It’s always been in poor taste to reveal the ending of a book or film prematurely. If you see me sitting on the bus enjoying the sixth book in the Harry Potter series and you unceremoniously walk up to me and tell me the surprise ending that “Snape kills Dumbledore” (as was a popular meme back in the summer of 2005), then you are, indeed, being malicious and spiteful. The Internet has taken this logic one step further and asserted that talking about a work in-depth at any capacity online is the same thing as being that man on the bus. If you talk about a piece of media and don’t add a “spoiler alert” to it, then you are violating some serious online norms.
This taboo has rightly garnered a lot of criticism recently because, when you analyze this norm carefully, it has nothing to do with politeness. Spoiler culture is all about preserving social capital — both that of the people that consume popular products and that of their producers.
Spoilers have been weaponized recently to insulate producers of popular culture from criticism, and that should give all of its defenders pause. Spoiler culture has already been used to protect some pretty terrible products, and, if we continue down this road, it will hurt future consumers’ ability to criticize media.
A Spoiler, What Art Thou?
Before we dive into the history, I want to pose a philosophical inquiry which has plagued online commentators for decades:
What is thy purpose, spoiler?
What function dost thou serve?
The popular answer is to protect users from learning critical information that would prevent their enjoyment of a work. In the words of LifeHacker’s David Murphy:
“…Nothing will ruin the fun of these huge franchises faster than stumbling across a spoiler for a movie, episode, or your favorite character before you’ve had a chance to see what happens yourself.”
It’s important to note that spoilers, in this context, are exclusively plot focused. I have yet to see someone freak out about cinematography or musical scores being discussed upfront. It’s all about the plot. Viewers don’t want to know narrative beats beforehand; the logic goes, because doing so will ruin their overall experience.
Upon closer examination, however, this explanation doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. We don’t use this justification for earlier works. In fact, online commentators have pretty conclusively asserted that, if a work is old, you have no right to feel angry about it being spoiled. According to marketer Kim Puckett:
“…As soon as the show ends, office and social talk should be allowed about the show. How can we enjoy shows at a social level if we’re always worried that someone is still on Season 1 of ‘The Killing’ or halfway through ‘Sons of Anarchy?’”
This argument, though, directly contradicts our popular belief of what a spoiler is. If a piece of media is, indeed, best enjoyed blind, then wouldn’t that hold true for older works as well?
Why would age make the hiding of key details less important?
Puckett’s answer reveals the real purpose of a spoiler warning, which is the prestige of experiencing important cultural moments. Spoiler warnings protect people from missing out, and that function has nothing to do with politeness, but with preserving social capital, or, for those non-economist geeks out there, “popularity.” When discussing spoiler warnings, technology analyst Melanie Turek mentioned the importance of popularity:
“Once a series is off the air and the hype has died down, asking people not to spoil is just silly.”
Notice that Turek isn’t talking about preserving the sanctity of plot points at all, but cultural moments. Spoiler warnings are all about hype, and the desire to connect with significant, and yes, popular cultural references. I have nothing against people wanting to be popular. I spend a lot of my time accruing social capital as well, but to speak bluntly, it is not my, or anyone else’s responsibility, to ensure that you maintain your pop culture cred.
In fact, in this context, not only are calls for spoiler warnings misleading, they are selfish. They place a consumer’s desire to be popular, as well as a producer’s wish for free publicity, ahead of everyone else’s desire to criticize a work. This was not always the case, and our evolution towards an “anti-spoiler culture” points to a pretty disturbing cultural shift.
The History of Spoiler Alerts
The spoiler didn’t exist for most of our literary history. Massive epics didn’t ask their audience to keep an ending a secret. In fact, in a lot of cases “spoiling” an ending upfront was one of the best ways for an author to get their audience members to engage with them in the first place. The play Romeo & Juliet tells you all the events in the opening monologue. We know Romeo and Juliet are going to kill themselves by line six:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life…
Romeo & Juliet is one of the most well-read texts in the English-speaking world, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person outraged by the opening monologue’s “spoilery” nature. I doubt most people have even cared to notice.
