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Thanos demands your silence. And so does Disney. Anyone attending any of the press screenings of Avengers: Infinity War had to sit through an on-screen warning, a specially-made cast featurette and a personal message from the head of publicity telling everyone not to give away any story secrets.
“Everyone involved with the film has worked incredibly hard the past two years maintaining the highest level of secrecy,” read another plea from directors Anthony and Joe Russo on Twitter (now deleted). “Only a handful of people know the film’s true plot.”
By now of course, that handful has grown to include the millions of fans who watched the film the very next day at midnight screenings around the world, not to mention anyone who knows how to use Wikipedia. But still the threat lingers… Spill any secrets and Mickey Mouse will not be pleased.
For the record, Avengers: Infinity War is pretty much what you expect it to be. Now the 19th film in the MCU, anyone who’s seen the other 18 knows what’s going to happen anyway: Avengers assemble, quips are quipped, scenery gets smashed, and there’s a teasey bit after the end credits. Not to mention the fact that Disney has released heaps of footage in trailers and TV spots and the cast and crew have given interviews hinting at the plot for months. That’s called having your cake and eating it.
And that’s not a criticism either, that’s just how genre films work – we keep on watching superhero movies because we’ve seen one before and liked it. Marvel movies don’t usually have big gobsmacking twists because they’re built to thrill, not to shock.
But it’s not the ending that Disney is so keen for us not to spoil – it’s the smaller details like the bit when [#ThanosDemandsOurSilence] dies and [#ThanosDemandsOurSilence] starts [#ThanosDemandsOurSilence] with [#ThanosDemandsOurSilence]. Look it up on Wikipedia if you want to know what we’re talking about. Or check Twitter. Or overhear a conversation on a bus. Spoilers are everywhere except where they need to be – in reviews and articles that people have actually chosen to read.
Plot details are now so carefully skated around on most websites that trolls have been able to weaponise them – targeting fans and message boards with one-line spoilers designed to ruin everyone’s day. Big studios guard their scripts like national secrets, fake trailers are now commonplace, stars often don’t know the ending to the film they’re making until they go to the premiere. What’s more, journalists have been threatened with legal action for revealing the most seemingly insignificant details about a casting choice or a costume colour, even when everyone else already knows. And that’s nothing compared to the wrath of the internet.
But where did this all come from? When did we all get so obsessed with simultaneously wanting to know everything and nothing about a new movie?
The term “Spoiler Alert” was born in Usenet newsgroups before the Web even went World Wide. One of the first and most important rules of netiquette, it was fine to share a blocky picture of a celebrity autopsy back in the early ’80s, but if you talked about the end of The Wrath of Khan without flagging it first you were in for a royal flaming. National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney actually coined the phrase “spoiler” even earlier, when he joked about ruining the end of as many classic plots as possible in a 1971 article: “Spoilers! What are they? Simply the trick ending to every mystery novel and movie you’re ever liable to see. Saves time and money!”
By the time Wikipedia started, the problem got worse. Pitching itself as “an exhaustive knowledge source”, the site didn’t see any problem in publishing the plot details of each and every film that has ever been made – including the ones that might have only come out the day before. They had a point too. Back when we used to read printed encyclopaedias, it would have looked a bit weird to see a big Post-it covering up half the entries on each page. But not everyone agreed – especially Andrew Jarecki, producer of 2003 documentary Catfish.
“It’s hard to argue that there is an intellectual or academic reason for getting deeply into the secrets of a movie that the vast majority of the public has not had access to,” he said at the time, furious that Wikipedia had detailed the ending of his film on the day of release. Looking back now, it’s hard to care that much.
Catfish was made 15 years ago and anyone who hasn’t seen it yet can quite easily choose not to read the Wikipedia entry before they do. But anyone who does want to be reminded of the plot, or who just wants to read about it anyway, has that choice too.
So is it a question of time? No-one minds if anyone tells them the Wizard of Oz was just a bloke behind a curtain, or that Jack didn’t make it at the end of Titanic, or even that Bruce Willis was dead in The Sixth Sense. But can we talk about Han in The Force Awakens yet? Or what happened at the end of Black Panther? How many more days do we have to wait before we can start discussing [#ThanosDemandsOurSilence]?
According to one study, the sooner the better. Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego gave groups of undergraduates 12 different short stories to read, some with the plot “spoiled” at the start, and some without. In every instance, the students ranked their enjoyment of the story higher when they knew how it was going to turn out, suggesting that spoilers actually make things better, not worse. The study delved into the psychology behind the results and found that tension detracts from pleasure as the human brain usually registers surprise as a “cognitive failure” – making us feel subconsciously gullible for not seeing it coming in the first place.
At the end of the day, we all want the same thing out of a cinema experience, but we probably all have a different idea of how to get it. Some of us like to go in completely cold – skipping the trailer, avoiding the reviews and sticking our fingers in our ears when friends start talking about it. Some prefer to know everything, building up their excitement by poring over previews and picking apart the poster in a dozen different forums.
Some don’t really care either way, reading what they’re interested in and skipping the rest. The beauty of the internet is that we can do all of those things if we want to.
There’s also a big, important difference between social media spoilers and plot details given away in reviews and features. If you choose to visit a movie site like Digital Spy, choose to click on a review of something you haven’t seen yet, and choose to read past the first few lines, you should expect to see a discussion of plot details that you might not know about. That’s sort of the whole point. But if you start scrolling through Twitter and someone randomly ruins the end of a new film for you, you have the right to feel a bit annoyed. Writing spoilers on social media is sort of the equivalent of running up to a bunch of strangers at a bus stop and shouting “Darth Vader is Luke’s Dad!”. It’s not fair, it’s not nice, and you deserve to be called a 12-year-old troll in full caps.
The internet is live, but it also lives. Anyone who wants to read about Avengers: Infinity War next month, next year or next century will be able to revisit reviews like ours and see what people thought at the time – making it seem a bit odd that half of the plot has been left out. By then, of course, everyone will have already forgotten that [#ThanosDemandsOurSilence].
Film studios like Disney are fighting a losing battle by asking people not to discuss their films. Putting up walls just makes people want to tear them down. Critics, fans and cinemagoers don’t need to feel like they might get into trouble for daring to talk about something they like, and talking about movies is what keeps them being made in the first place. The internet is big enough for everyone. Even you, Thanos.
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