Is It Time To Retire The Concept Of “Spoiler”?

As part of my continuing series addressing important questions in modern geek culture, this time I’m going to discuss the concept of the “spoiler”.

There’s a rumour, or at least a legend, that Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Citizen Kane, used to stand outside movie theatres where it was playing and yell, “It’s the sled!” Mank was my kind of guy. Other than being a general malcontent and chronic agitator, he intuitively understood the experience of storytelling enough to realize that sometimes knowing “what happens” in a story simply isn’t that important.

Kane is actually a perfect example of that. Knowing that Rosebud was Kane’s sled makes absolutely zero difference to one’s enjoyment of the film, unless you happen to view art as a puzzle to be solved rather than an experience to be enjoyed. There are no “spoilers” in Kane, because the experience can’t be spoiled. Nor can Hamlet (spoiler: he dies), or Romeo and Juliet (spoiler: they die) or The Wrath of Khan (spoiler: Spock dies) or A Tale of Two Cities (spoiler: he dies). Imagine you were charged to write a high school level report on any of those texts, and all you wrote was “he dies”. As ridiculous as that sounds, this is a major part of my objection to “spoiler culture”.

Let’s start with the word itself. To suggest that somehow knowing plot details and twists “spoils” a film (or any other kind of narrative text), reduces that text to simple narrative information. In other words, it implies there’s no difference between seeing a production of Macbeth and reading the wikipedia summary of the plot. Because, so the logic seems to go, if you know the plot, your experience is “spoiled”. It doesn’t matter what poetry is in the language, the storytelling style, the acting skills (when appropriate), the setting, the historical resonance, the metaphors, etc etc: all that matters is knowing what happens in the plot.

This is, I hope we would all agree, a very simplistic and superficial way to experience art. It’s literally the “lowest” level, the one most easily absorbed and digested, and the one beyond which you need to move in order to perform even the most rudimentary of analysis. Again, this is freshman year English-type stuff, but the passion with which people will fight for that low-level experience is amazing.

Obviously some texts get a substantial amount of their power from some plot twists. Certain mystery and suspense stories turn on sudden revelations that are fun to read. But even these, if they add up to anything at all in terms of drama or literature, survive a second or third experience, in which the plot twists are known and the text can be appreciated on a higher level.

Then there’s the anger, or at least, the passion of people who speak out when a writer like myself releases what they consider to be a “spoiler”. It’s amazingly vehement, and startling. For goodness’ sake, it isn’t a crime (at least not yet) to reveal what happens in the next episode of Game of Thrones. And if it is, then think of how much that diminishes the show. To repeat: if knowing the plot of any given episode of Game of Thrones completely ruins that experience for you, then I’m sorry that you’re unable to have a deeper experience with this text.

Another criticism is that to reveal spoilers is “selfish” (which presumes that the writer watched whatever is being discussed “spoiler-free”), or “lazy”. Once again, I must draw attention to the language being used. I’m not used to hearing that kind of charge from friends or colleagues. Parents maybe, when I was a child. This level of discourse must change.

Sometimes it’s impossible to have a meaningful discussion about a text without discussing the plot or the ending, but I can’t think of an example. I was once giving a lecture about Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons and started discussing how the ending was changed by the studio and the last 40 minutes of the film were re-shot without Welles’ involvement. This aspect of the film, to me and to most film scholars, is absolutely essential to know, going in. Otherwise a first-time viewer might come away thinking, “What’s all the fuss about that?” Sure enough, someone in the front row interrupted me with a sentence that is forever seared in my memory about the maturity and intelligence of an audience: “Dude, don’t tell us how it ends!!”. At the time, I was so shocked by the attitude that I didn’t know how to respond. It’s just a different audience, and a different experience than I’m used to.

There’s no resolution in this piece: I have no easy answers for those who demand “spoiler-free” sections other than to continue what I’m already doing. But I strongly feel that if we’re ever going to raise the level of discussion of popular and geek culture beyond a certain point, we have to accept that any art worthy of the name is never “spoiled” by knowing the plot. And since I consider what we discuss (film, TV, comic books) to be legitimate art forms (rather than simple entertainment), I’ll always struggle with how to discuss it without “spoiling” the experience.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics

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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

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5 Comments

  1. I think you’re underestimating the value of experiencing any twists and surprises as the writer intended. Mank notwithstanding, imagine that youre standing in line to see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK the day after it opened, only to hear someone walking by saying, “Wow! I can’t believe Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father!”

