The Thrill of the Spoil – Why Do Some Fans Need to Know RIGHT NOW?
I have a vivid memory of the first time a story was ruined for me. In fifth grade, innocently strolling through the school library, I overheard a classmate (who shall remain unnamed… but you know who you are) LOUDLY announce that Snape killed Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince. Needless to say, I was shocked beyond belief. What could possibly have happened in this story to result in an ending like that? This was also the first time I flipped to the end of a book to satisfy my skeptical, 10-year-old brain. I still remember the description of his creepy white tomb on school grounds. Weird choice, but necessary for the plot.
However, I still wonder what my experience of reading that book would have been if I was ignorant of the ending. Would I have cried? Thrown the book across the room? Would it have been more satisfying to experience the story with no foresight, no spoilers, no context for the ending? Just in case you needed to know: This article contains spoilers for Captain Marvel, previous MCU movies, and a host of other things. Be warned.
In today’s age of high-speed internet and instant gratification (Siri, what’s the name of the sixth Harry Potter book?), searching for conclusions to cliffhangers and answers to questions is a battle that plays out on Reddit forums, Twitter stan pages, tumblr, YouTube, and across the internet – not to mention between friends and fans.
As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, I’ve been anticipating Avengers: Endgame since Thanos first snapped in Infinity War. The year long wait between the two parts has been torture, even with the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp in July of 2018 and Captain Marvel earlier this month. I want to know what happens so bad – I need to know how it resolves!
But do I, really? Right now? And why?
There are loads of content creators to satisfy this need for instant knowledge. The New Rockstars (@NewRockstars) team on YouTube create dozens of videos catered to fans of TV shows, the MCU, and more. I have followed along with their trailer breakdowns, multiple fan theories, and possible explanations for the future of the MCU since last fall. Host Eric Voss (@eavoss) warns the same thing at the beginning of each video: “Spoiler warning in case this theory or anything else I say ends up being right and it ruins your life.”
Captain Marvel premiered on March 8th, 2019 and just four days later, New Rockstars released a twenty-seven minute video titled “CAPTAIN MARVEL Full Movie Breakdown! Easter Eggs & Details You Missed!” As of March 21st, the video has over 1.5 million views. This is almost triple the views of what two of their Captain Marvel trailer speculation videos received – perhaps revealing a majority preference for not having spoilers before seeing the movie. Or, maybe just a reluctance to hear speculation without facts.
I was one of the views on those trailer breakdowns for Captain Marvel – with great enjoyment and delight I might add. What would I have missed out on, or gained for that matter, if I abstained from these potential spoilers? Well, for one thing, I would’ve come into the theater as an uninformed fan. I knew little about the characters in Captain Marvel to begin with. I would have been surprised by [Again SPOILERS AHEAD] the flip of the Skrull being the “good guys,” some of the background of every character, and Goose turning out to be a Flerken that scratched out Fury’s eye – which was “One of the few predictions I made for a movie that shockingly came true” according to Voss.[i]
In their recent video released on March 20th, titled “Avengers Endgame Theory: THEY WILL FAIL (Second Snap?)”[ii] Voss opens with this: “Hi I’m Eric Voss and Avengers: Endgame marketing strategy seems to be to reveal as little as possible – and I get it! You’ve got psychos like me on YouTube analyzing Mark Ruffalo’s pupil dilation.” As funny as the opener is, does it reveal a truth to those who work so hard to seek out these spoilers or these answers? He closes the same video with this: “Subscribe to New Rockstars for all of our Avengers theories, that… statistically speaking will probably be wrong.”
It’s also funny that Voss mentions Ruffalo, as he and fellow MCU actor Tom Holland are both known to reveal secrets and spoilers in interviews. Ruffalo spoiled the ending to Infinity War: “Wait till you see this next one, everybody dies!” in an interview promoting the MCU.
Wild speculation, with watching New Rockstars videos and beyond, is one thing. For fans like me, knowing nothing about Carol Danvers or the Captain Marvel film before watching, videos and articles surrounding the film provided both a helpful background to the character and an excitement toward the movie’s release. It’s fun to watch the new trailer breakdowns and talk about the newest theories on Endgame and beyond with my friends, even if that theory is totally insane and wrong. In fact, I just got a text about a new video from Voss that I need to watch: “Avengers Theory – IS NICK FURY A SKRULL?” Excuse me while I go… check that out.
Now, getting spoiled, for real? That’s a whole new level of pain.
Recently, I heard that the entire Avengers: Endgame plot had been leaked online. I nearly shut my laptop and threw it across the room – I don’t want to know what really happens! It was a visceral reaction against real spoilers, against literally spoiling the fun and experience of the movie. My dad still talks about the day he saw Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983). Just as he was leaving after the movie, a woman drove by in a car and yelled to the incoming crowd, “Leia is Luke’s sister!” Real, real spoilers are the bane of any fan’s existence.
