On an online discussion forum, someone recently asked about Joe Abercrombie’s “Last Wish” series (I reviewed the first two books here and here), to which I replied they were an inversion of common fantasy tropes. Right? Right. Pretty basic stuff.
Oh, but no. That’s a spoiler, you see.
Not five minutes later I had two users passive-aggressively bitching at me for spoiling the series. Yes, I know, boo-hoo, woe is me. I’ll live, I’ll survive. But for fuck’s sake, can we knock this shit off?
(The girl in The Crying Game is transgender.)
The spoiler crusade probably grew out of a sympathetic impulse—to prevent online assholes (“trolls,” sorry) from deliberately trying to ruin books and movies for other people—and like all our good impulses it was immediately taken up and wielded by the worst sort of literal-minded, unimaginative, killjoy people on the planet to stifle virtually any media discussion that doesn’t cater to their fragile paleo-diet sensitivities. Spoiler warnings are the emotional support dogs of Internet Karens constantly screaming for forum managers. They are the “Do Not Iron While Wearing Shirt” product warning labels of people too stupid to take care of themselves.
(Kylo Ren kills Han Solo.)
If you haven’t guessed, I’m not too keen on spoiler warnings.
(Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze.)
Partly, I think the structure of a lot of modern media is to blame, and partly it’s part of an online outrage culture that rewards virtue-signaling vigilantism over actual discussion and thought.
(Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.)
Now there are some stories in which the big reveal at the ending is the point. The mystery genre is an obvious example—the whole story revolves around unraveling whodunit. Revealing the end in that case would, of course, lessen your enjoyment of the story. No question there.
(Jesus comes back from the dead.)
The problem is, with the popularity of shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica,” the rise of the “mystery box” and “subverting expectations” approaches to storytelling have exported these techniques to genres where the whodunit isn’t, or rather shouldn’t be the point at all. In the bid to ensure every property is must-see “appointment television” that you have to watch as soon as it is released or miss out on the zeitgeist forever, more and more entertainment is being drained of repeat value, turned into a pump-and-dump one night stand that’s forgotten the next morning.
(Oedipus kills his dad and marries his mom.)
Take the Star Wars franchise: “The Force Awakens” is a prime example of mystery box storytelling, but for fucks' sake why? Star Wars is space opera, not Agatha Christie. Sure, the movies have always had surprises … just, that was never the point of the movies. The twist that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father
is a surprise, but your enjoyment of the franchise doesn’t hinge on not knowing this fact. Hell, the entire prequel trilogy depends on you knowing this fact, otherwise its relationship to the original three movies would be utterly baffling.
(Oldboy is her dad.)
Another example would be Game of Thrones, which did a lot to popularize the use of shocking twists: Ned's execution or the murder of the Starks at the Red Wedding
are also surprising, but let me tell you I and thousands of other book readers knew exactly what was coming and loved every minute of it.
(Beowulf kills Grendel.)
Those aren’t spoilers, you see, they’re just plot points. Those are things that happen in the course of the story, not the central point of the story itself. If you call those spoilers, then literally every fact about the book or movie, the names of the characters, the genre, the gist of the plot, they’re all spoilers. Every trailer, poster, announcement or review is a spoiler. "I liked it," is a spoiler. If you want to wander in into a movie theater and plump your whining arse down completely unspoiled, you’d have to be blindfolded and led inside without even knowing the title.
(Soylent green is people.)
Even overlooking that point, any narrative that is only enjoyable once and never again because now you know the details is shit. Worthless. Insulting, condescending entertainment that has nothing of value to offer and nothing to say other than “Fooled you!” It’s an admission that there is nothing but plot—no characters, no setting, no mood, no drama, no tension. Just plot. And that’s a shallow, shallow way to approach entertainment.
(Tyler Durden doesn’t exist.)
For an example of the opposite approach, let’s look at Chris Nolan’s movie, “Memento.” There’s a fairly complicated plot. Like almost all Nolan movies, it screws around with time, this time by putting you into the amnesiac main character’s head by having events play out in reverse chronological order, so you don’t know what’s happening, either. At the end, turns out the amnesiac is responsible for his own wife’s death and keeps cynically hunting for people to get revenge on as a way of giving himself a reason to live.
Now you can go back and watch the movie, and see how that all gets set up. THERE IS MORE THAN JUST PLOT. You can still enjoy every single moment of it. Because the point is the nature and malleability of memory, not whether or not this loony bastard has killed anyone or not.
Journey, not the destination, people.
(Macbeth did it.)
The other aspect of this narrative nannying is that it plays into social media’s tendency to reward grandstanding, style over substance. People are upvoted for reposting a funny picture, not for making one. They are praised for making posts like “Can we all appreciate X…” rather than, you know, everyone actually appreciating the person directly. Spoiler-whinging is part of this, too. The finger-wagging for mentioning spoilers means, of course, that the finger-wagger has already consumed the media in question and is thus being outraged on some theoretical other’s behalf.
(Achilles dies at the end.)
It’s white-knighting, only for the supposed lambs wandering innocently into movie or book discussions blissfully unaware that a movie or book discussion might contain details of the movie or book in question. They aren’t actually defending or protecting anyone, they’re just performatively demonstrating how pure and noble they are, in return for watching a small digit on their screen display a slightly larger number.
(This isn’t a spoiler. Aha, made you look.)
Arguing or attempting to publicly shame someone online is designed to draw more attention to the point in question, to get more people to see the spoiler, not less (Otherwise, how else will everyone see how brave the spoiler defender is being).
In this sense, it’s part of the same trend towards worshipping lore over story, the desire for exclusive control over how media is consumed and enjoyed. Just as lord nerds insist that fictional facts fit their stores of hoarded trivia, so spoiler queens insist that experiences with fiction fit their ideals. Everyone must watch or read in the spoiler purist’s approved way—no others are allowed.
(This post ends after the next paragraph.)
So what perhaps once began as a genuine attempt to improve everyone’s online experience has now been cynically twisted into a self-serving attempt to show what a great guy you are. It isn’t for anyone’s benefit but the complainer. It’s petty, it’s childish, and it’s time for this shit to stop.