    Or suppose that someone told you that Bruce Willis’s character in THE SIXTH SENSE was dead the whole time.

    Or suppose that you knew that Norman Bates was ALSO his mother before seeing PSYCHO.

    Any sufficiently strong narrative can certainly survive a spoiler, hence why we tend to watch things over and over. But the indended experience loses something if we know going in that the butler did it.

  2. I’m with Joseph, although I have to ask if anyone saw Psycho in the last 50 years not knowing that Marion would die in the shower.

    And yet, one of my great pleasures is to watch something I know absolutely nothing about (as in, I have no idea if it’s supposed to be a comedy) and be completely blown away by it. To be truly surprised and involved by it. To be seduced. After that, sure, we revisit our favorites, we can study them and see what make them work so well. We may even prefer them on second viewing.

    But, when we know nothing, we are the perfect audience. There’s nothing between us and the work. We are not bored because the film is taking too long to start (Marion just drives, come on, kill her already). Now sure, it is possible to retell a movie (or book, comic, or whatever) in a way that sounds wonderful and make you feel that you have to see it. I have memories of my father telling me about Elephant Walk and Village of the Damned, and when I finally saw them… both films had been much better in my young mind. It can happen. And all the best teachers do that. But… Just them.

    The problem with having your first experienced being filtered by someone else is that you are in their hands. And so not only you have to discover the best filmmakers, but also the best critics. It’s very easy to actually spoil a great work of art. All you need is someone who despises it. Do you wanna see a movie about an old rich guy who dies? The whole point is that money doesn’t buy happiness. Or how about a comic book about this old Batman fighting Superman, and he’s winning but then he fakes his own death to fool Superman? Look, I know that that’s not the point of these works. But so what? Are you going to tell me that you never saw someone completely missing the point of something you love? And how would you know, unless you try it for yourself? And wouldn’t it be better to try it with virgin eyes?

    On the other hand, of course, how can you convince someone to try something (especially when it’s not famous) unless you try to explain what makes it so great? Just saying it’s awesome is not enough.

  3. mad monq says:

    But you are mostly name checking Citizen Kane and Hamlet. Are these the properties usually referred to when it comes to spoilers?

    A spoiler can ruin the finest facade on these otherwise tin shack franchises. The audiences aren’t very concerned over content. I (mostly) don’t have a problem with spoilers but that is because most of the films are openly formulaic. We rarely hear these complaints about “The Magnificent Ambersons” but there are perfectly obvious reasons why we do not.

    I am glad you are well read or whatever but browbeating your audience is easy. Just ask that idiot, Michael Bey. I hope I didn’t spoil it for you if you weren’t expecting this reaction.

  4. David Balan says:

    Have to agree with Joseph and Mario – while I don’t think spoiling a work of fiction is any reason for verbal abuse (as if there even is an acceptable reason – there’s not), I do object to the characterization of enjoying a story you know nothing about as “the lowest form of enjoyment”.

    It’s really not. It’s a a great wonder to walk into another world, another place, another person – and not know what’s going to happen. It’s an outstanding adventure – and for me, it was the first thing I loved about stories.

    That said, I’m not that bothered by spoilers – a truly exceptional work will be enjoyable whether I know if Dumbledore dies or not. But there is something to be said about experiencing the twists of the plot as the writer intended a “cold audience”. It’s a ton of fun.

  5. Spoilers can only possibly ruin shallow stories because they depend entirely on whatever might be spoiled to give it the semblance of being anything more than shallow. And I can’t help but think that if your motivation for hating spoilers is to protect the formulaic, then you should actually be demanding better stories.

    Also, many of the comments talk about enjoying something in spite of spoilers, as if the spoiler was being told, “You know, the author hated black people and worked to keep them enslaved.” In that instance, you really would have to work against your knowledge to enjoy something despite knowing something terrible. In the case of spoilers, it’s merely knowing chronological facts.

    And spoilers aren’t actually having experience filtered for you. “Darth Vader is Luke’s father” is a simple relation of events. “Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and it’s dumb” is having someone filter an experience for you.

    I guess in some instances, it’s nice not knowing what’s coming. It’s cool in a movie like Snowpiercer being unable to see what’s coming up, but at the same time, I wish spoiler culture could be dissolved because, Jesus Christ, grow the fuck up: you know what’s coming at 1:40 in the movie, you didn’t get cancer. Overall, protecting spoilers really does make it feel like geek discourse is presided over by children: we can’t talk about S-E-X in front of the kids because it might offend them.

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