Paranoia Over Spoilers Is Bad For Audiences, Bad For Criticism And Bad For Culture
I haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood yet. It doesn’t come out in the UK for another couple of weeks, and I’m already counting down the days until I can watch it with my dad, as is our tradition for Tarantino movies. However, due to the predictability of Film Twitter and the unavoidable joys of The Discourse, I already know how it ends. And I’m OK with that.
Spoilers and the etiquette around them may be one of the most hot-button topics in all of pop culture. It’s the thing that seems to set off the most online wars and an issue with no set rules to live by. But here’s the thing: For me, spoilers aren’t all that big a deal. Truthfully, I am by and large unbothered when something is spoiled for me. It doesn’t impact my enjoyment of the work. I’m a millennial who was raised on The Simpsons, so a major chunk of classic movies were ‘spoiled’ for me through jokes on that show, but it didn’t dilute the experience of seeing them for the first time when I was older. Hell, I think The Simpsons made me appreciate Cape Fear more as a result.
I don’t think I’m unique in this regard, although it can often feel like I am, given the overwhelming virulence of spoilers discourse. There’s nothing particularly high and mighty about my point-of-view. I certainly don’t consider myself superior to those who like their entertainment experiences to be as unspoiled as possible. However, there is something immensely off-putting about how we talk about spoilers, something that feels like a relatively recent development, that’s started to poison the well in a distasteful manner.
Hyping up a movie based on its narrative twists is a move as old as Hollywood itself. Think of the savvy marketing for Psycho, wherein audiences were told they would not be let into theatres once the film started, or The Crying Game, a thoughtful drama with lots to say on the intersections of gender, sexuality, politics, and nationalism, but one the Weinsteins boiled down to, ‘Wait until you see THAT moment’ in all the advertising. M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career post-The Sixth Sense is rooted in this practice. When executed well, it can be an effective way to get butts into seats, and there is an undeniable visceral thrill to being genuinely surprised by a twist you didn’t see coming.
This tactic is par for the course now, not so much in terms of such high-concept storytelling but with the franchise age and the evolution of Event Cinema. These massive blockbusters, especially the Marvel movies, are designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, which would typically make things difficult for holding back spoilers. I get the urge to do so. Not everyone sees these films in the opening weekend and with something like Avengers: Endgame there is a solid decade of build-up and expectations that fans will want to experience fresh. Basic social media decorum is one thing, but I was frankly baffled by how borderline dictatorial some people got in trying to police media coverage of the film.
The problem with this kind of spoilers discourse is that nobody can seem to agree on what counts as a spoiler. I saw people being criticized for spoiling Avengers: Endgame because they mentioned what was in the trailer! The most mundane and well-known plot elements could barely be written about in reviews without someone jumping into the comments section to sneer about supposed spoilers (seriously, why the hell are you even reading reviews if you don’t want to be spoiled in the slightest?) Even after we’d collectively agreed, for some reason, to adhere to Disney’s pre-ordained timeline for spoilers for the movie, there was fan anger that it wasn’t being done ‘properly’. Everything was considered a spoiler, from basic plot beats to dialogue to a knowledge of earlier movies. Trailers spoil their own movies all the time but seem to face far less criticism for that than people who talk about such things for a living.
This attitude has made talking about films online oddly precarious. I’ve had critic friends chastised by strangers for ‘spoiling’ decades-old movies and books in casual Twitter conversations. It’s another battering ram for people to use against critics in a way that only exacerbates the sheer level of crap we face on social media and the like. Gatekeeping fans are often tough to deal with and impossible to please, and this is highly evident in spoiler culture. When everything is deemed a spoiler, a critic ends up not having much to write about. How can you discuss the basic tenets of a narrative when things like theme and a plot summary will get you yelled at by fans? The short answer is that you can’t. I’m not saying you have to give away everything in a film to review it properly, but that’s seldom the problem when we talk about spoiler madness.
Sony Pictures are trying to protect the ‘secrets’ of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by asking multiple publications to remove articles and reviews of the film because they contain spoilers. Keep in mind that these spoilers are very clearly marked as such and easy to avoid should a reader want to do so. That’s not good enough for Sony, so they have to demand censorship. What’s next? Demanding specific coverage from sites or risk losing access? This is a slippery slope we don’t need to go down and it’s one that doesn’t need to happen over the supposed sanctity of spoilers.
A movie studio is asking Vox to remove an article not for factual reasons or concerns but because it has spoilers.— Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti) July 26, 2019
The movie is in wide release. The spoilers are clearly marked both within the article and in its presentation.
They want no spoilers for “as long as possible."
Honestly, I think building one’s entire entertainment experience around anticipating some magical twist or shock signals a failure of storytelling and audience expectations. When we and our culture are so wholeheartedly consumed by spoilers and the need to keep them untouched, you end up not only with paranoid viewers but paranoid storytellers. Think of how the Marvel movies are now made through a process that makes FBI redacted documents seem transparent. Actors admit that they’re given only their lines to work with in major scenes and often don’t know who they’re supposed to be talking to or what’s happening elsewhere. How do you even do your job properly under these ridiculous circumstances?
I’m happy to mark spoilers clearly in my work and to follow the basic non-d*ck rules of social media decorum, but overall, I think we lose a lot when we reduce everything in art to spoilers. The primary problem with this mentality is that everything becomes a spoiler when you go through the world utterly petrified of being spoiled. I promise you that there’s a better way.
Header Image Source: Fox // Frinkiac
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