The following contains spoilers. Duh.
I probably spend more time thinking about how much to “spoil” about a movie’s plot than I do about any other aspect of writing film criticism; mostly because it’s the only aspect that doesn’t come naturally. When studying film academically and writing about it professionally, it’s fairly common that a lot of one’s immediate social circle begins to include folks on the same beat; and a common thread that emerges among said folks is that you’ve all either A. already seen anything that might be under discussion or B. don’t really care all that much about plot details as a major part of your cinematic experience. I can’t stress the reality of “B” enough – for a lot of critics, actually being “involved” in the narrative on an emotional level (as opposed to analyzing how the beats and pacing function mechanically) is the equivalent of watching pro-wrestling and actually believing that the geopolitical realities of Iranian/U.S. relations would be effected by Sgt. Slaughter’s battle with The Iron Sheik.
Long story short, when critics talk amongst themselves, spoilers flow freely. So too do they in publications and websites understood to be mainly written-for and read-by would-be film academics. But in “general audience” reviews it’s always been considered verboten to “spoil” the surprises of a given film — after all, that’s part of what people are paying to see. Trouble is, it’s gotten fairly difficult to gauge what actually constitutes “spoiling.”
Once upon a time, this was easy: Most mainstream films adhered so rigidly to formula that any “shocking” deviation was easy to spot. But today, so many movies are constructed as self-aware puzzle boxes to one degree or another that people are bound to cry “foul!” at any suggestion of plot detail beyond a basic cast list and a ticking-off of who the heroes and villains are.
It gets even worse when it comes to the current wave of films adapted/remade/rebooted/etc from existing material. You’d think it would be easy to spot the “do not spoil” signs in, say, a superhero movie: Anything that’s a surprise to the hero is probably meant to be a surprise to the audience, ditto the now-customary post-credits stinger. But I saw folks complaining about critics who mentioned in passing that the Batroc the Leaper turns up at the start of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Mind you, Batroc has been in the film’s cast listing forever, just not prominently (mostly because nobody cares about Batroc the Leaper) and his appearance isn’t so much a surprise as it is a minor bit of worldbuilding detail for devout Marvel fans.
But ground-zero for “spoilerphobia” is in TV criticism, which is a literal 180 from where it used to be. Not even a decade ago, it was widely accepted that it was perfectly okay to talk about ANYTHING from a given show immediately after its first broadcast, as that would be when 98% (at least) of anyone who cared would’ve been watching. Sure, people would record stuff via VCR (ask your grandparents) if they weren’t going to be around, but no one would’ve considered it any kind of major social faux-pas to speak openly about the ending of some major TV event on the off chance that someone in the vicinity had yet to see it. In fact, it would’ve been more rude to complain about such things — “Hey pal, who are you to tell me what I can and can’t talk about in public?”
Not so today, in an age of DVR backlogs and wait-for-Netflix bingers. I’m pretty sure that if I was to appear in court charged with strangling a recently-returned one-legged Iraq War veteran and father of six to death with a bike-chain and offer as my defense “He was about to talk about last night’s Game of Thrones and I’m still only up to season 2!;” the jury would not only find me not guilty but order his surviving family members to pay me punitive damages.
Me, I don’t really care that much about spoilers. They’re largely unavoidable in my line of work, firstly, and secondly I can at least agree with the previously mentioned “B-type” critics that a bad movie with a surprise plot-twist is still a bad movie. Secrecy-obsessed (as a marketing tool, if not a creative one) J.J. Abrams loudly lamented his inability to keep The Internet from guessing that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan, but he probably should’ve been more concerned about the equally easy-to-guess “surprise” that screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had delivered yet another godawful script.
In my own work, the policy is generally to not give away anything clearly intended as a surprise or meant to catch the audience off guard — for example, Frozen builds to a hidden-in-plain-sight reveal that’s specifically engineered kick generations of audiences reared on the Disney fairytale formula square in the gut. But I also bend that rule liberally (with appropriate warning) in cases where not much interesting can be discussed about a film otherwise. I know that there are some who question the whole premise of that, i.e. why does a critic need to go in-depth like that in the first place. I get that. But I also know that I have very little talent (and even less interest) in drafting up basic-info-only reviews that read more like consumer reports than real analysis — I don’t know how to say it other than, if I can’t talk about anything interesting, I won’t have anything interesting to talk about.
To use another Disney example of more recent vintage, Maleficent’s trailers make it pretty clear that the titular antiheroine is motivated by the loss of her wings, but they don’t even hint at the grim reality of how that situation came to be — a shockingly dark “twist” that arrives in the film’s first act. From my perspective, it was impossible to have a meaningful discussion about the film’s most interesting aspects i.e. the eyebrow-raising metaphor that it seemed to suggest (now confirmed to have been intentional, by the way) without getting into details (on the other hand, a secondary twist at the climax was best left unrevealed).
There was also the question of lasting relevance: My intuition was that the subject was so explosive (let’s be real here: “Disney reboots children’s fairytale as gothic metaphor for sexual-assault survival” was always going to be a big effing deal) that the discussion, “spoilers” or not, was going to spill out into the general pop-culture discussion-space almost immediately — and that once it did, any reviews that didn’t at least touch on the subject would feel dated and pointless. Returning to Frozen for a moment: While “the twist” was widely treated like a state secret, the question of Elsa’s story-arc (and “Let It Go” specifically) as a not-too-subtle LGBTQ self-acceptance/coming-out metaphor was fodder for the journo-mill almost immediately.
I don’t honestly know if there’s a real answer to any of this, other than to wait for the consensus on decorum to catch up to the realities of a world where the “norm” is everyone having their own largely-customized viewing schedule — at which point I imagine we’ll come up with some kind of reflexive arrangement or just decide that the “threat” of spoilers is now a fact of life.
I still don’t plan to give away surprises or ruin the audience’s experience unnecessarily, but I’m also not going to start treating every single detail of every single movie like a scratch ticket “just in case” someone is trying to know absolutely nothing (but is still, for some reason, watching a review). Upcoming example: There are robot dinosaurs in Transformers: Age of Extinction. They’re on the poster. That’s not a spoiler.