With this week’s ‘Wolverine’ and ‘Iron Man 3’ trailers, has our spoiler culture reached an event horizon?

03.28.13 4 years ago 33 Comments

20th Century Fox

I think I’ve reached my saturation point.

I know that sounds weird considering who I am and what I’ve published over the years, but it’s true. And if I’m reaching my breaking point, I can’t imagine what it feels like for people who just want to go see movies, have a reasonably unspoiled experience, and enjoy the things they see.

I published something earlier this week about the spoiler that was not so subtly hidden in the six-second sneak that James Mangold released for the trailer for “The Wolverine,” and frankly everything about this sentence makes my nose bleed. I think this whole trailer for the trailer thing is gross, and it speaks to this artificial sense of frenzy that studios try to create. While I know plenty of people who want to see “The Wolverine,” I don’t know a single fan who felt so crazed about it that they needed to see six seconds of footage one day, twenty seconds the day after that, and then two different trailers today. In the span of three days, I’ve gone from having seen nothing from the film to being totally sick of the film, and it’s got nothing to do with the film. It’s all about suddenly feeling like it’s everywhere, and I’m seeing things I’d rather not see out of context.  As my friend Damon said on Twitter…

@houx If it’s 6 seconds, then twenty, then two minutes, mathematically we should see the film Thursday and all of the footage shot by Friday.

Obviously, the rest of this article is going to deal in things that you might not want to know about movies that are not in theaters yet. Maybe. I’m giving you the general warning now to cover anything I might discuss below, because I am hyper-aware these days of how much it means to people to have the choice about what they do or don’t learn before they sit down in a theater.

I used to have a simple rule: if something is in the marketing materials for the movie, like the poster or the trailers, then it’s not a spoiler. It’s something the filmmakers consider fair game.

The problem is that the line has moved on what studios and filmmakers will give away ahead of time, and I think it’s moved to a place where I’m actually uncomfortable with how much is shown before the ticket is bought. The case in point this week for me is “Iron Man 3.” I went to a special presentation of “Iron Man 3” footage a while back, and I was put under an embargo about that material. By the time our embargo had lifted, some of that footage had already been revealed to the public.

I find it fascinating that in my piece, I detailed the extended version of the Mandarin’s attack on Tony’s house that they showed us, and one of the things I very carefully explained was the way Pepper ends up in Tony’s suit during the attack. I didn’t hint at it; I spelled it out. In detail. And yet this week, thanks to the visual inclusion of a quick shot of Pepper in that scene in the suit, suddenly it’s headline news everywhere.


To me, that suggests that no matter what information I print as text, the reach is still fairly limited, but the moment there’s an image that spoils the same information, it’s everywhere and it’s pretty much unavoidable. If I didn’t want to know that Pepper ends up wearing one of the Iron Man suits in the new film, I would be completely out of luck this week because I’ve seen it in headlines, I’ve seen the screen capture on the front page of sites, and it’s been impossible to miss. And because Marvel included it in a TV commercial, it feels like all bets are off. No one considers that a spoiler anymore.

I can tell you that in my own house, if I were to tell my wife any story element of “Iron Man 3,” I would be severely punished for my transgression. She would not be pleased. Despite living with me, she pretty much walks into any movie completely cold at this point. She doesn’t do spoilers. And over the last few years, she finally decided that she really doesn’t even want to see trailers. If I can’t describe a movie to her in two sentences that she seems interested by, she’s not going to see it.

I’ve heard the arguments by people like Robert Zemeckis that you have to do that now or audiences won’t go, but that runs so counter to everything I’ve heard from people in real life that I’m wondering if there’s any intersect between the conventional industry thinking and what audiences actually want. I have to include myself in the “part of the problem” column, and I have been thinking about it recently. Like everyone publishing online, I live and die based on traffic, and traffic is generated in a number of ways. It would be disingenuous to pretend that we do not depend on a certain amount of traffic generated by content that other people source and link to. Publishing something unique, something that people are curious about, is a part of this business, and I think there is a balance that I continue to try to define between feeding the curiosity of the audience and respecting the process by the filmmakers.

