Last week, Tom Holland assured an interviewer that previous Spider-Men Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire would not be appearing in Spider-Man 3, seemingly contradicting months of rumors to the contrary.
There are three possibilities here. It’s possible that Holland is telling the truth and that the sightings of various actors at the set is coincidence. It is also possible that Holland is lying to the press. After all, in an era of intense spoiler paranoia, it is no longer enough for actors to offer ambiguously worded noncommittal responses. They are now expected to actively lie to preserve production secrets, like Marion Cotillard did in the lead-up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises.
It is the third possibility that is the most revealing. It is possible that Holland is telling the truth as far as he is aware and that the casting rumors are all true. Due to the mechanics of Marvel productions, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire might have been cast in (and are working on) Spider-Man 3 while Holland is entirely oblivious. As Holland himself said, apparently only slightly kidding, “I honestly have no idea what this film is about and I’m eight weeks into shooting it.”
Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether this is the case. Holland could just as easily be playing up his own unawareness to the interviewer as a way of avoiding potentially spoiler-driven questioning, while also playing with his own image as something of a lovable goofball. After all, Holland is notorious for accidentally revealing supposedly secret details of various Marvel productions, to the point that it has become a running joke and the subject of endearing supercuts.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take all of this marketing and press, particularly from a company as in control of its public image as Marvel Studios. However, if the studio did want to keep the plot of Spider-Man 3 secret from its lead actor, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it could. After all, Marvel Studios has a history of intentionally misleading audiences to avoid potential spoilers, such as including sequences in trailers that are different from those in the final films.
A lot of modern pop culture is shaped and defined by the fear of spoilers. This is perhaps a result of the acceleration of geek-friendly media reporting at the turn of the millennium on sites like Ain’t It Cool News, fringe websites fixated on nerdy properties that would frequently publish insider gossip or details from press screenings to an eager audience. As camera phones and social media became increasingly common, everybody became a potential source and publisher of inside information.
As nerd culture became increasingly mainstream, this sort of reporting became more common. It became harder to escape news about upcoming releases ahead of time: news about casting, news about plotting, news about sequels and spin-offs. Even website visitors looking for reviews or interviews for unrelated properties ran the risk of stumbling across spoilers for other projects in algorithmically generated links or loosely moderated comments sections.
More than most studios, Disney understands the power of spoilers. The studio has effectively weaponizing spoiler-phobia as a marketing tool. Fear of spoilers creates a sense of immediacy and a fear of missing out, with time-specific “spoiler bans” and the promise that the newest installment contains “a dramatic … spoiler” driving fans to consume the media as quickly as possible before the experience can be “spoiled” for them.
However, this spoiler-phobic culture extends beyond the marketing and release of these projects. It affects the production as well. Marvel Studios will frequently give its actors fake scripts and shoot fake scenes in order to conceal plot developments. It’s not unusual for actors to have no idea what they are actually shooting at a given moment. Gwyneth Paltrow did not know she was in Spider-Man: Homecoming, while Brie Larson didn’t know what film she was shooting on her first day on set.
This is just a continuation of broader trends within the film industry. After all, the modern superhero movie was largely made possible by the same innovations in special effects and green screen work that now make it possible for actors like Holland, Paltrow, and Larson to shoot scenes with no context for what will actually appear in the finished film. It is possible for actors who have never set foot on the same stage to share the screen and to manipulate old footage to new ends.
Still, there is something disconcerting in all of this. Filmmaking is supposed to be a collaborative medium. Even actors shooting on green screen-heavy films like Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow were working with some understanding of what they were doing. They had full scripts. They understood the movie. They collaborated with directors. Even if they did not know exactly what the green tennis ball would look like in the final cut, they had a grasp of their character.
Recent decades have seen many British actors playing iconic American characters in spectacle-driven blockbusters: Henry Cavill as Superman, Christian Bale as Batman, Tom Holland as Spider-Man. Industry experts suggest this is down to cultural differences: British actors tend to start studying drama at a younger age, study more broadly, and have more experience in a theatrical tradition, all of which might better prepare them for green screen work.
Even then, acting is a craft like any other. Particularly in a production environment where so much is created by digital trickery, it is important for an actor to understand the emotional and psychological reality of their character and the function they serve in the narrative. If those actors are being made to read fake scripts and shoot fake scenes, if they don’t understand the wider context in which their performance exists, it feels like something that diminishes the role of the performer. It’s one thing not to actually see what the character reacts to on screen, but it’s another not to know what the character is supposed to be reacting to on screen.
This is perhaps part of a larger trend. Advances in technology have seen Hollywood experimenting with completely digital actors — whether animating younger versions of current stars or reanimating long-dead performers. While actors probably don’t have anything to fear in the immediate future, there is understandably some anxiety over the “awful precedent” that they might one day become nothing more than plug-and-play intellectual property.
Indeed, it isn’t just actors who are subject to these sorts of production mechanics. Lucrecia Martel declined to direct Black Widow when Marvel Studios assured her that the action sequences would be handled by its own team rather than by her. Martel protested that shooting the action scenes was part of the appeal of the job, saying, “I would love to make the action sequences.” Directors like Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have both expressed discomfort with the studio’s treatment of directors.
The anxiety around spoilers is understandable, particularly in this day and age where everything is so widely and so instantly available. It makes sense that fans might not want to know the details of every film or television show ahead of time, so that they can experience media blind at least once. However, it also seems reasonable to be wary of how spoiler culture has changed film production and distribution.
It’s okay for audiences to be surprised by a film the first time that they see it, but it’s probably not a good thing when those most surprised by the end result are the people who worked on it.