Today in Tedium: Avengers: Endgame came out in 2019. It hit mainstream US theaters on April 26, and—inexplicably—it was screened at the Downtown Cinema 8 in rural Kirksville, Missouri the day before, on April 25. For reasons I’ve never fully comprehended, I saw the culmination of the MCU zeitgeist a day before everyone else I know. My friends, with whom I’d watched 2012’s The Avengers in theaters on the last day of middle school, made their terms clear: on leaving the theater, I was allowed to send a single text. That text was to consist of a single byte—0, 1, or 2—indicating the number of post-credit scenes. In the little culture we shared between us, even telling them whether I’d liked the movie or not would spoil it. In honor of that text, today’s Tedium is a history of the spoiler, and the measures we take to dodge them. Don’t worry: this article is spoiler-free. — Dayten @ Tedium
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The number of carriage returns in a “spoiler space,” empty lines used to distance a spoiler alert from its accompanying spoiler on a 25-line computer terminal. ROT13, a type of Caesar cipher in which each letter of the plaintext is moved (rotated) 13 spaces forward in the alphabet, also saw frequent use in puzzle Usenet groups.
Why you can’t have spoilers without murder
You have them right where you want them.
Your audience leans in. They’re tied to you, the storyteller, by a bond of faith: that you know something they don’t know, and that if they listen, you’ll tell them.
In this scenario, it’s easy to imagine suspense as something universal rather than a post-”spoiler alert” invention. You could be telling your audience, say, the identity of Oediupus’s wife and mother.
You could be telling your audience how Ja’far ibn Yahya solves the murder of the young woman in the chest in “The Three Apples,” a story in One Thousand and One Nights and one of the earliest murder mysteries out there. That’s what Scheherazade is doing in the collection’s frame story: she hopes to delay her own murder by leaving her executioner on a cliffhanger.
In oral tradition—Greek and Islamic—audiences generally already knew the stories they were hearing. The result was anomalous suspense, a weird sensation of suspense despite knowledge of how a story will end.
Anomalous suspense is a literary device all on its own. Shakespeare tells you that Romeo and Juliet are goners in the opening sonnet. Hadestown puts the pin in you, reminding you that there’s only one way that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice ends, and then lets you hope for better anyway.
It was in Victorian England that writers decided anomalous suspense just wasn’t going to cut it. They wanted the real thing.
The first spoiler warning, which we won’t spoil in this section header
Serialized fiction emerged in the middle of the 19th century, in which writers could publish whole novels in weekly installments. Suddenly writers could string their audience along to a thrilling conclusion. They didn’t even need to have answers to the questions they were asking.
Wilkie Collins published his 1859 mystery The Woman in White over ten months in his friend Charles Dickens’ periodical. In a scene familiar to anyone who followed Breaking Bad as it aired, the sensation around Collins’ serial was such that at least one treasury chancellor cleared his social calendar to catch up.
When Collins finished the story and prepared for its release as a finished three-volume set, it occurred to him that anyone could come along and ruin the suspense. Namely, he worried about critics. What if they gave away the ending? What if, in failing to tell the whole story, they made him look bad?
“[we hope] there is no objection to an occasional hint, a dark allusion … to this mystery of mysteries, the [plot of] the Woman in White.”
Or, to detranslate from the magniloquent prolixity of Victorian prose: “Spoiler alert.”
More spoiler alerts that were “first”
- The Bat (1926), the first film to warn audiences against giving away its mystery. Other films did the same, like the 1955 psychological thriller Les Diabolique, which requested of viewers, “Don’t be DIABOLICAL! Do not destroy the interest that your friends may have in this movie. Do not tell them what you have seen.”
- “Spoilers” by Douglas C. Kenney, appearing in the April 1971 issue of National Lampoon. The article tells us that, in today’s “seething cauldron of racial, political and moral conflict,” suspenseful plots could be dangerous to our health. It then proceeds to give away the plot twists of over fifty classic novels and movies. As far as exists online, this is the first actual use of the word “spoiler.”
- Suggestion on Posting Spoilers, the first Usenet guideline for divulging movie spoilers. Posted on September 6, 1982, user Jim Collymore urged a waiting period of 10-14 days to let “a good cross-section of net users” see the movie if they’re interested. A reply suggested placing some kind of warning in the post header. “Spoiler,” “slight spoiler,” “sort of spoiler,” “non-spoiler,” and infinite other variations became common phrases.
- Reach the Rock (1998), the first review by Roger Ebert to include a spoiler warning. Ebert was one of the greatest advocates for the critical spoiler warning in the early years of Web 2.0. “It is our right to disagree with [the character’s choices],” he wrote in 2005. “It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were.” For his part, he mentions film reviews as far back as 1983’s The Year of Living Dangerously in which reviewers withheld “plot surprises.”
“If asked about [redacted] please say, we meet many striking characters over the course of the film, and [redacted] one of them … I wouldn’t want to single anyone out, you’ll have to see the film yourself to truly appreciate where everybody fits in.”
— How Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Velleneuve instructed critics to respond to inquiries about specific characters, as shown in a media packet posted by critic Dustin Chase.
When “spoiler warnings” got out of hand
Alfred Hitchcock got what he wanted.