Here’s where the confusion and the struggle gets weird. Let’s take a Robert Zemeckis film, for example. When I covered movies like “What Lies Beneath” or “Cast Away,” I did not reveal plot details while they were in production. I did discuss things that were not public knowledge based on my own reporting at the time, but I did my best not to give too much away. In both cases, I would argue that the trailers that the films cut revealed more than I ever would have. They did it with a disregard that I almost found shocking. These days, I see trailers routinely use images from the last act of the film, and sometimes the final images of the movies, and those images are part of the marketing, sometimes from the very first teaser trailer on. That seems like madness to me. If I were to get hold of a screen grab of the last five minutes of an upcoming superhero movie (I’ll be vague here so that I don’t ruin it for you), and I were to run those screen grabs, the filmmakers would most likely be furious at me. Yet when I see those images in the trailer and recognize them as the last five minutes of the movie, that is shocking to me.

I recently got an e-mail from a filmmaker who I wrote about, and it was a fairly blunt expression of hurt at something I published. When someone whose work has undeniably made your life as a film fan better says to you, “Makes me want to get into another line of work,” that’s something that absolutely lands like a punch. There’s no way to not take that as a moment to step back and examine how something was presented. And, more importantly, why.

There are people who say that what people like me do is, in part, marketing. Mr. Beaks, one of my favorite people online and an old Ain’t It Cool compadre, recently mentioned that we all, at some points, “carry water for the studios.” And while I do get to choose what I write about, working with the rest of the team here at HitFix, I also know that I am just as reactive to the marketing cycle as anyone else in this business. When a new trailer I’m interested in arrives online, I jump. If there’s a poster someone offers me that I like, I’ll put it up. So no matter what I like to say about being “just” a film critic, I’m not. I’m a… what? A cultural commentator? I play a lot of shifting roles depending on the day and the article and what we’re doing and who I’m doing it for.

In terms of publishing spoilers, I have never ever been a person who just publishes every single thing they know. If I did that, it would be insane. I read a lot of scripts, and I see a lot of bits and pieces of things and it is for a number of different reasons. And for the most part, I don’t publish even a percentage of it because I know how damaging that would be, and how pointless it is in practice. It’s not news just to say what something is. It’s not news just to publish a spoiler out of context. At least, I don’t think it is. Not really. We treat it as news. We repeat it as news. We spread it as news. But I’m not sure I agree that it really is news.

Actual news, real reporting, is very rare in this industry. Real reporting is, by my own personal definition, when you are working to build a true narrative about something that is happening, not when you make something happen by reporting something that you know. I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where we’re publishing certain details as “news” because the line has been redrawn by the way films have been sold, and I think that line was redrawn because of the sort of reporting that the Internet was doing. And so on and so on. It’s a circle, and I think the only way to fix things is to decelerate it on my end. I can’t change what anyone else publishes, but I can change the way I approach things.

I know you want to know about what’s coming, and I want to share my enthusiasm about things in a way that tells you why I’m excited without ruining the experience for you or the process for the people making the thing.

That is as close to a mission statement as I think I’ve ever been able to manage. Film festivals are the best version of this, because I go to a fest and see things that you may not get a chance to see for a month or six months or a year or even several years, but that enthusiasm, that experience that I have at a Sundance or a Cannes or a Fantastic Fest… that is something you can file away, and that’s something that is based on a finished film, something I can really dig into as a writer. I don’t worry when I’m at a festival about exactly what line to walk, because it’s pretty clear. I watch movies. I react to movies. I share thoughts on the movies.

There are few things better than the feeling you get as you’re watching something unfold and you realize you’re seeing something great, a perfect execution of something. I just had that experience this week, that creeping realization halfway through a movie that you’re watching something that you’ll end up seeing many more times in the future, something that will be part of the conversation, and while the first inclination, the very thing that drove me to the Internet in the first place, is to immediately make as much noise as possible, there are reasons not to. And that is something that I think should apply more often than it has in the past, as least on my part.

There are so many films coming this year that I could tell you all about right now. There are so many surprises ahead, both surprises that I already know about and surprises that we will all have together. And I’m looking at the “Iron Man 3” trailers and the “Kick-Ass 2” trailers and the “Oblivion” trailers and I’m looking at what I’ve published so far this year, and I’m saying let’s call a truce.

I’ll try to stop spoiling your movies if you’ll try to stop spoiling them, too.

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