “good ideas, terrible execution”, or anything as trite. There are good ideas that are executed well and bad ideas that are handled with a surprisingly deft touch; there are also good ideas that are needlessly squandered and bad ideas that turn out to be exactly as terrible as they initially appear. It isn’t even that there are clearly discernible unambiguous flaws. Everything is a mix. For all the issues with the writing of the Punisher and Elektra, Jon Bernthal and Elodie Yung do great work with the material afforded to them.

Let us pray...

Let us pray…

The second season of Daredevil is very much a curate’s egg of a television season. There are good bits and bad bits. There is breathtaking ambition and incredible miscalculation in equal measure. The series is not entirely a failure, but it is far from a success. With Guilty as Sin, the show clumsily repositions itself as a morality play about the conflict between good and evil within the soul as Elektra Natchios. However, there is a similar conflict brewing at the heart of the show.

Even in the season’s strongest moments, there are clear weaknesses shining through. Even in the season’s weakest moments, its strongest elements are frequently in play.

Eye see.

Eye see.

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Who Spoils the Spoilers? On the Right Not to Be Spoiled…

Apparently, spoilers are good for you. Well, that’s what one survey from August suggests:

UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt wanted to test if being spoiled hurt someone’s enjoyment of a story. So they took 30 test subjects and let them read 12 short stories by famous authors like John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver. Some they just read straight, others they read with a paragraph beforehand that ruined the ending or major twist in the piece. In almost all of those cases, the reader liked the story more when they were spoiled.

Published way back in August, this generated quite a bit of on-line discussion, and a lot of people were quick to suggest that the logic held true for movies as well, and modern blockbusters at that. It seems like a ready-made defense for those posting a constant stream of spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, or leaking plot twists for various popular television shows. However, I’m not necessarily convinced by this logic.

This survey is suspect…

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