On set, he had a reputation as a manipulator. That’s according to Diane Baker, as quoted in Tony Lee Moral’s Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, alongside other accounts of his abusive relationship with Tippi Hedren.
Out of context, Hitchcock’s obsession with preserving the secrecy of Psycho looks a lot like a publicity stunt. He bought as many copies as he could of the novel he had adapted; he hired the famously non-controversial (sarcasm) Pinkerton security guards to bar late entry to the film; there were no private screenings; there were no pre-release interviews.
In the context of Alfred Hitchcock, his controlling air set a dangerous precedent for the future of Hollywood. The modern media embargo is the crater left behind by his meteoric ego.
Take the cabal responsible for keeping the mystery of Infinity War and Endgame. “Only a handful of people”—and none of the actors, as fake scripts were distributed among the cast—“[knew] the film’s true plot,” according to the Russo brothers. They discussed it in the same language with which heads of state discuss nuclear proliferation.
Or take Blade Runner 2049, the director of which gave specific verbiage for critics to address certain questions about the film. Columnist Alyssa Rosenberg describes how this level of confidentiality only hurts the reviewer, and in turn the audience, by denying critics the opportunity to develop complex opinions to share with moviegoers.
Which can work to the advantage of publishers. Consider fans of Ana de Armas who rushed to see Yesterday, only to discover that she doesn’t appear in the film despite appearing in the trailer, and the ensuing false advertisement charges by California courts. Or moviemakers who took fair warning from The Predator, which bombed after pre-screenings revealed a pretty crummy movie. Surprise isn’t just movie magic — it’s also a strong profit incentive.
The most egregious example, in my opinion, is a rumor that cropped up around season two of Westworld. Season one gained a ton of acclaim for its mind-bending plot twists. Then, at PaleyFest 2017, creator Johnathan Nolan said that he would change the new season’s twist that had been correctly pieced together on Reddit.
The sentiment of fans is that this was a jab at theorycrafters, not a statement of fact. Still, a common complaint I’ve heard from friends who watched season two of Westworld is that it tries to ride the coattails of season one’s twist. It tries to be tricky for trickiness’ sake.
Whether or not showrunners betrayed their most diehard fans by changing the script, they must have realized at some point that fans would only keep coming back as long as something was there to surprise them.
Now we’re in the modern day: Media embargos are the industry standard, from A24 darlings to blockbusters to Netflix rom-coms. Do you think that Hitchcock considered sitcom remakes when he paid off Pinkertons to bounce for his horror flick? I bet I know the answer. But I won’t give it away.
Suspense works best when we’re spoiled for choice
Stephen King is one of many writers who equate reading and writing—the two acts are really similar. When Alfred Hitchcock or Wilkie Collins nix any potentially revealing conversations about their work, there’s a distinct sense that they’re projecting their own desires as readers onto their audience. After all, why should they care how fans enjoy their work?
Fans should be allowed to avoid spoilers, but not because that information doesn’t exist. Critical reviews, fan theories, and trigger warnings help audiences decide at what level they want to engage with a property, if at all.
I’m thinking of the 2017 visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club, which presents itself as a bubbly, kawaii rom-com. It surprises newcomers with a sepia paragraph of content warnings for the story that will follow.
The game might have worked better with no warning. But suspense can be anomalous, and when the other shoe dropped on Doki Doki I fell in love like everyone else did. Reviews for the game on Steam are “overwhelmingly positive.” And yet creator Dan Salvato spoiled the experience.
Fans, first and foremost, have their own best interest at heart. Secondarily, they prize the interest of other fans. Only in distant third place do fans worry about the artist’s vicarious enjoyment of a work, and artists have to be okay with that.
Art works best when everyone gets to choose their level of engagement.
Almost every piece of reporting on spoilers since 2011 cites a University of California San Diego psychology study by Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J.S. Christenfeld. It demonstrates how, when subjects are asked to read a story after having it spoiled, their experience of the story actually improves.
The point, as many sources argue—including Mario Garcia Torres’s “Spoiler Paintings” exhibition, in which the artist silkscreened movie spoilers onto colorful paintings—is something like: See! You actually do enjoy spoilers!
It makes me feel a little diaphanous. Does this study disprove the existence of people who don’t enjoy spoilers? Am I really here?
Stories expose us to the “supernormal,” exaggerated stimuli that elicit exaggerated responses. Horror movies show us far more horrifying things than could really occur. No study has materialized telling us that horror movies are best viewed with the lights on and the sound off.
My plea against spoilers: You will have your entire life to rewatch something, to treasure its aesthetic victories. Something can only surprise you once.
For my friends and I, the release of Endgame had a drama all its own, irrespective of the plot of the movie. There were stakes. 0, 1, or 2? We didn’t know what was next. We wanted to leave with our own experiences, our own opinions, ones that were ours.
I rewatched the movie recently, and it was fine. Scenes kept reminding me of how much better they were in the expectant energy of the theater, like listening to an album after hearing it in concert.
And anyway, so what if we would have enjoyed it more without the surprise? We don’t always watch stories to enjoy them.
Sometimes we want to suffer a little.
Thanks to Dayten for another excellent piece. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!