For the longest time, the same logic applied to films as well. In a 1976 New York Times article, for example, Director George Lucas was more than willing to discuss the entire plot of Star Wars: A New Hope months before it aired in theaters. Media critic Donald Goddard broke down the entire plot of the film in his article:
Inevitably, the adventurers fall foul of Governor Tarkin and his Death Star, a huge space station the size of a small moon, on which the princess is imprisoned. And just as inevitably, it all comes right in the last reel: The emperor’s secret weapon is destroyed, the princess is rescued, and the forces of evil routed in a final spaceship dogfight conducted along World War II lines. The sinister Black Knight (Dave Prowse) is allowed to slink away, however, to scheme again another day, thereby keeping the door open for possible sequel.
That’s the whole climax of an iconic Hollywood blockbuster being described beat-for-beat. That wouldn’t be done today. The details of modern-day blockbusters, especially Star Wars ones, are now kept very much under wraps.
Historically speaking, few people cared about spoilers. There were exceptions of course: Alfred Hitchcock famously went to great lengths to hide the details of his suspense-thriller Psycho, the plot of which can essentially be boiled down to a cross-dressing motel owner murdering their clientele (talk about a lousy business strategy). Hitchcock bought all the copies of the book the film was based on and refused to let audience members enter the movie after it started — a norm that has more or less carried to the present day.
Hitchcock was more the exception than the rule, however, and a lot of directors were more than willing to leak details of their projects. Many iconic films tell you what’s going to happen in the title (e.g., Kill Bill, Free Willy, Saving Private Ryan, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Empire Strikes Back, etc.). No one should be surprised, here, that the Empire does indeed strike back against the Rebel Alliance in the famous Star Wars sequel.
This expectation changed with the Internet and the shift in our media consumption habits that it helped to create. The origin of spoiler alerts coincided with the rise of Internet culture, specifically with movie nerds. We can find an early example on June 8th of 1982 where one user, Wayne Hamilton, used the term to discuss the then-recent Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan film:
“Spoiler alert — regarding Spock’s parting gesture to McCoy, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s how they bring him back (if they do); but then, I have a low opinion of ST’s script(s). Spock’s farewell to Kirk sounded pretty final to me.
Wow, Wayne was wrong on so many levels. #Spockdoescomeback
Here, the spoiler warning is a way for this Trekkie to talk, and indeed, low-key brag about having seen a cultural product that is important to their community. Not only have they seen the film, but they also have a fan theory. They have social capital.
The term remained largely insular within these communities until the 2000s when people started to watch more television online, and it’s here the approach we know today began to solidify. With the advent of products like TiVo, came the ability to record TV and watch them whenever you wanted. As New York Times Writer Bill Carter speculated in 1999, the same year TiVo started to hit the marketplace:
“Certainly, the machines have the potential to give people broad control over their television viewing, by organizing schedules of shows according to personal choice and taste. That means viewers could watch what they want when they want, not bound by the timetable of any continuous network schedule.”
TiVo and similar competitors like ReplayTV were the start of decentralized viewing habits. There was no longer a single viewing experience. The only thing maintaining the cultural experience of “being in the moment” was the emerging, collective taboo to say nothing about a work other than if it was good or bad.
One of the first widespread public outrages over spoiler warnings was with the 2004 movie Million Dollar Baby — a film about a female boxer who in the end is injured and asks her trainer and close confidant to assist in her medical suicide. This subject matter was controversial, to say the least, and conservative critics such as Rush Limbaugh went to great lengths to “spoil” plot points in the film as retribution. As commentator Julie Hilden said at the time:
Their strategy is potentially quite damaging to the market for the movie. Many viewers prefer to see a movie without being told beforehand of its surprise twist: Foreknowledge of a movie’s ending ruins the surprise and “spoils” the film. With many movies and many multiplexes out there, viewers may simply opt for another choice if they feel “Million Dollar Baby” is ruined for them.
Indeed, social critics did take issue with this tactic. In 2005, movie commentator Ross Bert penned an article titled Critics Have No Right To Play Spoiler that argued just that point:
The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. Sometimes they make choices that offend us. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them. It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were.
Really? Why not?
Sure, some may consider it an asshole move, but that’s free speech for you. It’s ironic in a country so obsessed with interpreting “the right to free speech” in the broadest possible terms, that we seem willing to censor it for… entertainment?
