‘Star Wars’ and Spoiler Culture: Can We Enjoy a Movie We Know Everything About?

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force awakens lightsaber

Photo: Disney / Lucasfilm

Two of the best experiences I’ve ever had walking out of a theater were when I first saw The Dark Knight during the summer of 2008 and when I saw The Hangover in the summer of 2009. Although those two films are extremely disparate in story and in tone, for me they share a common thread: as I walked into both of them I had very little knowledge of what I was about to see on screen. That made me even more excited as I sat in my seat waiting for those movies to start, because when you know nothing, anything can happen.

Now don’t get me wrong, trailers and marketing aren’t necessarily evil. In fact, I’ll happily tell you I thought the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight impressive, primarily because it highlighted certain aspects of the film, such as its characters and the world of Christopher Nolan‘s Gotham City, without giving away its story. The film’s stakes are high from the start, but halfway through my first time seeing it, as Hans Zimmer‘s score built to a crescendo so did my sense of unease. I still didn’t know where the story would end, as The Joker had just thrown Gotham — and with it, the entire film — into chaos.

But when it comes to The Hangover, I hadn’t seen a trailer before I bought my ticket for the movie. That was new for me. My friend mentioned he wanted to see it, and that made me want to see it, too. So as I walked into the theater waiting for the movie to start, no punchlines had yet been spoiled. And boy, am I thankful they weren’t; I spent some 90 consecutive minutes laughing my stomach and jaw sore, and the following days and weeks I recited lines as I waited to go see the movie again with my buddies.

The element of surprise is perhaps one of the greatest tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal. When we are genuinely unsure what exactly will happen next, it is far more likely we will be fully invested in what unfolds. As I wrote above, when you know nothing, anything can happen, and that truly is a wonderful thing. Interesting, then, that so much of what we see in marketing today — and in pre-release hype online especially — isn’t about audiences having a small taste of what they will see when they enter the theater to watch a movie. Rather, it is about having the entire meal in front of us, the food devoured and the plate licked clean before the theater’s projection system even warms up.

Audiences today seem to prefer being one step ahead of a movie than one step behind it, and while that phenomenon tends to manifest itself most with blockbuster cinema, it may have just reached new heights as a website called Making Star Wars has compiled what it calls “an edited synopsis” of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens which is based on rumors from the site. It sounds innocent enough if you leave it at that, but where most film synopses you see here are one paragraph, two at most, this one runs more than 35, basically a short story. From the site’s editor-in-chief Jason Ward:

What follows below is an edited synopsis DarthLightlyBruise did based on rumors from this site. I think it is a fun read and worth sharing. I did a slight edit on a few things to best reflect the scenes which were shot last summer at Pinewood Studios. This lays out the entire film and I suggest not reading it if you find “spoilers” ruin movies for you. Please be cool and do not ruin the movie for anyone out there that doesn’t want to know these things. That means being responsible on social media and taking into account who might be reading your posts or what a retweet might mean in certain instances. If you’re on MakingStarWars.net you probably feel that spoilers enhance the movie experience. However, not everyone agrees with that so we should respect their right to be blissfully ignorant of the events of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I hardly know where to begin, but I suppose one thing that catches me off guard in Ward’s introductory paragraph is that he refers to spoilers as “spoilers”, surrounded by quotation marks. I’m not sure whether that means he doesn’t consider these things spoilers, if he thinks there is a possibility the rumors are wrong and so the post won’t wind up spoiling the film, or if he just wants to make sure his readership knows the term is one people often use when referring to things of this sort.

No matter, his language piques my interest. Perhaps it’s some combination of those three. Maybe he means that some people on the internet call these spoilers but, as he mentions, those who read his site “probably feel that spoilers enhance the movie experience.” So while these nuggets of information might technically give away the story, he and his readers will find they don’t ruin the movie experience. If that’s his point, it’s an interesting one, a point of view I don’t share and can’t particularly understand without someone making a stronger case for it.

I suppose my biggest question is, if you know essentially everything you are about to see on-screen when you enter the theater, what is your reason for even watching the movie? I’m not necessarily judging, I’m genuinely curious about this. If you know what you are about to see, what exactly is “enhanced” in that first experience? In the case of Star Wars, is seeing another movie set in that universe intoxicating enough that people don’t mind having full knowledge of the story beforehand? Is that just the culture of Star Wars superfandom?

Maybe, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. Star Wars movies aren’t the only ones that create this type of response and communities like Ward’s aren’t the only ones responding in this way. This seems to occur with basically every blockbuster that hits theaters today, with Marvel movies the most obvious example in recent years. People read internet rumors for the films, discuss them ad nauseam before they come out, and then spend the two-and-a-half hour runtime waiting for the mid-credits and post-credits stingers. Maybe this is just my take on things, but it seems a number of people care more about the marketing itself than the object being marketed.

The same thing appears to be happening with the DC Comics multiverse. There are entire podcast episodes and articles online devoted to analyzing the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer to gain better insight into the story, to figure it all out. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve scrolled through Twitter and seen set photos of Suicide Squad, complete with captions about who a character is or what their role in the story will be or “here’s their comic book background” or “this is the storyline that makes the most sense” and so on. I’ve written about Suicide Squad roughly a gazillion times in the last eight months to keep on top of casting; with some of these films maybe that’s already too much.

When it comes to spoilers and marketing, I prefer the method employed by Warner Bros. for Mad Max: Fury Road take the first 15-20 minutes of the film, and try to put your trailers together from what you have there. One of the best things about Mad Max: Fury Road, like I mentioned about The Dark Knight and The Hangover above, is that I didn’t know much of anything about the movie before I saw it. I’d seen the first trailer for the film but that was all, and basically everything that happens in that trailer happens in the first act of the film, save for a select few shots.

Of course, this comes down to personal preferences, but it is interesting living in culture where people place value on spoilers. It’s hard for me to imagine going into a film for the first time, knowing how everything will play out, and still being genuinely excited to see it. From where does the excitement come? Of course there is always the hope of character development and performance, but in so many of today’s blockbusters, which are the primary source of these online spoilers, character development is hardly a #1 priority.

What, then, will keep me invested? I’m curious to hear from you guys, whether you share my stance or you enjoy taking part in “spoiler culture.” What are your thoughts? Can we enjoy a movie if we already know everything about it before we even see it?

And now… this…

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