A code of conduct for spoilers

The Avengers line up to stop Thanos in last year’s Infinity War.
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Several minutes of Avengers: Endgame footage have leaked online. I haven’t seen that footage, nor have I tried to see it, but descriptions of it exist. (No, I’m not going to link to them. On this one occasion, you can use Google, I’m sure!)

Marvel, unsurprisingly, treated the leak like some sort of high-level state secret had been divulged. The entirety of the massive Marvel publicity machine sprang into action with one goal in mind: Preserve the surprises of Endgame, or, at the very least, get people to feel guilty for watching the footage.

The film’s directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, released a letter asking that viewers not spoil Endgame after seeing it. (Considering the Russos did something very similar around 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, my guess is that they had always planned to release such a letter, and it just got moved up a week because of the leaked footage.)

And, look — I think this is smart on Marvel’s part. The leak was theft of the studio’s intellectual property, and scrubbing it from the internet is absolutely its prerogative. Furthermore, Marvel has the right to market the movie as something so wonderful and surprising that you simply must see it right away, or risk having it ruined for you by the loudmouth at your office. (Signed, the one who is the loudmouth at my office.)

But on a broader cultural level, this whole brouhaha ties into an idea I’ve been kicking around more and more: Spoiler paranoia is making a lot of our pop culture at least marginally worse.

The way Marvel filmed Endgame in order to avoid spoilers sounds completely messed up

Brie Larson, trying really hard not to be spoiled on what happens to Captain Marvel in Avengers: Endgame.
Marvel Studios

On April 14, io9’s James Whitbrook published a large collection of stories the actors in Avengers: Endgame have shared on the film’s press tour, about just how little they actually understood about the movie they were making. Like ... take this story from Brie Larson (who plays Captain Marvel), which ran in Inquirer:

I flew to Atlanta for my first day on Endgame. I had no idea what I was shooting, what the movie was. I didn’t know if anybody else was in a scene with me. I didn’t know anything.

And it’s not until you show up that you get your pages for the day. But you only get your part. So it was like a scene that was completely black redacted, and then just my one line. I’m very excited to talk about this once the movie is out, because I can’t give the details away.

This sort of obfuscation is more common in television than in film, often because writers are figuring out character arcs or don’t want secrets to get out. The producers of shows like Lost and Westworld, for instance, have stayed tight-lipped when it comes to big plot questions, letting their actors slip and slide between interpretations of what’s going on.

TV is also more fluid than film, and plans will often change based on circumstance — as when the writers of Lost elevated a three-episode guest star into Benjamin Linus, one of the show’s key antagonists, because they loved Michael Emerson’s performance so much. When Emerson signed on, he couldn’t have known the character’s full story, or even his character’s name, because those elements didn’t exist yet. They evolved in tandem with his performance.

But keeping details this close to the vest is a fairly new development in the world of film, where the level of secrecy that surrounded the production of Endgame is almost unprecedented. If you read Whitbrook’s piece, you’ll learn that Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, one of the central characters of the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, has next-to-no idea what his character arc in the film actually is. This movie, more than many others, sounds as though it’s being assembled out of puzzle pieces.

Yes, all movies are assembled out of raw footage. And yes, directors sometimes find a very different film from the one they shot once they sit down in the editing room. (Famously, American Beauty was once a sort of murder mystery, and Annie Hall was much, much longer before it was sliced down to a laser-focused 90-minute movie.) But usually in production, the actors have a mostly complete script to work with, something they can build character arcs atop. It gives them context for what they say and do, and it helps them ground their characters in an emotional reality.

Now, granted, all of Endgame’s major players have been introduced in other movies, so those films have already done the heavy lifting of the movie’s emotional reality. But it’s not as though other franchises haven’t had to contend with telling a massive story across multiple installments, and they’ve usually erred on the side of giving the actors as much to work with as possible. J.K. Rowling famously told Alan Rickman important things about Severus Snape that informed what his character did in the early Harry Potter films, things that wouldn’t arise in the books until the final two volumes (which were still unpublished at the time). She knew he needed to understand those details in order to play his character.

Marvel’s desire to maintain complete control of its narrative and how it’s disseminated has also manifested in other ways, like in how so few of its films have a distinctive visual palette, often seeming as if they’ve been filmed in the least visually interesting locations imaginable.

And similarly, the movies’ action sequences are largely assembled in-house, often before directors have even been hired, which keeps the Marvel machine rolling (and keeps those sequences from leaking) but also makes them feel so much more impersonal.

These choices have certainly allowed Marvel to clamp down on spoilers — but they’ve also created the danger of each film being pleasant but generic, a trap that far too many of those releases have fallen into.

A brief history of spoiler paranoia

There’s some spooky business in this movie!!

