This article fittingly contains spoilers for Masters of the Universe: Revelation.
Spoiler culture is an interesting and often contradictory phenomenon, as the vocal fan backlash over the recent Masters of the Universe: Revelation demonstrates.
Fans online are often vocal over the prospect of having media “spoiled” for them, about having key plot points or details revealed before they have the chance to experience them firsthand. This fear of spoilers has become such a core part of online culture that studios like Disney have turned it into a marketing strategy. The Russo Brothers tried to impose an official “spoiler ban” to prevent people talking about the plot and events of Avengers: Endgame.
There is a lot to unpack about this modern fixation on “spoilers,” from the implicit rejection of the idea that what a story is about is less important than how it is about it, through to the evidence suggesting that audiences actually enjoy knowing what lies ahead of them. However, implicit in the idea of “spoilers” is the notion that narrative surprises have worth and value in themselves. After all, a revelation can only truly be a “spoiler” if the audience doesn’t expect it.
This is what is so interesting about the vocal online response from a certain set of He-Man fans to the recent Masters of the Universe: Revelation. The first episode of the new Netflix series closes with the deaths of both He-Man (Chris Wood) and Skeletor (Mark Hamill), with the rest of the five episodes dedicated to exploring how the other characters navigate life without the twin poles of Eternia to orient themselves.
As with almost any modern adaptation of a nostalgic intellectual property that dares to deviate from an established template, this generated a predictably vocal response from certain segments of the online audience. It’s worth noting, for example, the significant disparity between the critical (94%) and audience (32%) scores for Revelation on Rotten Tomatoes. The key detail in narratives of this vocal online response is that fans were outraged by the death of He-Man in the first episode.
There are a couple of caveats to add to this summary of events. The most obvious thing to clarify is that, as with so many online campaigns, it’s hard to gauge how many people are actually angry about this. After all, it doesn’t take too many angry fans to sabotage anonymous user ratings. Following orchestrated campaigns against movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel, Rotten Tomatoes acknowledged “an uptick in non-constructive input” and tried “verifying” user reviews.
Even beyond this, the criticisms themselves seem overblown. The name “He-Man” does not appear in the title of the show, so removing the character from the narrative would seem to be fair game. The subtitle of the show is Revelation, seeming to allude to the last book of the Bible that features the ultimate battle between good and evil along with the resurrection of a messianic figure to save the world. Along those lines, the first batch of episodes ends with both He-Man and Skeletor resurrected.
More to the point, this vocal outrage from a certain section of fans demonstrates the absurdity of modern spoiler culture. These fans clearly were surprised by the death of He-Man and Skeletor. They were not expecting it. They experienced an immediate emotional reaction to a plot development that caught them entirely off guard. In theory, the death of He-Man and Skeletor in the opening episode of Revelation is exactly what fans who worry about “spoilers” should be celebrating.
Despite the paranoia of #ThanosDemandsYourSilence and #DontSpoilTheEndgame, there are few true surprises in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The heroes lose at the end of Infinity War, an obvious cliffhanger to a film initially announced as the first part of a two-part cinematic event. When Thanos (Josh Brolin) assembles the Infinity Stones, he uses them to wipe out half the life in the universe, as he did 27 years earlier in the comics.
In Endgame, the heroes win — as they tend to do in narratives like this. There were departures from the core cast, but they were carefully stage-managed. Cast members like Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. had signaled that they were planning to depart long before the movie was released. In the case of Steve Rogers (Evans), the movie worked so hard to give the character the ending that audiences expected that its writers and directors aren’t even clear on how the internal logic works.
In contrast, killing off He-Man and Skeletor in the opening episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation is shocking because the concept of death has never really existed on Eternia. He-Man and Skeletor have always fought to a stalemate. In the original cartoons, He-Man was never even allowed to directly punch or kick other living creatures, let alone use his sword offensively. It is the kind of plot beat that should prove the importance of spoilers in preserving surprise.
The pre-release press coverage of the first batch of episodes did what these fans insist that press coverage is supposed to do. Many reviewers awkwardly wrote around the core premise of the show. At The A.V. Club, Kevin Johnson vaguely alluded to a “season-altering event” at the end of the first episode. At Polygon, Siddhant Adlakha made reference to the season’s “unexpected turn.” At IGN, Matt Fowler alluded to how the first episode “blows everything up quite spectacularly.”
It is revealing that at least some online commentators contend that their disappointment with the storytelling choice derives from the fact that it wasn’t spoiled for them. Some fans argue the show pulled a “bait and switch” with He-Man. Some contend that showrunner Kevin Smith should have been more “up front” about the twist. (For what it’s worth, the official summary released in early July made it clear that Teela [Sarah Michelle Gellar] would drive the narrative.)
This gets at one of the most peculiar aspects of modern spoiler culture — the contradiction between how certain vocal fans claim they prefer to enjoy their media, and how they respond when they actually get to experience that media in their preferred fashion. Spoiler culture argues that stories derive power from their ability to surprise audiences and catch them off guard, to go in unexpected directions, or to develop in unpredictable ways. If not, why is surprise a virtue worth prioritizing?
By their nature, surprises involve actual emotional risk. If something is to be truly surprising, an individual cannot know ahead of time how they are going to react to it aside from being surprised. Surprise pushes an individual outside of their comfort zone and plays against their expectations. In the most provocative instances, it may even challenge their understanding of what is possible within a particular framework. As such, emotional responses to surprises tend to be intense.
Any attempt to meaningfully preserve the power of surprise brushes up against attempts to dictate what is or is not within the acceptable confines of a given situation. If an audience sets restrictive boundaries in what they demand from a narrative — mainly that it always delivers exactly what they expect of it — then spoiler culture serves no purpose. If the only way that a show like Masters of the Universe: Revelation can pull off a twist like that is to tell audiences ahead of time, then what are spoilers for?
The production team working on Revelation is aware of this. Speaking to Variety in the wake of this vocal online reaction, Rod David from Mattel Television argued, “In order for something to be alive, it’s got to have the capacity to surprise you. It has to have the capacity to grow.” This is an increasingly prominent issue in an age of recycled intellectual property and vocal online fandoms. It is difficult for established brands to evolve when viewers have a very fixed and limited idea of what they should be and no tolerance for surprise.
There has always been a certain performativity to spoiler culture. In some ways, it could be argued to reflect the contemporary fascination with “reaction” videos — the desire to perform surprise in response to something safe and familiar by “vicariously recapturing primary experience” without the risk of actually having a primary experience. If nothing else, these online reactions to Masters of the Universe: Revelation demonstrate the potency of that primary experience. The show made a bold and potent choice.
Revelation also demonstrated that, to an audience inherently hostile to being caught off guard, the surest way to spoil their enjoyment would be to offer an actual surprise.