Have you heard about the spoiler monster? The selfish, fun-ruining cretin that lurks in the dark corners of the world; y’know the internet, the staff room and the changing room at the gym. The Spoiler Monster is ready to forever shatter your enjoyment of that piece of entertainment you were waiting for. Come on, we all know the spoiler monster, maybe you yourself are a spoiler monster, you b*****d.
For as long as there has been stuff to watch there have been people who wish to discuss that stuff, and alas occasionally they will accidentally or even deliberately drop a nugget or two of valuable plot information. I am sure that even when cavemen staged the first plays in the back of dimly lit caves that inconsiderate k******d from accounting (Keith probably) tweeted about some devastating third act reveal on his prehistoric smartphone. It’s a bit irritating sure, maybe it even takes the sheen off things, but is it really that big a deal? When is a spoiler a spoiler anyway? How long after release is it okay to talk freely about that thing you love? Finally, what should we do with those who egregiously stray beyond the boundaries of polite society and ruin our enjoyment of the last series of Game of Thrones, or worse, Entourage?
When is a spoiler a spoiler?
Let’s start with the easy stuff here. Obviously, a major plot twist, character death or revealing the ending fall into spoiler territory. If you purposefully tell someone who you know has not yet seen the thing any of these, then I am afraid we should just slap the cuffs on you and send to the gulag, there is no place in civilized society for you my friend.
What about plot summaries though? How can a reviewer avoid revealing any detail at all and still manage to set the review in context? Surely the point of a decent review is to explain to potential viewers what they may be considering watching, how it compares to similar material and if, in the opinion of the reviewer, it manages to achieve what it sets out to.
You could say that any plot detail at all is a potential spoiler for Avengers: Endgame or the latest episode of Game of Thrones especially given the levels of collective hysteria that seem to exist around certain ‘event properties’. Please do spare a thought for us poor critics who do try so very hard to balance the need to tell you something about the thing, so we can tell you if it is worth watching, with the need to not reveal anything of substance AND try and make our writing worth reading on its own merits; not all superheroes wear capes, dear reader.
What about casting? In some cases, even who is in the film is a spoiler as it can point to a certain someone making an unexpected appearance. This is a bloody minefield! Then again, I was as surprised as anyone when I saw Humphrey Bogart on the bill for Bond 25 (if only, can you imagine how cool that would be?!)
Okay, so we can assume that reviewers are allowed to give a brief overview of the plot and they should be capable of sidestepping certain obvious landmines, even using their judgment about who appears in the film. Most of the time this is all works out and everyone stays nice and cool.
The Time Paradox
If I was to tell you that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father how would you feel? The odds are, probably fine. You are either one of most humans breathing air on this planet and have seen The Empire Strikes Back a bunch of times, or you are someone has not seen it but is aware of this earth-shattering plot reveal anyway because it has transcended film and become part of Western society’s collective cultural DNA. If you are neither of these and I have just ruined the film for you please accept my very humble apologies (but also, where have you been?! It’s been out for nearly 40 years by now; this is kind of your own fault.)
You see, after a certain amount of time passed it was not only fine to talk about Luke Skywalker’s parentage, it was okay to parody it in adverts and sitcoms. We are all so comfortable with it that not only do we not object to this outrageous spoiler we somehow came to feel comforted by it, as though we too are in on the joke.
Is it just that this is a one-off? Maybe Star Wars fans just happen to be a super chill fandom that just lets this sort of thing go (I think we all know that isn’t the case…)? No, of course, it is not. At some point all spoilers just become fine, we know there is a reasonable amount of time that passes where it is safe to assume that if you haven’t seen it you are probably not that interested anyway. The headscratchy question is what is that amount of time? 6 months? A year? 5 years? Tell me!
What’s the big deal anyway?
Well, this is probably where I am going to lose some of you, but I personally don’t tend to be that bothered about spoilers. There are occasions where I would rather go in cold and know nothing at all (indeed one of the pleasures of being a critic is how often you get to watch stuff without having your opinion in any way shaped by someone else’s) but if I do stumble upon something by accident it rarely ruins my enjoyment of it. With most art, it is rarely the story being told that holds the value, rather how well it is told. Knowing how it ends does not usually affect the pleasure of the journey it took to get you there.
Some films, books, and TV are quite plot-driven however, and the hype and speculation of how things will end generates marketing buzz (who will end up on the Iron Throne anyway?). In those cases, lets just agree that its better if we don’t know what happens, but if you do find out by accident it’s probably not the end of the world.
Then again, if you ruin Game of Thrones for me, I will f**k you up.