This assumption that spoilers would “ruin” both the financial standing of the film, as well as the viewers’ enjoyment of it, did not seem to have panned out, though. Million Dollar Baby, a movie with a budget of $30 million, earned over $100 million domestically, and swept the academy awards by winning best picture, director, actress, and supporting actor.
Yet the success of Million Dollar Baby did not dispel this notion. The idea that narrative twists in works of entertainment had to be protected for enjoyment only heightened as major streaming services launched in the mid-2000s. The idea was a lie to preserve the popularity of early watchers and, as we shall soon see, that of creators as well.
2005 brought the launch of the free video-streaming service YouTube, which initially streamed a lot of pirated content. It now offers the ability to rent pretty much any movie or TV show.
Several years later, in 2007, the DVD delivery service Netflix started offering streaming content. It would begin offering original content in 2013 with House of Cards, and balloon to hundreds of shows in the coming decade.
The following year in 2008, Comcast and the Walt Disney Corporation launched an online streaming platform called Hulu with an ad campaign that promised to melt your brain.
By the time 2010 rolled around, we were in the midst of a new era, called “The Golden Era of Television” by some. TV was by no means dead, but there was enough diversity in viewing habits to make the “spoiler alert” appealing to the mainstream public. Not everyone had the time to binge the thousands of shows, movies, games, and vlogs that were being uploaded every second of every day. If a viewer wanted an “unspoiled” experience, something necessary in order to stay popular and relevant, then they needed a grace period.
A spoiler alert.
If critics refused to add a spoiler alert to their articles — as New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley infamously failed to do in her 2010 review of the hit show Mad Men — then they were crucified for their oversight. The New York Magazine, for example, labeled her act of writing a Mad Men review as despicable on their weekly Approval Matrix — where they graphed the good and bad things that happened that week. Her spoiler was placed alongside the gassing of over 400 geese and the racist shenanigans of Andrew Breitbart (yes that Breitbart). Many fans were indignantly outraged over this review and the countless others like it that would inevitably happen in the following years.
In the current era, you can hardly go a week without a director or showrunner pleading to the world for their work not to be “ruined” by leakers. This has nothing to do with the goodwill of AMC or the Disney Corporation. There is a clear benefit in preventing viewers from not talking about a text’s more problematic aspects during the height of its popularity.
That benefit is the money one makes from society’s collective silence.
Spoiler Alerts Are About Money
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) started in 2008 with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. The MCU is such a large endeavor at this point that it hardly requires explaining, but I shall do so anyway because I’m a nice person. In brief, Hollywood Execs made movies from the stories of comic book characters and then interconnected those stories, so they all take place inside one cinematic universe.
People are really into these films. Four out of the ten highest grossing movies of all time are Marvel movies, and this list doesn’t account for the successes of Captain Marvel and End Game.
The showrunners of these movies are very vocal about not “spoiling” plot points. For example, right before Avengers Infinity War, its directors, the Russo Brothers, begged fans and critics during a press conference not to spoil plot details of the film:
“Only a handful of people know the film’s true plot. We’re asking that when you see Infinity War, in the coming months, that you maintain the same level of secrecy so that all fans can have an equal experience when they watch it for the first time.”
To follow this logic, however, it not only means that you have to consume a work to criticize it, but that criticism can only be made on an individual level. That viewpoint kind of defeats the entire purpose of capitalism. How are you supposed to #votewithyourdollars if you can’t give people reasons for why a piece of content is bad?
You see how that logic only benefits big companies, right?
Big companies can lose millions if potential movie viewers lose interest in their films. When viewers learn of details that make them uncomfortable, it’s tough for a studio to shake off that initial narrative.
Take 2017’s Ghost In The Shell as an example. The movie was a live-action remake of a critically beloved, though obscure, Japanese manga/anime about a future where cybernetically enhanced humans are the norm. The film was a box office flop and reportedly lost over $60 million.
There were many reasons for this (including an executive change-up within the company Paramount), but it would be hard not to see the casting choice of actress Scarlett Johansson as a significant contributor for the movie’s failure. Social critics were not happy that a white actress had been cast in a film based in Japan, and that affected how the movie was reviewed and talked about prerelease. In the words of senior media analyst for ComScore Paul Dergarabedian:
“Ghost in the Shell suffered from tough reviews, an unfamiliarity of North American audiences with the source material, a so-called ‘whitewashing’ controversy that may have had an effect — though it’s almost impossible to quantify that effect empirically.”
