This article may contain spoilers. Possibly. The word has been so semantically unstable of late that we’re not entirely sure.
Speaking to Benedict Cumberbatch, ahead of the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the actor has a definite sense of déjà vu.
"I had this with Star Trek, if you remember, and then the spoilers with Sherlock: how did he jump off the roof?" says Cumberbatch. "It's the same deal. It's not a police state. I think it's their idea of guiding us to a point where we all get to see it for the first time without thinking: well, that wasn't a surprise or this isn't a surprise. I kind of like that theatricality about it because I'm a bit old fashioned I guess."
The Marvelverse have been insistent about spoilers before: Disney reps were rightly keen to emphasise that critics not reveal the punchline behind Ben Kingsley's character in Iron Man 3.
Suddenly, however, the "theatricality" as Cumberbatch politely has it, is borrowing from the big Star Wars book of paranoia.
For The Avengers: Infinity War, that means that all social media reactions and reviews are embargoed until after the film's world premiere on April 23rd. Journalists interviewing the stars of the movie watched just 23 minutes of footage in advance of those interviews, which they are not allowed to discuss.
A memo from the Russo brothers, the directors of Infinity War, was handed to all viewers and subsequently disseminated online. It reads: "Everyone involved with the film has worked incredibly hard for the past two years maintaining the highest level of secrecy. Only a handful of people know the film's true plot. We're asking you that when you see Infinity War in the coming months that you maintain the same level of secrecy so that all fans can have an equal experience when they watch it for the first time."
Closely guarded secret
When the Russo Brothers say spoilers, they don't mean Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father: they mean everything. Even the title of Infinity War's sequel is a closely guarded secret.
(An odd choice given that they were never likely to call it Avengers: Iron Man Dies Because We Can't Afford Robert Downey Jr Anymore).
"Anything about the story constitutes a plot spoiler," Anthony Russo tells me. "We put a lot of work and energy into making sure that people have a very clean experience when they saw the movie. Meaning that we wrote and distributed fake drafts of the script. None of the actors actually read the entire script. So really nobody knows the true story of this film other than my brother and I and a handful of other people. We've gone to great lengths to make sure of that. People have invested 10 years of their lives in this Marvel universe. We need to make sure that when they finally get to see the ending that they see it without people ruining it for them. It's difficult because the fans are so savvy, so sophisticated that sometimes they can pick up on the smallest detail and they know how to follow that into a much larger story idea."
The idea of watching a film “clean” has a shiny religiosity about it, but as Hawkeye-Gate has demonstrated, it’s an impossible ideal.
We should explain. Earlier this year when a longer-form Avengers trailer aired during the Superbowl, fans noted the absence of Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton (as played by Jeremy Renner). He doesn't feature in the crowded poster either, nor does he get one of the 22 individual character posters. Fans were not amused. Thousands signed online petitions. #JusticeForHawkeye began trending on Twitter. The Marvel subreddit changed its header to an image of Renner with no little sense of outrage: "Due to the mad disrespect Hawkeye has been shown in Infinity War marketing the subreddit is now dedicated to everyone's favourite Avenger," wrote user The_Asian_Hamster in a pinned post.
“I’m glad they reminded us because we forgot,” says Anthony Russo dryly. “This two-time Oscar-nominated actor and we forgot.”
The furore has, nonetheless, forced the film-makers into admitting that Hawkeye is around somewhere, albeit on his own journey, a "long-play" in the vast "story real estate" of Avengers 3 and 4. Perhaps in future, Marvel Studios can prevent such spoilers by not issuing posters or trailers. Why stop there? Do we really need to know the title or the actors?
Film promotion wasn’t always this tricky.
Or contrary. We live at a time when every poster, trailer and rumour is scoured and examined like a swath of the Turin Shroud; when the same folks that bang out 3,000-word reviews of the latest World of Warcraft poster can, paradoxically, be found harassing film critics for such crucial reveals as "Robert Downey Jr is cracking-wise in Avengers 3."
Actors are routinely set out on global tours to talk about movies they're not actually allowed to talk about. In 2015, Anthony Daniels who plays C-3PO described the studio's "Kremlin-like" paranoia over The Force Awakens and "ludicrous" secrecy and recounted an incident when he was ordered to take down a personal tweet.
Speaking to The Irish Times last year, Mark Hamill noted: "It is frustrating. Because the fans want to know but as I always say you don't want to know what you're getting for your birthday, do you? Yesterday a guy asked: 'Was it hard getting used to a lightsabre again?' And I said: 'Uh. What lightsabre?'"
The current anti-spoiler movement is a relatively recent phenomenon, powered by social media and the binge watch culture associated with streaming sites and multiple viewing platforms, a strange informational currency that allows for a sense of superiority over the person who didn't sit up until 3am to screen TV's hottest ticket illegally. As one person works their way through Breaking Bad, another is hanging around the Game of Thrones set in Moneyglass, watching a certain ancestral homestead burn.
