With spoilers ruining films and TV shows for many a viewer, Will Higgins looks at the State of Spoiler Culture in 2017.
Spoiler warnings and alerts pepper conversations and appear at the top of any discussion, recap or review; they have even been institutionalised to a degree by some studios. This year a set of guidelines for journalists covering Blade Runner 2049 was circulated by the director Denis Villeneuve; requesting critics do not reveal plot details of the film. Representatives of the studio, however, have contested some of the details. The fear of spoilers ruining a show or film is at an all-time high, and so this performance is a necessity in any discussion of a new product of pop culture.
It is a strange state of affairs in 2017. Spoilers are easier to avoid and pose less of an existential threat to viewers than ever. TV is becoming a more private affair. Apart from a few standouts, the days of millions of viewers seeing the same show at the same time are over. Anyone who watches, say, Stranger Things, can watch it on their own schedule, and people looking to discuss a show or movie can find a spot online dedicated to that pop cultural artifact. Besides, shouldn’t the expectation be that any review or discussion of a movie or show will go into plot-specific details? A “spoiler-free” review is an oxymoron. In this world, the spoiler warning is an idiomatic relic that might soon die out.
A “spoiler-free” review is an oxymoron.
Beyond its lack of function, the spoiler warning might actually be hurting how we discuss pop culture. It could be the cause of shallower discussions on these topics. Rather than discussing how characters and themes develop in the story, we are forced to talk around them.
For instance, it would be great to talk about Thor: Ragnarok and how a reveal towards the second half of the film interestingly critiques the legacy of colonialism. However, for fear of ruining the film, we are limited to talking about the film with vague phrases such as “good,” “funny,” or “smart.”
One could discuss this online with people who have seen the film. However, that is not enough. Ideas of pop culture should be discussed among a larger audience. Mainstream discussions and criticism of pop culture should be engaging with the themes, characters, and plot of each film and be unafraid of “ruining” it for someone who has not seen it.
Pretending that knowledge of a plot point will ruin the story distracts from what we actually want from our stories. Here’s an informal theory: our collective focus on spoilers is the result of lowered expectations by creators of their audiences. Publishers and producers assume that audiences will only be interested if they can get the rush that comes with seeing a story for the first time.
All an audience wants is good, believable characters.
All an audience wants is good, believable characters. If they are given that, they should respond to a story whether they are seeing it the first time or the hundredth time.
What the preoccupation with spoiler warnings shows, however, is the twist being used by creators as a crutch to prop up weaker characters and stories. The twist is a narrative device like any other, albeit a cheaper one, akin to the jump scare. Experiencing it for a second time leads to a steep drop off in emotional returns.
Take Game of Thrones for example, which made a name for itself with its shocking character deaths. As fun as it was for us book-readers to watch viewers react to the Red Wedding, the scene was still gutting because we cared about the characters. Compare that to The Walking Dead, another show built on shocking deaths. This show has become a second choice viewing because recently little time has been given to the development of characters’ emotional relationship with the audience. Shocks and twists are simply ineffective if the necessary foundation of character has not been built.
We’re fooling ourselves with spoiler warnings.
Another theory is that the spoiler alert is our acquiescence to this shallow view of pop culture. The mystery writer Raymond Chandler wrote about this acquiescence: “My theory was that the readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action… although they didn’t know it, the thing they cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.”
We’re fooling ourselves with spoiler warnings. We have been offered lowered story standards and accepted those lowered standards. Discussions that focus on guarding the secret heart of any work play the game that the value of the work is in its secret plot. We should be asking for more from our stories and engaging with pop culture more deeply. Blade Runner remains relevant because people continue to discuss it. Blade Runner 2049 will become a sci-fi classic only when we are allowed to discuss it. And as we engage critically and openly with pop culture, films and TV shows will adapt to those new demands and be better for it. The sooner we get rid of the spoiler warning as a convention, the better our pop culture will be.