As reporter Elena Cresci said in this BBC News article from 2018, “We’re living in the age of the spoiler alert.”[iii] Cresci outlines the reasons for this phenomenon, the sub-culture of fandom that thrive off of spoilers. Some people say it’s a habit, and others do it intentionally. But the joy of media consumption persists even with spoilers. The popular spoiler-hungry fandom of Game of Thrones is rife with speculation and plot leaks. Cresci highlights the community aspect of discussing theories and spoilers – simply put, it’s fun to freak out about the possibilities and secrets with your friends.
Other fans like to feel prepared with what will happen, especially in horror films. Cresci interviewed several people that admitted it was easier to watch a scary movie when you are prepared and relaxed. I may take up that strategy when it comes to scary movies in the future. But that’s a practical use – realistically, it’s social media, binge-watching, and being "a part of the conversation" that play into this culture of spoilers we live in today.
Earlier this year when Netflix dropped season one of Sex Education, a show I had been anticipating for months, I consciously stayed away from social media for almost a week so I could enjoy the story by itself. Well, I tried to, and then I was immediately spoiled when I checked Twitter a few days after the premiere date. I could’ve gotten angry, but it’s almost normal to be spoiled just after something premieres. If you aren’t watching the entire new season of your show the night it drops, then you aren’t enough of a fan to be upset about getting spoiled.
Cresci cites a 2011 study from the University of California, San Diego, where researchers conducted a study on spoilers. The team provided participants with 12 short stories to read, and when asked which they preferred, they chose the versions with summaries at the top that explain the ending. This sort of pre-knowledge of the plot can put a reader or view at an advantage, as it did with me and Goose from Captain Marvel: I just knew that cat was not, per se, a cat. Without knowledge or spoilers, viewers may feel like they’re missing out or even not getting important aspects or details in the story. In the MCU, the vast history of Marvel Comics can feel overwhelming. Who is Doctor Strange? What’s an infinity stone? How does SHIELD tie in to it all? A quick Google search or YouTube video can answer these questions, and more.
However, Marvel and other companies are well aware of this potential problem. In 2018, with the first screening of Avengers: Infinity War in April, the Russo Brothers began a campaign to warn against both spoilers and spoiling. Their short letter read:
To the greatest fans in the world,
Tonight, at our premiere in Los Angeles, we are screening Avengers Infinity War in its entirety for the first time ever. If you truly want to avoid all spoilers until you see the film, we recommend you abstain from social media, and the internet in general, until you have an opportunity to get to the theater.
As always, good luck and happy viewing.
The Russo Brothers
This tweet sparked the #ThanosDemandsYourSilence hashtag to blow up across Twitter and the internet in general. The two directors along with their cast fell in line with this campaign to not spoil the movie for everyone who had yet to see it – at least, what had not already been spoiled (Thanks, Ruffalo). Fellow Marvel director James Gunn also tweeted this: “Folks, be careful of what reviews you read for #AvengersInfinityWar. There are many surprises in the film, and some of [these reviews] are giving away these surprises. #ThanosDemandsYourSilence”[v]
According to marvelstudiosnews.com[vi], most of the actors involved in Infinity War and its second part Endgame did not see the entire script, and only saw pages where their characters appeared. The publicity from Marvel was strictly monitored, and the directors and actors involved in the films all recommended a social media embargo until one had seen the movie. But this "movement" against spoilers, a plea for being a decent human being, is new.
An article from digitalspy.com[vii] asks this in its title: “OK, #ThanosDemandsYourSilence, but when did movie spoilers become such a big deal?” The article makes several points about media speculation, freedom of reviews and critiques, and more. However, from this article and others like it, I get the idea that by focusing the hype around not revealing spoilers for the movie, implying that the spoilers would be monumentally huge and shocking, the movie gets that much more press and excitement surrounding it and thus, more ticket sales.
This strategy is almost having your cake (of spoilers) and eating (the spoilers) too. We get to know that the movie is shocking and intense and full of material that people apparently can’t shut up about, but not any actual details about it. I’d personally rather have this hype combined with wild speculation rather than someone handing me a list of the “dusted” outside the movie theater last year.
Ultimately, serious fans of any TV show or movie franchise fall in to two camps: those scouring the internet and past installments for clues, and those humming and plugging their ears to avoid spoilers at all costs. The article “(Don’t) Tell Me How It Ends: Spoilers, Enjoyment, and Involvement in Television and Film” by Johnson and Rosenbaum[viii] explain that spoilers usually have only a small, but positive, impact on a viewer. Spoilers can ruin some enjoyment, but usually “people tend to overestimate the influence spoilers have on enjoyment” (582). Types of spoilers, the truth of them, and the ability to easily predict spoilers all have differing levels of impact on the consumer of that media. Even genre, demographic, and context of the movie make a difference. Spoiler alert – it’s complex:
Everyday lay theories hold that spoilers, the premature release of salient information about a narrative, ruin people’s enjoyment (Hassoun, 2013). Likewise, excitation-transfer theory argues that uncertainty is key to narrative enjoyment (Zillmann, Hay, & Bryant, 1975). Subsequently, people go to great lengths to avoid spoilers (e.g., Bolton, 2016). Although an initial experimental investigation found that spoilers enhanced enjoyment (Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011), a replication attempt uncovered that narrative enjoyment, appreciation, and the cognitive dimension of transportation were negatively impacted by spoilers (Johnson & Rosenbaum, 2015). (Johnson and Rosenbaum, 583)
Individual personality traits also play a role in spoilers. As I’m sure anyone knows from their experiences with friends, some people love to watch trailer breakdowns and get possible spoilers while others avoid them. It comes down to engagement; about whether or not the spoilers or information about the media will provide helpful context and excitement, or ruin the main thread and twist in the plot.
