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‘Avengers’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ Spoilers: Just How Much Are We Responsible For Protecting the Element of Surprise?

Film and TV critics debate whether they have an obligation to readers when it comes to plot twists.

"Avengers: Endgame"

“Avengers: Endgame”

Marvel

ERIC KOHN: We are here to render judgement on the state of spoilers. On the one hand, spoiler culture has become the single most annoying cultural obsession, with the acceleration of social media catalyzing greater paranoia about which plot points should be leaked, in fear that any of them could ruin the prospects of viewing something cold. I also sense a certain degree of commercial exploitation here: When a massive blockbuster event comes along, the marketing hype often hinges on viewers having zero expectations from the start. This allows companies to play off (and usually heighten) audience excitement before it settles into a more accurate assessment of the product at hand. All you spoiler-phones are getting played!

But this is an old story. When “Avengers: Endgame” directors Anthony and Joe Russo implored Marvel junkies on Twitter to join the fun and “#DontSpoiltheEndgame,” their plea joined a continuum: Modern storytelling has often hinged on the element of surprise, from O. Henry to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” to “Psycho.” Nearly 60 years ago, Alfred Hitchcock went out of his way to ask viewers not to share the major twists of his seminal slasher movie. By the time I saw it, however, the fate of poor Janet Leigh in that bloody shower — not to mention the cross-dressing twist of the closing moments — had been spoiled long ago. And guess what? I loved it. I’m not saying that the element of surprise lacks certain unique pleasures so much as that that the possibility of encountering certain details shouldn’t obscure the potential impact of a genuine artistic achievement. If you stumble on a spoiler, that doesn’t mean the movie is ruined. And if you’re afraid of spoilers, the responsibility to avoid them falls to you.

A few years ago, I tackled this from the opposite direction, when plot details leaked online for “The Dark Knight.” (And guess what? People loved “The Dark Night.”) Back then, it seemed like audience obsessions with secrets had lead to a flood of unregulated speculation so intense that spoilers were inevitable. “Today’s audiences rebel against surprises,” I wrote. Since then, they have forged a new moral code around preserving them.

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: ENDGAME..Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

“Avengers: Endgame”

Marvel

But that code has yielded some specious logic. Some readers have suggested that outlets consider marketing materials as the ultimate judge of which plot details are fair game for discussion. Others have proposed imposing a two-week embargo on plot details. Marvel even got away with holding a press junket for “Avengers: Endgame” before journalists had seen. Dear god. Did we even need “Avengers: Endgame” for the world to bask in the excitement surround its release? Should we just put embargoes on everything, for all time, and let art exist in a vacuum? Where’s the Infinity Gauntlet when you really need it?

In recent years, Martin Scorsese has often complained about the use of the word “content” to describe movies and television that deprive the art forms of their soul. I have started to develop similar feelings about the concept of the “spoiler alert,” a rigid, clinical term that doesn’t take into account the subjective nature of the storytelling experience. Yes, it is bad form to reveal which characters get axed in “Avengers: Endgame” and “Game of Thrones,” but at what point does policing these policies become a totalitarian endeavor? On a certain level, viewers sensitive to spoilers just need to choose wisely. The rest of us have the liberty to talk through the narratives of the moment, no matter the supposed sanctity of their third-act twists. Who’s with me?

DAVID EHRLICH: For starters, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an entertainment journalist who doesn’t share — or at least sympathize with — your grievances. We’ve all been accosted by readers who accuse us having revealed too much, even though our work is predicated upon enhancing the experience people have with “content,” and that people who have actually seen a certain film or television show are usually in a better position than those who haven’t to determine what does and does not constitute a spoiler.

“Endgame” was a special case, and I don’t envy you or anyone else who had to file a pre-release review, because roughly everything that happens after the first 45 seconds of that movie gives away a mystery that the marketing had been monastically good about keeping secret. The only analogue I could think of was “Before Midnight;” after nine years of wondering whether or not Jesse had missed that plane and started a life with Celine, I wanted to learn that basic plot information on Richard Linklater’s terms (of course, I knew those characters would share another encounter, but the hows and whys of it made all the difference, and when Celine is waiting for Jesse outside the airport in Greece I lost my mind like I had just learned that Soylent Green is made out of people). 

Anyway, it’s tough out there. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that fans need to choose their own level of engagement and act as their personal spoiler police, but that becomes an impossible task during the singularities that monoculture sometimes makes possible. Before “Endgame” came out, you would have been shot on sight for even mentioning that Hulk eats breakfast at a diner. As soon as the film opened, it became a very different story. By Friday night, everyone on Twitter was talking in code; by Saturday night, they were openly discussing the fate of major characters. There was no way to avoid it, save for staying off your phone entirely (even my email inbox was a minefield). That’s a rough spot to be in for someone who cares about that stuff, but couldn’t make it to their local AMC for the 6am screening before work on Friday. 

“Game of Thrones”

The problem is even more pronounced for “Game of Thrones,” because most people really do watch that at the same time, and — to my horror — respond to each new episode in real time online as though it were a college football game or something. As a film critic, I can barely stomach the idea that people render judgements on the show between installments of an incomplete story, let alone tweet empty nonsense while it’s airing, but I’m already stressed about how I’m going to watch the final two episodes while I’m at Cannes (and yes thank you that is the most first-world problem any human has ever complained about).

But HBO actively encourages the fandom’s cathartic need for release. It won’t even reveal episode titles before they air, but as soon as the clock hits 9pm you can watch a 40-minute documentary that reveals every little secret about “The Battle of Winterfell,” and even includes adorable behind-the-scenes footage of Arya high-fiving the Night King. One minute it’s all top-secret, and the next it’s coming at you from all sides. 

