Spoiler culture—the capital-D Discourse surrounding how much of the plot you should know before heading into a piece of media—reached its apotheosis with the releases of Avengers: Endgame and the Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night.” The furor around spoilers is such that it is entirely believable that a man loudly discussing the plot of Endgame in public would be assaulted.
People treat being spoiled or unspoiled as some sort of determining factor for appreciation of a piece of art. There are separate camps for fans who like to know everything and fans that want an experience that involves knowing nothing, and entirely separate spheres of media to cater to both. Any contamination of one camp from the other will somehow “ruin” the experience in a way that destroys any possibility of enjoyment. If this is a cultural battle, the spoilerphobes are winning.
For a while, I was in charge of io9’s “Morning Spoilers,” a place where we would round up all the newsy tidbits that weren’t quite worth their own posts. It was titled morning spoilers. It was in the banner. There was a spoiler warning before you clicked. The tags listed every single property that would be discussed below. And people would still flip out in the comments about having read something they didn’t want to know. The thing would happen in posts breaking down movie trailers, which connected publicly available information, knowledge of the source material, and some speculation based on, basically, how stories work to figure out what was happening. It was all clearly labeled. And people would still complain. This behavior—the complaint that all but the vaguest descriptor of an unreleased show or movie or game ruins someone’s experience—is now mainstream.
The definition of “spoiler” has expanded so much in recent years that it encompasses just about any information about a piece of pop culture. If the headline vaguely states that it’s about a “twist,” that is a spoiler. Because now you know there is a twist. The fact that, say, a character’s movie or TV show takes place after Endgame spoils that a character won’t die, even though the studio has released that information on purpose. Attaching positive or negative adjectives to a headline about a movie is a spoiler. “Oh, there’s a ‘great’ scene with Captain America? Spoiler.” Any information, even promotion from the studio designed to get you excited and in the right frame of mind for a work, is a spoiler now.
It would be one thing if this were just about fans complaining in blog comments. But their perspective is specifically being catered to. There’s been an uptick in labeling reviews “spoiler-free” or “spoiler-filled.” But the point of a review is to provide guidance on whether or not you should spend your money on something. And that can mean spoiling something by warning people that there’s a plot point that doesn’t work or is downright offensive. And it can mean writing around things that are so good you can’t recreate them in a review. A spoiler-free review at some point just becomes a series of hyperbole designed to get blurbed in an ad by the giant conglomerate behind a property, or to destroy a work that isn’t good with the most invective that can be leveled. Nuance doesn’t exist because nuance requires data. A review is an opinion, and writing it around the idea that any factual information is a “spoiler” will weaken it to the point of uselessness.
Being spoiled and having a movie ruined are not the same thing. I stand by a tweet I sent last week: If knowing what happens in a film ruins it, the film wasn’t good. Twists and shock value are crutches, and a competent piece of media sets these things up so that they don’t truly come out of nowhere, but rather occur organically from what we know about the characters already. The execution is more important the fact of the twist itself. Otherwise there would be no point in re-watching or re-reading something, or even in seeing a movie or reading a book rather than just checking a detailed plot summary on Wikipedia.
You may have a different experience if you are spoiled, but that it is “worse” is merely a matter of opinion. And placing so much importance on not being spoiled—to the point of trying to dictate where and how other people talk about the movie—is setting yourself up for failure. You still have to live in this world, and if you fly into a rage if you happen to learn something about a movie, then you ruined that movie for yourself.
Maliciously spoiling people is not cool, a point that is so obvious I didn’t think I needed to make it, except people somehow thought that was what my tweet was about. It was not. It was about reassuring people that a movie is ruined by a) being bad or b) being in the wrong headspace for it. Not by knowing what’s going to happen.
I had Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens ruined for me that way and it did bum me out slightly to know something for certain that I’d only merely expected. That said, when the scroll started and the movie began, I stopped thinking or caring about what I already knew. Because there was something about the feeling of that movie that sucked me in, and even though I had knowledge of what was coming, I was still affected by the scene, because I was invested in the arc of the characters the film had established.
(And, yes, there is going to be at least one comment, hopefully stuck forever in the greys, from someone complaining that I just spoiled Han Solo’s death for people.)
It’s important to have some perspective. Chasing complete ignorance is chasing the feeling of childlike innocence. How much gross behavior has come from fanboys trying to force films to make them feel like children again? If there’s one thing Star Wars fandom has proven over the last year, it’s that.
And finally, buying into spoiler culture is to be played by the brands. Brands have been co-opting fandom at a pretty steady clip now. On both sides of this fight. It isn’t unusual for shows to have official hashtags and to encourage livetweeting, because turning TV into an event means encouraging people to watch it live. That makes advertisers happy.
For movies and plays—where the same thing is being shown over and over—playing into spoilerphobes creates a mystery that can only be solved by buying a ticket in advance and seeing it as soon upon release as is possible. It’s incredibly gross that one of the official Endgame hashtags—with a fun exclusive emoji!—was “#DontSpoilTheEndgame.” It’s even grosser that the directors of the movie posted a letter pleading for the same thing in a way that explicitly named specific fandom activities and then basically claimed that being a real fan involved not talking about it.
J.K. Rowling pulled a similar trick for the Harry Potter play The Cursed Child. Previews came with the hashtag “KeepTheSecrets” and, again portraying some fans as traitors, “#DontBeWormtail.” Here’s my own spoiler alert: The secret was that the story sucked.
The Cursed Child proves that information about the plot only ruins something that fails on every level. The script—which was officially published only a month after the previews and this hashtag—tells an excruciating story. But the execution saves it. If you go in to the show as a fan wanting to know where your favorite characters ended up, you’re going to come out furious. If you go in with reasonable expectations of how bad the plot is going to be, the spectacle of it will give you pleasure. Keeping the secrets, though? That just let Rowling and company hide the flaws in the script for longer.
Fandom and “nerd” culture are big business now, not just niche concerns. Even though the vast majority of people behind Endgame’s gigantic opening weekend are just regular fans, corporations play to the hardcore fans, knowing that they’re a) a base of revenue that will always show up and b) a secondary source of revenue for things like toys, books, conventions, and so on. That means encouraging behavior that doesn’t make sense when it’s no longer “just” a comic book event, confined to comic stores and comic cons, and where people really can curate their experience. But you can’t have it both ways, either as a fan or as a massive studio. And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Deciding to buy in either to “this is a cultural moment that everyone must be a part of whether they want to or not” or “I am one of the true fans, and god help you if you in any way intrude on the reality I’ve constructed” means disappointment. At the very least, it’s a waste of time and energy that only makes you unhappier.
Just let people experience things however they want. The polite thing to do before engaging with them to ask them what they want. Even if that means spoiling it for them—some people are less anxious the more they know going in.
And if, having not harassed other people over your own hang-ups, but instead just taken reasonable precautions, you still stumble onto information you’d rather not have, you’ll be fine! Breathe. It’s still worth seeing even if you’ve been spoiled. And if it’s not, it wasn’t that good in the first place.
Being a fan is not an experience a brand or a creator gets to dictate. It’s not even something other fans get to dictate. Enjoy things how you like. That’s fandom.