Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

The spoiler police are off the leash

As The Force Awakens emerges, paranoia about reviews revealing plot points reaches psychotic proportions

Wed, Dec 16, 2015, 22:39


Warning: there are spoilers relating to Star Wars The Force Awakens in this blog post. Am I joking? I really can’t say for sure anymore. Film critics have always struggled with tensions between the need (yes, need) to relate plot and the desire not to, ahem, spoil any significant turns or surprises in the story. Every now and then, the reviewer will say more than he or she should and will receive rebuke from a reader. Fair enough. Such things happen.

As I have mentioned in this place before, the rise of the Spoiler Police is a relatively recent phenomenon. It really kicked in with the advent of comments sections and the rise of social media. The occupation of the Cinesphere by the Nerd Herd was also a factor in stirring paranoia concerning reveals in reviews. Catching a critic in the act of relating a story point became, for the superhero sect, a way of scoring points against writers perceived to sit in privileged positions.

A scene that may or may not appear in a film that may be called Star Wars The Force Awakens

This week, with the arrival of Star Wars The Force Awakens, the Spoiler Police have asserted themselves as never before. This is their Reichstag Fire and now we all live beneath their unforgiving heel. Okay, that near-analogy with fascism is both ludicrous and offensive, but this stuff really is bloody annoying. For many years, Peter Bradshaw, my colleague at the Guardian, was particularly plagued by the Spoiler Squad (SS for short. Okay, I really will stop that now.) But it goes without saying that that distinguished newspaper would never be so vulgar as to print the word “spoiler” above one of its reviews. It wouldn’t happen in the literary pages. So, why would it happen in the film pages? Read it and weep. Here is what we saw this morning:

“This review is spoiler free” What an ugly phrase. What an affront to a professional writer. It makes me want to spit. Here’s the point that those only casually aware of spoiler culture probably don’t get. The word has — particularly in regard to “event” films  – now totally transformed its meaning. Before the paranoia set in, critics had a flexible interpretation of “spoiler” (if, unlike me, they deigned to use that wretched word at all). Obviously, one avoided any mention of significant twists (Rosebud, dead Willis and so forth). One generally tried to avoid detailing anything that happened in the last third of the film. Those sorts of things.

The ruling Spoiler Squad now interprets the word thus: any mention of any plot turn from any stage of the story (aside, perhaps, from those already revealed in trailers). When discussing this phenomenon, I have always tried to make it clear that I have never been particularly harassed by the SS. My objections were triggered by colleagues who received unfair whipping in the digital alleyways. Let us say it again. For centuries, critics have known that, to review a play, book or film, one must be allowed to discuss plot. As Lou Lumenick, veteran critic for the New York Post, once told me: ‘”Spoiler-free” is the scourge of contemporary film criticism. Like writing a review with two hands tied behind your back.”

Sam Adams, who edits CriticWire and writes brilliantly elsewhere, put it even more strongly today. “If you don’t want to know anything about Star Wars, don’t read the reviews. Critics shouldn’t coddle intemperate spoilerphobia.” I am going to have those last five words tattooed on the back of my hand. Well, I’m not really, but I am going to obey their demands. The Guardian has done some coddling today, but I trust that paper will not allow the SS to dictate editorial policy on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, I have been called an “asshole” and a “dumbass” for revealing spoilers in my review of The Force Awakens. I followed the same policy I have followed all my career, but that is no longer good enough. The only hint I have got as to what I did wrong was a suggestion that I speculated as to who the protagonist might turn out to be. I really am sick of it all.