It doesn’t have to be this way! For most of human history, the idea of a “spoiler” would have felt rather curious. Many of the great Greek tragedies announce in their opening dialogue exactly what’s going to happen, and Shakespeare’s plays were largely built atop historical tales and famous stories many in his audience would have been familiar with. The great novels of the 18th and 19th centuries often simply stated outright in chapter names what happened in those chapters.

This tradition continued well into the 20th century. For instance, in 1976, a full year before Star Wars opened in theaters, the New York Times wrote an article where George Lucas explained what happened in the film’s plot, right down to the final beats of Luke Skywalker bringing down the Death Star.

There were still stories that relied on certain plot reveals, of course, and there was a general cultural consensus that those plot reveals should be disguised, at least for a little while. If you told everybody that Charles Foster Kane uttered “Rosebud” because that was his sled, or that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, or that “Mother” was really a psychologically damaged Norman Bates in a dress, well, you were kind of a jerk.

But the fact that I feel like I can simply spell out the examples above indicates just how hard it is to preserve a spoiler-free experience for any work of art past a certain point. You live in this pop culture, so you know that Darth Vader says, “I am your father” in The Empire Strikes Back. The movie’s been out since 1980 — that’s nearly 40 years ago! Telling you about this reveal is technically a spoiler, but you likely aren’t too mad at me, because after four decades, you’ve had more than a fair opportunity to see Empire.

Timeframes are also a big part of why spoilers weren’t policed as heavily until the internet age. In the pre-blockbuster era, movies spread slowly throughout the country, opening on a few screens at a time and then gradually making their way out of urban areas into less densely populated regions.

Indeed, Star Wars — the movie that, along with Jaws, changed almost everything about the American movie industry — opened on just 32 screens in the US and added another eight screens a few days later. It eventually became so massive that the studio had to create enough prints (this was the pre-digital era) for it to play simultaneously essentially everywhere, but its initial opening weekend is almost laughably small by 2019 standards. (Avengers: Infinity War opened in 4,474 theaters in the US alone, and added many more worldwide.)

With movies spreading slowly throughout the country, it was harder to avoid knowing at least something of the plot. Friends might have seen the film of the moment in another town, or you might have heard something about it on TV or the radio, or maybe you just couldn’t get to a movie until its second or third run in your local theater. (In the pre-home-video era, movies would often make return engagements at theaters if there was enough demand.) Maybe you were annoyed at knowing Darth Vader was Luke’s father — but you also had to be aware learning such a major reveal ahead of seeing the film wasn’t just possible, but likely.

Two trends shifted this way of thinking. The first was that, in the 1980s and 1990s, movies started opening on more and more screens, so if you were interested in seeing a movie on its opening weekend, you usually could.

The second was the arrival of the internet, which turned sharing movie secrets into the Wild West. Never mind if half the spoilers shared on a site like Ain’t It Cool News were false, because if half of them were true and you heard just one of them, you’d go into a movie perhaps aware of a giant plot point that you might not have wanted to know about. (This period in the late ’90s and early 2000s is also when the term “spoilers” entered the mainstream, after previously mostly existing only in fan and geek circles.)

Studios didn’t love the influence that movie geek sites like Ain’t It Cool News had over a core part of the film audience. Reports on Ain’t It Cool could, for instance, start spreading noxious buzz about Batman and Robin months in advance, ultimately killing that movie’s box office momentum. But studios also couldn’t very well say, “Nobody should say our movies are bad!” without sounding silly — of course you should say what you think about a film.

Enter spoiler paranoia. The studios didn’t begin this movement (it was organically grown by fans), but they’ve certainly fanned its flames, because it solved a lot of their problems. Anxiety around spoilers played into an inherent belief many of us have that a virgin viewing experience is preferable; it gave filmmakers and showrunners a drum to beat about preserving their surprises; and it gave studios another way to subtly insinuate that you should see that movie or TV show right now.

And this worked for a little while. In the brief interregnum between the internet existing and streaming video existing (basically the 2000s), the idea that spoilers had a shelf life — that if you spoiled a movie on opening weekend you were an asshole, but if you spoiled it a few months later, well, maybe that was on the person who didn’t go see it in the first place — mostly held firm.

After all, part of the fun of discussing The Sixth Sense is talking about how Bruce Willis being dead the whole time informs the rest of the movie, and you can’t do that without spoiling how Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. Back in 1999, when the movie came out, you’d maybe slap a spoiler warning on an article about the film and call it good.

But now we’re in the streaming era, and if you haven’t seen it, literally all of pop culture history is new to you. And the result is that spoiler “etiquette” has tilted so far in favor of spoilerphobes that Matt Weiner used to send out screeners for new seasons of Mad Men with entreaties that critics not reveal what year the episodes took place in. Most went along with this, because critics really do want to preserve the artist’s vision as they see fit. But it still felt, to me, like a tipping point.

