We Need to Talk About Spoilers (No Spoilers)

  • Aaron Netsky

There is an insidious idea creeping into the movie-going experience. Something that drives up attendance without demanding higher quality in the product. A non-issue that can make a person feel like their life has been ruined when at most two hours of their life has been slightly tweaked. This threat to our sanity and our humanity is the spoiler: the idea that if you find out the big secret in a movie (or play or book) it ruins the whole thing. It has given me pangs in the pit of my stomach over things I didn’t care about five years ago and spurred me to see movies on opening weekends that I probably would have waited to stream under normal circumstances (or at least until I could rent them at a Redbox; DVD renting is alive and well). It is a problem and it is only going to get worse while looking like it is getting better. I have started deliberately spoiling movies for myself, and I suggest you do the same.

For one thing, a spoiler is a gimmick. Twists used to be rare and unexpected; now they are assumed, and often promoted as the primary reason to see a movie as soon as you can. I didn’t go to see “The Dark Knight,” in 2008, because I was worried I would find out how Batman defeated the Joker before watching it play out. I went because Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was supposed to be amazing and I had loved “Batman Begins.” Similarly, I didn’t not see the “Star Wars” prequels because I already knew where Anakin Skywalker’s story was headed (which was telegraphed on the very first, very cool poster for “The Phantom Menace”; they weren’t trying to keep it a secret from the uninitiated). Even blockbusters didn’t used to work this way. There were surprises in those movies, yes, but even then, I would have seen them coming if I had been more into the material they were based on, and knowing them wouldn’t have hurt a thing. 

I also went to see “The Dark Knight” because of the incredible shot of an 18-wheeler being flipped on a city street in the movie’s trailer, and “The Phantom Menace” because of the developments in special effects that, among other things, made the droid army so amazing to watch going into battle. I was attracted by the craft, I was there for the ride, not because of any anxiety or fear of missing out. Here’s another example: I owned the published edition of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2”, for a year before I saw the play on Broadway. Every other “Harry Potter” book I read before seeing the movie. This time, I was paranoid about doing that, insisting it was because a play is meant to be seen and not read, but also because I didn’t want to know “the secrets.” After each part of the play, the ushers pass out buttons to the audience that say “Keep the Secrets,” a nifty (and free) souvenir and a catchy slogan, but frankly, the secrets aren’t that great (I knew one pretty big one going in; didn’t hurt). They’re mostly par for the course as far as Harry Potter plot points, but if I had gone in knowing them, it wouldn’t have hurt my experience. And anyway, the real reason to see that play is the stagecraft, and you can’t spoil stagecraft, even, arguably, with video. To reiterate, I paid a few hundred dollars to see the HARRY POTTER play for the PLOT and not the MAGIC. There’s something wrong with that.

Bringing it back to movies, but staying in the same universe, if I had known the big, ridiculous reveal at the end of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” was coming, I don’t think it would have spoiled sitting through the movie for me, but, without knowing it, it was the reason I went opening weekend, not the magic. Again, these things are gimmicks, surefire seat fillers that take the pressure off any other element of the movie, like the dialogue or the direction or the acting. I’m not saying those things were lacking, I’m saying that’s why we used to go and see films, to see how they played out, not what played out. Maybe that’s why spells are less interesting to see performed in newer Wizarding World movies, maybe that’s why sloppy plot holes infest over-stuffed summer blockbusters, and maybe that’s why the movies that get nominated for Oscars don’t, generally, do great at the box office (there’s a shift going on, and there’s a good chance that next year’s Best Picture will be the most financially successful movie in history, but that’s still the rule). Those movies are about the craft, not the gimmick, and the moviegoing audience is increasingly willing to sacrifice quality workmanship for a split-second of gratification. I learned a relatively minor part of the plot of “Avengers: Endgame” earlier this year, ahead of seeing it, and I had to spend the next few minutes talking myself down. “It’s okay, Aaron. You didn’t know who any of these characters were a few years ago, and you still don’t know what’s going to happen in most of the movie. Take a deep breath. There’s still plenty for you in this movie. Chris Hemsworth is still playing Thor.”

So, with very few exceptions, I have started to deliberately spoil movies for myself, watching spoiler reviews and discussions, mostly on my favorite YouTube channels (shout out to “Screen Junkies”), and reading coverage and discussions I find interesting without worrying. It makes me happier and more patient, though there is still a slight hesitation. I don’t rush out and pay to see movies I’m not even sure are any good (a matter of opinion, but there are reviewers I tend to trust, and it’s always nice to not pay to see a bad movie), and when I do finally see them, I concentrate more on the stuff I care about, the writing and the acting. I don’t plan to spoil, for instance, the last of the episodic Star Wars movies, but if I hadn’t spoiled “Solo” before I got around to seeing it, I might have been lost and appreciated it less. I’m not saying do it for everything, and certainly not saying that anyone should spoil a movie for anyone other than themself, but if we let spoilers in movies run our lives even a little bit, their control over us will grow and become dangerous, and Disney is already too close to ruling the world. Perhaps more importantly than that, though, we will get increasingly inferior product. A spoiler, a twist, that’s a clever idea. A movie, the costumes, the scenery, the make-up, the props, the acting, the writing, the directing…that’s labor, craft, that takes time, or at least it should. That should be what we’re paying for, and demanding, not taking for granted.

Yes, we can have all of that and twists, but we have to send the message that that is what we want, quality over curiosity. And really, how often do you get to spoil yourself?