From a business standpoint, the fewer details audience members know about a film or TV show before committing to it, the better. If Scarlett Johansson’s casting choice had been kept a secret, then I highly doubt such criticism would have mattered after the fact. No one would have wanted to ruin their fellow audience members’ viewing experience.
This is why so much effort is placed in keeping pre-released plot details to a minimum. For example, the sequel to Avengers Infinity War, Endgame, was filmed in such a piecemeal way that before joining the set of Endgame, actress Brie Larson reportedly didn’t know anything about her character except her first line, and she was not alone. Most of the actors were kept in the dark with multiple endings filmed to obscure leaks. Everything about the film was created to minimize audience knowledge.
Why was preventing Endgame leaks so crucial to the Russo Brothers? Why do popular franchises go to such lengths to obscure details that ultimately are very straightforward and predictable?
Well if we don’t know critical details about a piece of media we are going to watch, and are culturally barred from talking about it once that product is released, then its really hard to organize cultural resistance around said product. It’s no coincidence that many of our society’s more successful media boycotts have recently been around decisions like casting choices. These are public details that don’t revolve around a plot twist. They fall outside the purview of spoiler territory and are therefore acceptable to talk about and organize around.
When plot details are the problem, however, then spoiler alerts become a barrier to necessary criticism.
When Bad Movies Get A Pass
Avengers Infinity War was a huge hit both culturally and financially. It earned over $2 billion and was a powerful moment in pop culture that churned out millions of vlogs, articles, recaps, and other ancillary content (including this article). If you liked the movie, that’s fine. Everyone has different preferences.
It was not without its problems, however, and the biggest one had to do with the plot. In the movie, space tyrant Thanos is trying to collect six magical McGuffins so that, in a Malthusian plot, he can kill half of the galaxy’s population. He is doing this because he believes its the best approach for sentient life’s long-term survival.
Thanos is set up as the big bad in the film, but from a narrative standpoint, it’s his story. As the Russo brothers mentioned in an interview right before Infinity War’s release:
“We thought it was fascinating to tell a story from the point of view of a villain. So when you watch the film, you’ll see that the film is told from Thanos’ perspective. That offers a unique insight into our heroes, but it also offers a unique insight into villains and how they think.”
While Thanos states his philosophy repeatedly, we don’t get an opposing viewpoint arguing against why his galactic culling is a bad thing (the other side isn’t presented to us until we see the fallout of his actions in the sequel Endgame). The consequence of this unbalanced presentation was that a lot of real world people identified with Thanos. The hashtag Thanoswasright was popular all over the Internet immediately following the film’s release and still enjoys popularity today.
You heard correctly, the film’s poor storytelling caused people to identify with a genocidal space tyrant.
From a critical standpoint, it was very hard to bring up this problematic element during the film’s initial run without either: A.) burying it in the body of an article after profusely apologizing to your viewer for discussing a film in an article about said film; or B.) attracting the ire of frustrated fans for ruining their experience because they consented to read an article about subject matter they were interested in consuming.
And so, the issue was not brought up during the initial run of Infinity War. I have personally waited until the release of the film’s sequel to talk about the more negative aspects of Infinity War’s plot — well after everyone who was going to see it in theaters had already done so.
The #Thanoswasright damage was already done.
We have to collectively ask ourselves if a person’s virginal viewing experience is truly that important, especially when it stifles all meaningful criticism to the point of absurdity.
Maybe Your Media’s Just Not Very Good
To bring us back to the beginning of this article, if you are on a bus reading the sixth book in the Harry Potter series and I decide to unceremoniously walk up to you and tell you the surprise ending that “Snape kills Dumbledore,” then that makes me a dick. I am being malicious and inconsiderate of your feelings merely out of spite.
If, on the other hand, I am talking to my friend on that bus about Harry Potter, and you overhear me saying that “Snape Kills Dumbledore,” then what you hear is on you. If you come over to chastise us for ruining your experience, and, later that night, burn your copy of the sixth book because you can no longer finish it, then I think it’s time for you to question your media consumption habits.
