*Warning: contains spoilers*
It’s a controversial title, and one already touched on by most media outlets like Wired, the Guardian, and even the University of California. However, given the absolute horror with which they are met on the internet now, it’s worth exploring whether in the end, spoilers really matter.
A possible answer is ‘it depends’, firstly on the film’s release date. If it is relatively new or unknown, not knowing the big reveal is more satisfying, while for older films, the rush of something new has passed, and spoilers aren't as crucial. This however does not answer the question: instead, it makes out that the relative 'newness' of a film is what makes it exciting instead of the idea behind it. In that case, wouldn't trailers be avoided just as avidly? The trailer for the Blumhouse horror film ‘Black Christmas’ (2019) comes to mind. For a time period in which spoilers are the worst thing imaginable, trailers that don’t spoil to the entire film shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Of course, for some films, spoilers are unavoidable. You may either simply be born too late, at a time where the twist is common knowledge and therefore not remotely surprising (for me, the main plot twist in ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999) was a given - I had heard the line “I see dead people” well before I had even heard of the film) or it is just part of the collective conscious. We all know that Darth Vader is Luke's father, or that Jack doesn't survive at the end of ‘Titanic’ (1997). These are plot points everyone knows, if they've ever come into contact with another human being. It seems as though knowing the plot before even seeing the film is a waste of time. But think about the continued, cemented popularity held by the 'spoiled' media. Yes, everyone knows the endings to ‘Titanic’, to ‘Fight Club’, to ‘The Usual Suspects’ but year after year, they're placed on lists of 'The Best Movies Ever Made,' or, like the original ‘Star Wars’, are beloved by all. These films are watched and re-watched countless times. If knowing what happens makes a film not worth watching, how have these films stayed so relevant?
Of course, this goes another way. Films like ‘Oldboy’ (2003), ‘Primal Fear’ (1996), or ‘Parasite’ (2019) can devastate the viewer if they go in blind. Being sucker punched by a good, solid twist is a whole new feeling, one that leaves you shaky and distrusting. Edward Norton's affinity for split personality films aside, movies like 'Primal Fear' are breath-taking in the way they string the spectator along and leave him horrified, confused, and satisfied at the same time. Discovering things in real time with the characters is frustrating, for sure, but essential for certain films. ‘Uncut Gems’ (2019) is a non-stop, anxiety-inducing thrill ride that makes you want to scream and bang your fist on any available surface. But part of that stems from not knowing what's going to happen.
Would knowing the ending make you care less about each character's decisions? Or more? Would the emotional investment in the film be weakened because you know how it's going to turn out? Or are you going to be further pulled in because you know how it's going to turn out? Maybe watching the same film twice does make it boring, or predictable, particularly if it hinges on a dramatic reveal. But I don't think this is true. Does knowing the twists and turns ruin the enjoyment? Or does it enhance it? Does sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for that moment when everything clicks, feeling the satisfaction of noticing before the big reveal, all the little hints dropped in, watching your friends and family realise at the same time, not make the movie-going experience something else? The plot of a film cannot be the only reason for it to be established as a favourite - surely it's more about the feeling the film gives you.
Now, of course, a discussion about spoilers would be incomplete without addressing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). As a pioneer of spoiler warnings and pleas from cast members not to reveal anything, they are in large part responsible for the sudden influx of 'don't spoil the film!' messages from production companies. The release of ‘Avengers: Endgame’ in 2019 saw directors Joe and Anthony Russo install a 'spoiler ban' on the film, asking viewers not to ruin the film for other people, complete with its own hash tag, #DontSpoilTheEndgame. This came after a man was beaten up for shouting spoilers outside of a cinema in Hong Kong, an act which begs the question - why is it such a big deal? Much of the plot had already been guessed through various fan theories created in the year between the release of ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’. In fact, pictures released from the set had given away a large factor in the final film's plot. Surely the moratorium on spoilers was pointless given the already accurate theories?
Despite this, ‘Endgame’ raked in nearly $2.8 billion and was nominated for an Academy Award. It did not suffer at all from spoilers because, after twenty years, who wasn't about to see the last film in the dominating cinematic universe? The strategic spoiling done by the film's stars (namely, Tom Holland and Mark Ruffalo, one of whom live streamed a quarter of an unreleased film at the premiere) only helped their cause by piquing the public's interest. Of course, the overarching influence of Disney and the MCU is another question and one more beautifully answered by Martin Scorsese, but it really does beg the question of why spoilers now are treated like the plague if it doesn't even affect the box office.
For independent cinema and films not protected by giants such as Disney who are sure to rake in a profit regardless of what they put out, this is a whole different ballgame. These films aren't guaranteed success, and have to find support outside of mainstream audiences, while Disney's remakes of ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Aladdin’ (2019) pulled in over $1 billion each despite being stories made in far more compelling animation that are known to most of the world. More likely than not, these films are created by a drive for profits from a reliable audience. The reason for these remakes isn't for the sake of the plot as neither film adds anything substantial to the original. Rather, the success of Disney's live-action craze is rooted in nostalgia. The feeling of a film, again, is how watching translates into enjoyment. And, even though there are different hoops for independent cinema to jump through, this applies to all films.
As such, to me, spoilers don't matter. A film can be enjoyed, criticised, hated, or loved regardless of prior knowledge. Knowing the bare outlines of the film - the plot - doesn't take away from what actually makes the film. All the components, the lighting, cast, dialogue, editing, and emotions, all the things that make a film, cannot be conveyed through spoilers. Knowing the twist in ‘Us’ (2019) doesn't detract from the power and volatility in Lupita Nyong'o's performance just as knowing that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze doesn't make ‘The Usual Suspects’ any less thrilling. The power of cinema is that it isn't carried by plot alone, and everything adds to the overall story. A film isn’t made purely for the ending. Going into a film knowing the plot only takes one part of an immersive experience away. If it didn't, surely the deep-seated horror and the pure excitement at hearing Michael Corleone say "I know it was you, Fredo" would lose its charm. Seeing the reputation of ‘The Godfather’ trilogy forty plus years later - it clearly hasn't.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Deputy Film Editor