As of the writing of this piece, due to time constraints and that whole life thing getting in the way, I have yet to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’m certainly excited to get to the cinema sometime during my Christmas holiday and see it for myself, but with other things to get done first, I’m in no wild rush. I also spend a lot of time on Twitter and have been witness to more than a few discussions about the movie, positive or otherwise. I’ve read some, skimmed past others, and deliberately clicked off of some that may have gotten into spoiler territory. Similarly, I have read only a handful of reviews, but given my own status as an occasional critic/full-time hot take merchant, I chose to not read too many for fear of having my opinions swayed before I even see the film. What I have seen a lot of, as is always the case whenever a much anticipated project hits the big or small screen, is anger over perceived spoilers. Read nearly any comments section of a review or interview and you’ll find people bemoaning that the experience was spoiled for them with the reveal of plot points, twists, or just general descriptions of what the movie is about. Some critics have been attacked for this crime, and many casual tweeters searched for amidst the sea of squee to receive a thorough finger wagging from concerned strangers. All in all, it’s been just another week.
I have become less concerned with being spoiled as I’ve gotten older and more ingrained in pop culture as a hobby and occupation. Yet, I do fondly remember the inimitable experience of finding out about Luke Skywalker’s parentage in The Empire Strikes Back, and how it completely blew my mind as a kid in the cinema, sat in between my parents, who expectantly waited for me to see the big moment. As a teenager, I recall sitting on my desk in geography class, devouring Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory and having my teacher giddily ask me if I’d gotten to the end yet, and to come chat about the book with him once I had. There’s a swell in your chest and uncontrollable gasp of breath that follows the moment when the twist happens and all is revealed, and even the most hardened cynics can still be enraptured by this simple process. It’s no wonder it’s one so many people treasure, but over time I yearn for it less. It’s not even in the top ten reasons I watch films or read books, nor is it something I necessarily seek out. If I’m spoiled accidentally, my annoyance is fleeting and it seldom stops me from wanting to experience the thing for myself. Indeed, I can’t say I’ve ever been spoiled on something I was previously excited to check out and had my mind changed because of it. Often the exact opposite is true and I can’t wait to see how I react to the all-spoiled moment in context.
We’ve become obsessed with spoilers now. It may be because we’re so hard to surprise these days, and it’s even harder to keep things secret in an age of ceaseless visibility. Turn any proverbial corner on the internet and you’ll be besieged with headlines promising you exclusive coverage of the most minute details of any project, from before it’s even announced to the weeks, months, and years following its release. There’s a good market for this kind of stuff, and I have the page view receipts to prove it, as someone who occasionally works in that field. Some audiences like to know everything, and there will always be supply for that demand.
The problem comes when the paranoia for spoilers consumes every aspect of criticism and pop culture journalism. The very act of reviewing a film requires you to talk about what happens in it, and deciding how much to include is often a judgement call on behalf of the writers and editors. Some sites, in their eagerness to get ahead of the game and on top with the clicks, screw the pooch with blatantly spoiler-heavy headlines or accompanying photos, but most respectable publications will give fair warning and bleep out the offending words when necessary. Generally speaking, I find it odd when spoiler-phobic people go out of their way to read reviews, but similarly, good sites will give a heads-up and warn readers when to stop. Yet even in those carefully considered situations, I still see angry commenters saying critics spoiled too much. It’s the most aggravating Catch-22 in pop culture.
It doesn’t help that so many people can’t seem to decide on a strict definition of what does and doesn’t count as a spoiler. Talking about anything seems to ruin the film for some people: A basic plot synopsis can count as a spoiler; discussing something that appeared in trailers is a spoiler; hell, some of the most famous books and historical events are considered spoilers for some. I know some critic friends who had people get mad about spoilers they included in episode recaps! In those cases, I can’t help but wonder if some of those lost souls are just looking for something to be mad about. Writing a review of a film where you don’t mention a single element of what happens in it makes for needlessly cryptic and unhelpful criticism. There are times when criticism calls upon you to spoil something. How else can you fully discuss the full context of a film or TV show without digging into those moments that highlight its technical and storytelling skill?
Ultimately, I think a lot of anger over spoilers is rooted in finding new angles to attack critics and continue the false perception that this small percentage of people just doing their jobs are part of a shady corporate deal designed to keep Rotten Tomatoes scores low and kick down the scrappy underdogs of billion dollar blockbuster filmmaking. If you’re not being accused of accepting big money payments from Disney, you’re probably facing cries of ruining fans’ hobbies by describing crucial plot points in a review of a film where proper spoiler warnings were given. And if something is spoiled for you? Go see it anyway. Your reaction may change but that’s not a bad thing, and viewing something with the full knowledge of what’s going to happen is a key part of being a fan and critical figure, because it gives you an insight into how such stories will hold up under scrutiny beyond the fresh-eyed first watch.
Really, my problem with spoiler panic is rooted in the exhausting repetition of it all. There will always be things to spoil, and everyone has differing opinions on what counts as a spoiler. The very word itself invites notions of being ruined and unsalvageable. Major films like The Last Jedi also carry this unusual aura in relation to their spoiler status, as if to give away anything about them is a more egregious fandom crime than whether you liked or disliked the film. So frequently, trailers are more spoiler-filled than any review or tweet-storm, but such things face far kinder eyes than a paragraph of text. None of this will truly ruin a film for you. It may soften particular moments of the viewing experience, but if you’re truly put off seeing a movie because a review spoiled a scene or character beat, that’s not the problem of the spoiler. We should focus more on how we consume art in different ways that aren’t always plot dependent. There are ways the media can improve to make the critical experience as easy to consume as possible for those who want reviews and guidance that don’t pull back the curtain in its entirety, but we should also be vigilant enough to just not click if we’re wary of being spoiled.