In the movieverse, the evolution of anti-spoiler paranoia has been erratic and inextricably linked to the evolution of the trailer. As recently as 2001, film-makers like Robert Zemeckis were defending the inclusion of late-movie plot twists in trailers for their films. (The trailer for Zemeckis' Castaway famously revealed that Tom Hanks gets off the island.) Zemeckis, for one, has repeatedly insisted that audiences like to "know what they're getting".
Giving away the entire plot in a trailer has never been regarded as unusual. Goldeneye opens with James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) escaping an operation at a Soviet chemical weapons facility, in which 006 (Sean Bean) is shot and presumed dead. Bean turning up as the film's villain might have counted as a plot-twist if he hadn't appeared in the trailer first. The trailer for Carrie (1976), similarly, includes the title character's prom night, the bucket of pig's blood, and even the split-screen killing spree.
Indeed, for most of the history of cinema, anti-spoiler culture was considered gimmicky and eccentric. Alfred Hitchcock, while marketing Psycho, placed newspaper ads demanding "No Late Admissions" and "Keep the Story a Secret".
Post-Psycho, it became routine for critics entering preview screenings of films with twist endings to receive some kind of cod warning. No studio or producer genuinely expected any critic to reveal such vital information as "Soylent Green is made out of people" or "the planet was Earth all along". The "warning" was a device, a marketing ploy in the spirit of William Castle's many wheezes, like the "fright break" in that director's Homicidal (1961) which allowed patrons to receive a refund if they were too scared to stay for the climax of the film.
Many Avengers fans have theorised that the late press screenings may have something to do with the clunky-looking CG villain, Thanos, a character who has already inspired hundreds of comic memes. More likely the lockdown has nothing to do with Disney's confidence (or lack of confidence) in its unexpectedly Homer Simpson-alike bad guy. Guessing from previous instalments and the Russo brothers' track record with the Captain America sequence, Avengers 3 will be ecstatically reviewed and will easily clear $1.2 billion at the box office no matter how many images of Thanos wearing little hats there are.
As with Star Wars, minimising the window between the premiere and the global release date is a way of controlling and minimising discourse. If critics are not allowed to reveal even the most trivial details, they cannot engage with the material in any meaningful way. (Score one for Disney: nobody gets to point out that flying Leia in Star Wars: The Last Jedi looks ridiculous.)
It’s a policy that can backfire.
Several industry analysts linked Blade Runner 2049's box office failure with the draconian spoiler policy around the picture. One weirdly specific document presented to critics (as posted on social media by American critic Dustin Chase) instructed them to respond to possible inquiries about a particular character accordingly: "… please say, we meet many striking characters over the course of the film and (redacted) is one of them. I wouldn't want to single anyone out, you'll have to see the film for yourself to truly appreciate where everyone fits in." The subsequent lack of discourse around the Blade Runner sequel damaged a film that needed to be a talking point.
Earlier this month, Westworld showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy told the 368,000 users subscribed to the Westworld subreddit that they were going to post a video detailing all of the new season's twists for fans who wanted answers. "That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead," they explained, "and then protect the rest of the community, and help to distinguish between what's 'theory' and what's spoiler."
The video actually contained Westwood's Evan Rachel Wood performing Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up, the unofficial anthem of internet trolling. But maybe Nolan and Joy were on to something. Never mind the crazy prohibitions on revealing minor details. Even grander, more melodramatic reveals ought not to deter a media-savvy audience. We're often told there are only seven plots – or just the two (you go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town) by novelist John Gardiner's count. Good storytelling and good film-making doesn't rely on narrative tricks. Good storytelling and good film-making doesn't rely on an infantilised audience.
Plot over style
Jonathan Rosenbaum's 2006 essay, "In Defence of Spoilers", notes that novels – from Don Quixote to Thomas Pynchon's V – habitually use spoilers in the chapter headings, and that Shakespeare worked a spoiler into the title of The Taming of the Shrew.
“The whole concept of spoilers invariably privileges plot over style and form, assumes that everybody in the public thinks that way, and implies that people shouldn’t think any differently. It also privileges fiction over nonfiction, and I’m not clear why it necessarily should . . . Is it a spoiler only to say that Dorothy travels from Kansas to Oz, or is it also a spoiler to say that The Wizard of Oz switches from black and white to colour?”
Not so long ago, before day-and-date global releases were standard, novelisations of Star Wars and Alien sold millions of copies, often to readers who had yet to see the film. Spoiler alert: people don't hate spoilers and spoilers don't spoil anything. Even ironic-twist and mystery stories by writers – which one might reasonably assume depend on their gotcha – aren't spoiled by spoilers, according to a 2011 study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego's psychology department. In a series of experiments, twisty tales by Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, and Anton Chekhov were presented to test subjects. Half the subjects read the stories with a paragraph out front that spoiled the plot. Others read the story unspoiled.
Afterwards, all subjects were asked which stories they liked most, and – boom – the majority preferred the spoiled versions. The surprising results, as published in Science Daily, stated that: "Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man's daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck. The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn't hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it."
If you’re not happy with the science, a second revolutionary option may be available for the truly spoilerphobic. Try not clicking on the MarvelStudioSpoilers subreddit until after you’ve watched the movie.
– Avengers: Infinity War opens April 26th