In fact, I guarantee you that somebody read my casual spoiling of The Sixth Sense’s twist ending above and is now irate at having that experience spoiled for them, something they will prove by screencapping the spoiler and tweeting it at both me and Vox. In fact, I’ll save that person a step.

Screenshot by Emily St. James

All of which leads us to a world where people are so terrified of spoilers that they film their blockbuster movies in a fashion not unlike assembling several jigsaw puzzles at once. It’s unsustainable, and something needs to give. That “something” is how much we care about spoilers.

The three spoiler commandments, courtesy of me

Jaime Lannister is a handsome fella! No spoilers detected!
Helen Sloan/HBO

What’s wild about this current era of spoiler paranoia is that the things people are most upset about having spoiled are pretty easy to predict, most of the time.

As I write this, I haven’t seen Endgame, nor have I watched the leaked footage, nor have I read descriptions of it — but I can guarantee you that the Avengers take down Thanos using time travel. They go back in time, they get the Infinity Stones, and they reverse everything that happened in Infinity War, and then a couple of the characters played by actors whose contracts have expired give their lives in the process. I’m guessing Chris Evans’s Captain America? Maybe Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, but they’ll probably keep him alive.

The end of Game of Thrones is slightly less predictable, but it feels safe to say that what will happen falls within a very narrow range of possibilities. Not even George R.R. Martin would be cruel enough to end the story with Jon and Dany holding off the White Walkers, only for Cersei to kill them both and solidify her grip on power. (I mean ... that would rule, though, right?)

We act as though either of these properties will have an ending so surprising and twisty that no one could have anticipated it, but to a large degree, you probably already have anticipated it. Part of the comfort of watching stories like this is their narrative familiarity — the idea that, in the end, there will be something like cosmic, karmic justice for all.

The stories that are really hurt by spoilers are those with major reveals — but a lot of the time, simply knowing there’s a reveal is a big spoiler in and of itself, so studios, marketing departments, and critics really try to keep the idea that there’s a reveal at all from viewers, selling a much more anodyne story than what’s actually on screen. So, perversely, we often end up worrying most about being spoiled in things that are essentially unspoilable.

The worst thing about spoiler paranoia, I think, is that it preferences plot above all else. And I don’t think that’s a bad way to consume media, but once it becomes the guiding philosophy of not just those who consume media but those who think about it critically or even make it, then you end up with something like the production of Endgame, where Brie Larson has no idea what she’s doing or who she’s talking to.

There are things about movies and TV shows that extend beyond plot, like filmmaking craft and performance choices and how a shot is framed, but we almost never worry about sharing these as if they’re “spoilers,” because telling your friend, “Look out for this cool shot in Endgame!” is somehow seen as different from, “Look out for the big plot twist in Endgame!” But having a super-cool shot you’ll remember for ages is arguably more important to your ultimate enjoyment of the film than not knowing anything about its story in advance — it’s a spoiler too, of a sort.

And, look, I’m not sure I need to make the other common arguments against spoilers, because I know they don’t work for spoilerphobes. I don’t need to tell you that there are studies that suggest knowing about spoilers ahead of time can often enhance enjoyment, or say that the vast majority of spoilers you think you encounter in the wild are rarely as serious as they seem, or any number of other reasons not to care so much, because I know how sincerely you believe a pure viewing experience is important.

And I want to preserve that for you, too. Really. I do. In every article we write at this site, we think a lot about how to present it so you’re not spoiled. It’s honestly one of our foremost concerns. And yet I cannot tell you how many times I’ve placed a spoiler warning on an article — both in bold text and in an image — and still gotten a host of emails and tweets about how I shouldn’t be spoiling things. At that point, if you’ve read the article, if you’ve read past the double spoiler warning, isn’t it on you, just a little bit? Can ya just cut me a break already?

So let me humbly suggest this three-part code of conduct for spoilers, one that will apply at all times, across all spaces, forever and ever, no matter how old something is, like even if it’s The Odyssey or something (spoiler alert: Odysseus makes it home):

  1. Never, ever, ever spoil something for someone intentionally. That makes you a dick.
  2. The closer you are to the initial release of something, the more incumbent it is on the one who could spoil it to issue some sort of spoiler warning, whether that’s, “Hey, have you seen it yet?” or putting “Caution! Spoilers!” in your article on Vox.com.
  3. If you are spoiled accidentally, through someone not being a dick, and especially if the thing you have been spoiled on has been out for longer than a week (for movies) or a month (for TV shows), accept that it’s on you. Don’t get mad at them if they didn’t know what they were doing.

Most of us already do all of the above. I’m just writing it down so somebody can engrave it on stone tablets.

So much of watching a movie or TV show is about getting to enjoy that experience with people, a process that involves the conversations we have around those movies and TV shows. When you go out fearing you’ll be spoiled, then everything starts to look like a spoiler and you isolate yourself from all of the fun. Make the world a better place: Stop worrying about spoilers so much!

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