May 17, 2019
On Spoilers, Tension, and Endgames
We recently had the biggest pop-culture weekend of all time. Avengers: Endgame destroyed, like, every box office record ever, and then on Sunday of that same weekend, Game of Thrones’ Battle of Winterfell dropped, shocking and bringing audiences to their knees. One of the most common things you probably heard in the week prior was a pleas for “no spoilers.” But what even defines a spoiler? And can they truly affect the viewer experience going in? More importantly, how does extra-textual information that we have before sitting down to watch something affect our enjoyment of that show or film?
In 1960, when the acclaimed slasher flick Psycho was released, director Alfred Hitchcock insisted upon a “no late admission” policy for the film, because — spoilers ahead! — first-billed lead actress Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) dies in the first act of the movie. This surprise was one of the first movie plot turns to be verbally acknowledged as being at risk of spoiling as we understand the term today, and the effectiveness of the twist in drawing in audiences was more or less when Hollywood stopped advertising the endings of its films. Before Psycho, especially during the Studio Era of Hollywood, movie trailers were basically a summary of the entire film. After Psycho, it became part of a movie’s marketing campaign to build up a sense of tension in the sense that “you’ll never BELIEVE what happens!”
Logically, this really doesn’t make any sense. We, as a movie-going audience, are probably savvy enough to understand that narrative structure requires resolution. If you don’t answer the questions you posed yourself, the audience is going to leave feeling dissatisfied. Even if you’re trying to set up a sequel, you can’t resolve anything; that’s how you end up with Mockingjay Part 1, a notorious all-setup movie that felt like, well, half a movie. Furthermore, the ending can’t be so crazy that it breaks our willing suspension of belief; it has to fit within the film’s own rules.
And yet, in a post-Psycho world, movie studios managed to convince us for years that we could neither predict nor believe what happens at the end of their movies. They did this largely through withholding the narrative information that was freely given in trailers and reviews during the Studio Era, thus giving us, the audience, very little to go on. Lots of trailers give us merely the premise of a film — just enough so that we understand the setup, but not enough so that we can guess the ending. As such, “spoilers” have become mainstream. The term has grown to encompass most important pieces of plot information, stuff that’s important enough to “the secret” of what happens in a film that it’s crucial to keep hidden from anyone who hasn’t watched it yet. A big part of why we even go to movies, then, is to see how these spoilers unfold in a natural way. But we always bring our own expectations and outside knowledge into a movie.
It was common knowledge before Avengers: Infinity War that Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans were retiring from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As such, the moment when Thanos stabs Tony Stark near the end of the film draws audible gasps from audiences. Many of us thought, “this is it, they really did it, a movie franchise based on comics where nobody ever dies…” only to see Tony seal up the wound not ten minutes later — even as characters we knew were getting movie sequels dissolved to dust. The brief moment of confusion was quickly replaced with a sort of tired resignation knowing we had to wait out the next year, knowing precisely how the next film would pan out, at least in a broad sense. All our soon-to-be retirees would save the world one last time, possibly giving their lives in the process, thus perfectly setting up their heroic sacrifices for all the characters of the MCU that would be resurrected by some space magic. Yes, we didn’t know WHO was going to die, but the fact that someone more than likely WOULD kind of undermines the weight of any sacrifices that are ultimately made.
Near the release of Endgame, the marketing campaign revolved around the many, many stars of the film, as well as the Russo Brothers themselves, making social media appearances to ask nobody to spoil the film. But how much was there to spoil, realistically? The return of heroes like Spider-Man and Black Panther, who have sequels in the works, was more or less a foregone conclusion. There are a few unexpected developments, but nothing that justifies the level of coyness that the cast and crew of Endgame put on for the cameras. They get all the stones and bring everyone back. Huge shocker. I don’t mean to say that the film is bad, or that there are no surprising moments. Far from it. But a lot of the moments that should be surprising or that should carry narrative tension just… don’t, because we know how things are going to end up.
Compare the Battle of Winterfell. The conflict between the living and the White Walkers was literally the first one that Game of Thrones set up, but there were still three episodes left in the season meaning there’s a near guarantee that the most important characters will live through the battle. Then again, this is Game of Thrones, the show where anyone can die, so that shred of doubt still remains at the back of the mind. Even through poorly lit scenes and choppy editing, the anticipation of what, exactly, will happen at the end of the Battle of Winterfell carries us through. The tension never lets up, even when there’s nothing happening because at any moment things could cut to someone we love dying. When you watch it the second time, you’ll notice production problems are a lot more noticeable without that underlying pulse of tension to keep your eyeballs glued to the screen.
Ultimately, Endgame holds up better on solid filmmaking. But a lot of the thrills and spoiler-worthy content that the trailers promised never happened because the longer the movie went on without bringing back Spider-Man, the less time it had for something unknown or unexpected. All the interesting and unexpected moments happened within this larger context where things were going to turn out all right, until after the cavalry of resurrected heroes arrives. By contrast, the Battle of Winterfell is immensely tense on first viewing, because we had not a whit of how things would turn out and which of the characters we’ve spent 7 seasons growing to care about would survive the night. We were so invested that we didn’t ask any questions about how Arya got past the huge crowd of White Walkers and wights in the Godswood to get close enough to lunge at the Night King, to begin with.
The threat of spoilers only carries weight if there’s something worth spoiling. Something unexpected needs to happen if you want curiosity of the unexpected to be an audience draw. At the same time, for films that are more focused on artistic filmmaking, maybe your trailer can spoil everything and nothing will be lost. If you’re trying to bring your audiences in with something other than what they’ll never BELIEVE might happen – for example, the chance to witness the conclusion of the most massive and profitable film franchise of the decade – perhaps spoilers aren’t something you have to worry about.