That binary can’t be productive, and it creates a vacuum of critical thought that leads to asinine conversations about brightness levels and old prophecies of Westeros that can only be found in the margins of George R.R. Martin’s books. These conditions are making people straight up bad at watching television. Between the immediate access to information that the internet puts at our fingertips, and the ability to discuss beloved media properties in a worldwide forum, people have turned to conspiracy and hair-trigger panic in order to satisfy their ravenous appetites for their favorite movies and shows.

No, there’s nothing inherently wrong for coloring outside the lines and imagining fanciful theories about how Bran might be the Night King or whatever, but now a vocal portion of the audience has been cornered into only engaging with “Game of Thrones” on those terms, and feeling cheated by the show’s (brilliant) pivot back to the political machinations at its core. In a world where anticipation is more important than the thing itself, and HBO reinforces that idea with its content strategy, it makes sense that people don’t want critics to breathe a word about what actually happens: By revealing even an innocuous plot detail, critics are forcing this subset of viewers to acknowledge that hype is really just a fraction of the experience. That cognitive dissonance might be enough to drive the entire internet mad. 

There’s no easy solution here. Content providers might de-escalate the situation by easing up on spoilerphobia, but given how well it’s working for Marvel and HBO, it’s hard to see that happening anytime soon. 

LIZ MILLER: For me, this question comes down to the implementation of the Spoiler Alert, and I’m a big fan of it. I’m currently in the thick of covering “Fosse/Verdon,” a show essentially about the well-documented lives of two key figures in Broadway history — but our coverage includes plenty of spoiler alerts, because even while the facts of real life are available for people to look up, the way in which the show’s producers choose to lay them out is unique to the storytelling.

Generally speaking, spoilers are bad news. Unless the content of a film or TV show is so rough that it could cause harm, let people get as close as our current climate allows to experiencing it as a group. As someone often a few weeks ahead on shows thanks to pre-release screeners, my experience with “Game of Thrones” — which is not available in advance of its air date — this season has been pretty fun. Not only is everyone who might want to talk about the show up to date with the show (a very unique thing!), but we’re on the same level and we all have thoughts! The same appeal applies to “Endgame”: So many have seen it within the same window of time that it enables communal discussion. The biggest issue with spoilers is how they affect the spoiled — and the best aspect of massive properties like “Avengers: Endgame” and “Game of Thrones” is how hard it is to spoil anyone, because they’ve been consumed on a massive scale.  

"Game of Thrones"

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

BEN TRAVERS: When it comes to spoilerphobia, I think it’s important to recognize that there is a lot of different content under scrutiny here. People have already decided to watch movies like “Avengers: Endgame” and shows like “Game of Thrones” long before critics enter the picture, so the value of our reviews and analyses must shift accordingly. As David said, what can we contribute to the discussion that enhances the experience? Obviously, we can prepare viewers if the thing they’re definitely going to see is actually terrible, or join the hype machine by raising their expectations even further — and either is easy to do without spoiling anything at all. But it’s also the least important aspect of the job. Advancing the conversation started by the “content” is what matters, especially for these big blockbusters that “everyone” will see, and that’s where spoilers come into play.

So what can we do? Some have turned to theorizing as a means of leading the discussion, and that has its place to be sure. But hunting for Easter Eggs and tracking theories has certainly altered how TV critics approach these big blockbusters. If Reddit accurately predicts what’s going to happen next, then the creators get chastised for being too predictable, even if their execution is superb. (Just look at “Westworld”: Even though everyone bitched about solving the maze too early, Season 1’s ending has a beautiful clarity to it. But the creators became so enamored with besting theorists they delivered a Season 2 that’s pretty much indiscernible gibberish.)

Similarly, when it comes to “Game of Thrones,” if marketing is the only framework for an episode, and the actual episode delivers a different kind of story than the audience has been trained to expect, people are much more likely to say it’s “bad” than try to appreciate the decisions it made and why it made them. With that in mind, advanced reviews can be extremely helpful, as Eric pointed out, and content providers would be well-served to provide early access to critics. That won’t happen, but the 24/7 news cycle is more to blame than spoiler culture. 

But I’m with Liz in terms of spoiler warnings — they’re a courtesy to our dear readers and a shield from the nutters. No one can blame the writer if there’s a spoiler after a spoiler warning, and plenty of people want us to discuss spoilers. Our obligation is to keep them out of headlines and social media for as long as can be reasonably expected. There will never be a hard-and-fast rule about when it’s OK to share potential spoilers, so just be cool about it. It’s the fan’s duty to protect themselves, yes, and when people are responsible about spoilers, it’s actually not that hard to avoid them.

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“Avengers: Endgame”

Disney

Confession time: I have not yet seen “Avengers: Endgame,” and I do not know who dies in it. I don’t know any of the cameos, twists, or what happens to Thanos. All I know is there are a few parallels to David’s favorite show, “The Leftovers,” that I might like, even though I’m very worried people don’t fully understand the point of “The Leftovers” since we know why these heroes died. Anyway, maybe I’ll be thoroughly spoiled before I see it, but it’s been a week since its release, so I’ll accept the responsibility if it happens.

That’s my big takeaway from spoilerphobia: Everyone needs to take a little personal responsibility, and then we all can get back to doing what they need to do. Fans can enjoy the show, and critics can enhance that enjoyment. Or enhance the hatred. Whatever. Can we talk about “Veep” now? I’m still floored by what [redacted] did to [redacted]. Holy shit. Now that’s a spoiler!

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