A fun game that used to be played on Twitter among film fans was a game called “Out of Context Spoilers”. A person who had seen a big new release would post four images that without context appear random, but once someone has seen the film it’s clearly referencing plot points or cameos or jokes. It was a fun game that showed a level of creativity in people.
In recent times the clickbait machine of internet commentators has made an industry of “scoops”. Videos or tweets that show large plot points or crucial cameos from upcoming releases. Given that Marvel release stuff at a rate where just as a film leaves the cinema and new Disney+ tv series starts, this is even easier. Those with industry cache, and the ability to get access to advanced screenings have decided that now is the time to drop huge things online.
Recently, before the release of Marvel Studios’ latest epic Eternals, a critic from Variety cheerfully tweeted on their way out the screening that a certain person appears in a cameo as a major character from the comic books. Major spoilers were also placed in Variety’s review of Chloe Zhao’s film. The debate around the spoiler was that people criticising the tweet were just protecting the business of a major company. It’s not as simple as that. Nor is it just a case of telling people about cameo appearances.
More recently a YouTube critic and scooper posted two images, watermarked with his name, from the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home. Both images confirmed longstanding rumours and major plot points. He subsequently deleted the tweets and claimed that he was unaware if they were genuine. The latest Spider-Man has been faced with more leaks than any major release outside of Zack Snyder telling you everything that would be in his cut of Justice League before it released.
The hype around Marvel’s December release is at an all time high because villains from other, previous iterations of the wall-crawler are set to return and the potential for other incarnations of Spider-Man to appear have people excited. But there is a difference between online speculation and the rumour mill and flat out telling people what will occur in a film. Despite the studio background, films are the work of writers, directors and hundreds of creatives all of whom work to a very specific goal.
Narratives work on the withholding of information, or the steady release of information. As you watch a film, revelations occur that on first viewing are supposed to shock you. Think of the Sloth scene from Seven. We don’t know what the sloth victim will look like, nor that he is still alive so his cough is a major shock. Fincher withholds the information to maximise the impact of sloth coughing and John C. McGinley’s horrified screams of “he’s alive”.
When Seven was released the internet was nowhere near the level it is now, so unless you had a particularly mean spirited colleague you wouldn’t know. The cycle of news and big franchise filmmaking now makes it so that if you’re not one of the people invited to advanced screenings there’s a chance you might get a spoiler from people who ought to know better. Given this, filmmakers have had to resort to online hashtag campaigns to keep the spoilers at bay. The Russo Brothers created ThanosDemandsYourSilence and DontSpoilTheEndGame for their concluding chapters of the Infinity Saga, and more recently Bond fans have used NoTimeForSpoilers to keep the potential at bay.
All this calls into question an issue with how to deal with discussing new releases without falling prey to the spoiler trap. Seasoned veterans like Kermode and Mayo often cite a belief that if it’s in the first reel of a film or a trailer it can be discussed. The issue there being that films are all digital now and don’t have reels, and the advent of streaming means films that are released straight there have even less indication. The trailer issue is also a major one, several recent trailers have opted to put major cameos, plot-twists or surprises in them. Michael Keaton’s appearance in Morbius was a major part of its ad-campaign, the trailer for 2019’s Pet Sematary not only featured the film’s central dark event but the fact that they had changed it for the new film – presumably in a bid to subvert expectations. The finished film alludes to the original circumstances before showing us the change. A shock for fans of the novel, had it not become the central anchor of the trailers.
In discussing film people need to be able to discuss what is in the film, reviews often give a brief summary and moments are mentioned in reviews to illustrate points, but there has to be a cut off point. Part of a film’s charm is the way it unfolds, and so allowing people to enjoy this without knowing major plot points is crucial to enjoyment. All of which becomes much more complicated when fact-based films come into the mix.
Can there be spoilers for things in history? This one is more tricky. After all, is it possible to spoil the end of 2004’s Downfall? After all everyone knows from the age of four that Hitler dies and Germany loses the war. But not everyone knows the outcome of other true events. Not everyone knows the outcome of the events depicted in Everest, or Only the Brave. Not everyone will be familiar with the events surrounding the forthcoming House of Gucci or who comes out on top in The Last Duel. Both are historical pieces but not widely known stories.
Often it can be assumed if it’s recent history everyone will know it, but even the cycle of news in twenty years mean a large part of an audience viewing a film in 2021 might have only been children or not born when events occurred in 2001. Many people, for example, wouldn’t know the outcome of United 93, despite it being fairly recent.
The solution, when it comes to reviews, is simple. Reviews should only ever speak vaguely of films, the basic premise and around the film. In depth details are unnecessary for reviews, regardless of their status as large studio films, small indie films or even historical pieces. Spoilers however, cannot be monitored in analysis. Retrospectives, anniversary pieces and personal essays often need to discuss everything about the film and reading them often comes with the understanding that they will include discussions of things up to and including the end.
Of course, this won’t change the machine of internet scoopers who often either need the clicks or want them to boost popularity from giving things away. Many of them enjoy the controversy and know that ultimately their fan following means that studios will still grant them access over other writers. The solution is to not give it airtime, ignore them, and call out the practices when they come. If people don’t engage with the leaks, then the need for them vanishes, and when the revenue vanishes the studios will realise they no longer require the word-of-mouth from those people.
As The Simpsons so perfectly stated years ago – just don’t look.