No one forced you to click on this or any article. You don’t get to act like a petulant child for seeking out information, and then being disappointed that it’s not curated in the way that you wanted it to be curated. A work should be more than your desire to brag about having consumed it. If your story cannot survive the scrutiny of having its plot points revealed, then maybe it is just a bad story.
What makes Dumbeldore’s death tragic is that we grew to identify with his character over the course of six books. Through pages upon pages of dialogue, we became emotionally attached to who he was as a person. When I reread his death scene on the roof of Hogwarts, even though I know what’s going to happen, it still impacts me emotionally. The plot details, in of themselves, mean nothing. If the Harry Potter series had been terribly written, or Dumbledore had been portrayed as an asshole, then I wouldn’t be weeping profusely every time Snape….Merlin’s Beard, I am getting teary eyed just thinking about it. The point is that well-written dialogue, camerawork, and acting should be able to trigger something within you, even if you can see the plot details coming a mile away.
I think when we look at the MCU, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and other properties drenched in spoiler paranoia, the source of that fear comes from an uncomfortable truth: many times, these stories are bad. The plot almost always boils down to “good guy kills bad guy,” and while some of them are critical gems (#Wakandaforever; #TeamTheLastJedi; #ThorRagnarokisBae) many of them hold no rewatch value on their own.
Like, are any of you actually keen to rewatch the Incredible Hulk, Solo: A Star Wars Story, or Game of Thrones past Season 5?
These products were boring because they didn’t say anything. The MCU, Star Wars and many blockbusters have a longstanding substance problem: their lack of any.
For example, it is a common talking point to call blockbuster villains boring. The Dark Elves in Thor 2 and Supreme Commander Snoke in the new Star Wars films, and the White Walkers in Game of Thrones are all good (or evil) examples of this trend. Ultimately, none of these characters do anything beyond menacing stares and monologues. They are boring because they don’t have much to say other than “look at how evil I am.”
The reason we like villains such as Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther is that they have an overarching philosophy to their tyranny other than “evil is good.” Killmoger isn’t taking over the world for evil’s sake but to protect black people (a group that has been historically marginalized) from systemic white supremacy. His line at the end of the film: “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage” is devasting because there is a truth to his pain.
Conversely, what do the Night King in Game of Thrones or the Dark Elves in Thor 2 want other than a rote desire for destruction for destruction’s sake? If the Big Bad your hero is fighting against holds no point to it other than being evil, then that doesn’t bode well for your movie in general.
For a movie to be good, it has to say something. Otherwise, it’s just special effects. A lot of works surrounded in spoiler paranoia fall into the latter category.
In 1976, George Lucas was willing to “spoil” his entire film Star Wars A New Hope because he knew that telling his audience that “The emperor’s secret weapon is destroyed” meant nothing on its own. People had to watch his story and learn to identify with his characters. If anything, his chief concern was keeping his revolutionary special effects a secret (imagine that for a moment). He cared little about the plot beats being aired because investment in his film had to be earned through solid acting, dialogue, and direction.
Right now, we have the opposite viewpoint. We have a lot of companies counting on their audience’s investment in their characters without putting in the work to maintain that investment. The only people that immediately benefit from this arrangement are companies that don’t want to face real criticism and consumers who are so deadset on being popular that they shoulder the costs that come with being “spoiler free.”
When companies use spoiler paranoia to avoid meaningful criticism, it ultimately ends up hurting everyone. The audience member is hurt because they become a passive consumer unable to engage with a work critically, and are forced to consume a lot of terrible ideas for the sake of “fairness.”
Content creators are hurt because they fail to learn why audience members don’t like their media. Rather than work on good storytelling and character development, the lesson creators instead learn is to keep plot details a secret. They operate under the assumption that investment in their characters is a given and instead prioritize bigger and bigger battles, special effects, and plot twists. Media becomes a popularity-based shell game for which property has the sickest fight scene.
But barring genuine character development, there is only so much I can care about the hypothetical destruction of all sentient life. Thanos may have wiped out half the galaxy, but I will always care about Dumbledore’s single death more because it actually means something, even years later, knowing it’s going to happen.
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