Studies performed by Johnson and Rosenbaum look at the reaction of viewers exposed to spoilers before a film, the types of spoilers, and the ultimate enjoyment of the content after the spoiler. They contend that a "blunt spoiler," information could be taken more negatively than as "subtle, embedded spoilers," but ultimately the delivery had little to no influence on the result (593). The study found that, while viewers experienced some state reactance to spoilers, their enjoyment was not necessarily impacted. Reactance “refers to the feelings people experience when they believe they have lost certain freedoms and are subsequently motivated to regain those lost freedoms” (593). They lost some of that freedom of consumption, but perhaps in the process they gained enough information for informed enjoyment.
“There are two kinds of spoilers at the movies: The kind where someone gives away the plot point upon which the entire moviegoing experience rests, and ruins the movie before its even begun, that makes you say ‘I might as well stay home.’ And the type where someone tells you the ship sinks in ‘Titanic’”[ix] John Anderson’s piece in the New York Times in 2011 warns that spoilers can literally spoil a movie experience for someone, but that avoiding spoilers is almost impossible in our age of the internet. It’s just a matter of minutes, or even seconds, if someone is live-tweeting from a movie theater the night of the premiere.
The relationship of a movie to its audience, the very experience of watching it, is changed if the plot twist is revealed, or even hinted at. Knowing one exists can put an audience on guard. “Psycho,” for example, probably hasn’t been seen the way Alfred Hitchcock intended since the early ‘60s, because conversation about the plot twists (spoiler alert: Jane Leigh is killed off 20 minutes into the film) has always dominated the conversation. (Anderson)
I was lucky enough to watch The Sixth Sense with no idea of how it would end, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know that the floating door at the end of Titanic would only fit one of the lead actors when I first saw it as a kid. I know the twist-ending to Lost, although I’ve never watched it, and even my family talked about the mid-sentence finale of The Sopranos. Some of you may hate me or other fans of the modern show The Good Place for revealing what happens at the end of season one.
There will always be people who give away the big plot twist, or even the minor events and realizations in a movie, that will ruin part of the experience. It’s a big enough part of our over-saturated with media culture that the concept of revealing spoilers has appeared in sketch shows, such as this spoiler alert sketch from Portlandia, or this dinner conversation from Key & Peele. Both videos show an alarming lack of dinner conversation that doesn’t reveal the key spoilers in everything from Game of Thrones to the local weather report.
I can’t help but wonder where this need for spoilers and spoiling comes from. Is it pure one-upmanship? Is the thrill of being the spoiler to a crowd of fans, or even to a 10-year-old in a library, really worth it? Or is it a flattering side to fandom – something that inspires hype and revenue for the media being sold to us?
Right now, as I did with partially shielded eyes, you can search for “Avengers Endgame Spoilers” and you will have your answers. Possibly. Like Voss from New Rockstars, most spoilers are just informed speculation for fun and profit. But through websites like Reddit, the potential for real spoilers and information about our favorite TV shows, movies, books, and more are out there. Should we be searching for them?
[i]New Rockstars, “CAPTAIN MARVEL Full Movie Breakdown! Easter Eggs & Details You Missed!” YouTube. 12 Mar. 2019.
[ii]New Rockstars, “Avengers Endgame Theory: THEY WILL FAIL (Second Snap?). YouTube. 20 Mar. 2019.
[iii]Cresci, Elena. “Spoiler alert: Why people love looking up spoilers.” BBC News. 22 July 2018.
[iv]@Russo_Brothers. “#ThanosDemandsYourSilence” Twitter, 23 April, 2018.
[v]@JamesGunn. ““Folks, be careful of what reviews you read for #AvengersInfinityWar. There are many surprises in the film, and some of them are giving away these surprises. #ThanosDemandsYourSilence.”Twitter, 24 April, 2018.
[vi]Gerber, Sean. “The Russo Brothers and Thanos demand silence regarding ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ spoilers.” Marvel Studios News. 3 April 2018.
[vii]Bradsaw, Paul. “OK, #ThanosDemandsYourSilence, but when did movie spoilers become such a big deal?” Digital Spy. 29 April, 2018.
[viii]Johnson, Benjamin K., and Judith E. Rosenbaum. “(Don’t) Tell Me How It Ends: Spoilers, Enjoyment, and Involvement in Television and Film.” Media Psychology, vol. 21, no. 4, Oct. 2018, pp. 582–612, doi:10.1080/15213269.2017.1338964.
[ix]Anderson, John. “Spoiler Alert: It Hits an Iceberg.” New York Times, vol. 160, no. 55371, 10 Apr. 2011, p. 17. EBSCOhost.