One of the key elements in the marketing of both last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and the recent Avengers: Endgame has been a massive effort to keep those who have already seen the movie, particularly in the early days of release, from spoiling it for those who hadn’t. Both movies have been steeped in such secrecy that the official campaigns have featured copious amounts of altered footage to throw fans off the scent. The trailers for Endgame precious few actual scenes from the movie, opting instead to set the tone by using clips from previous entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have been major players in the efforts to keep every element of the story for the two movies secret. In the build up to Infinity War there was the warning that Thanos Demands Your Silence, which became a hashtag on social media and was featured in a PSA with stars from the film. For Endgame it was more explicit, with the message being simply to #DontSpoilTheEndgame, which generated a sponsored emoji on Twitter and which was also accompanied by a video reminding that prison rules apply and snitches get stitches.
The Russos “announced” last week that today would mark the end of the spoiler ban on the assumption that by the end of the movie’s second weekend in theaters most everyone who felt it vital to do so would have seen it already. That’s not an unreasonable assumption given it has already passed the $2 billion mark worldwide, with $620 million in North America alone. A *lot* of people have seen it, many more than once.
Decisions about when it’s alright to to discuss important plot points that may be considered spoilers has traditionally been made collectively by the general public. A month or two always seemed reasonable given that it allows for people to schedule going to the movies around work and other commitments. Some people just can’t make opening weekend. Of course there are outliers, as there are portions of the internet where discussing how Tessio is the traitor who turns on Michael in The Godfather would still be a spoiler 47 years later.
Now it seems it’s the directors and others involved in making the movie who are making those calls. That the lid is being lifted so soon is indicative of a couple things:
First, that spoiler culture is now so pervasive that studios claim power over it as their own. What plot points are discussed and when is something they feel they can dictate given its they that made and control the movie. It’s a symptom and byproduct of the shift by studios from just making movies to being managers of cross-media intellectual property to be monetized. You can’t just go and make your own Captain America movie because they own the copyright on the character, at least not unless you want to go up against Disney’s lawyers with a fair use claim. So the company also sees it as reasonable it can decide when something is or isn’t a spoiler for that cross-media execution because that decision may impact other similar executions. It’s not a far leap to make.
Second, that free and open discussion of spoilers is now a marketing tactic in and of itself. By having the Russos say that all bets were off come Monday, May 5 they were attempting to light a fire under those people who hadn’t yet bought their tickets. “You better see it now before we remove the restrictor plate.” What impact that may have had in such a successful second weekend is almost impossible to quantify but certainly some people opted to see it now before any more time goes by wherein someone else might spoil whether Ilsa chooses life with Rick in Casablanca or stays with Victor and supports his efforts with the Resistance. Or whatever it is that happens in Endgame.
What’s important to remember is that all that power is, at least for the moment, illusory. Disney can’t actually sue anyone for posting a spoiler on Twitter on opening day. And the Russos have not been actively smacking people down for discussing whether or not Superman comes back to join the fight against Steppenwolf.
What power does exist is still almost exclusively derived from certain members of the audience who have taken it upon themselves to act as the spoiler police, saving other innocent victims from unwittingly finding out it was really Earth the astronauts were on the whole time, not an alien planet of hyper-intelligent apes. They harass anyone found to be discussing even broad impressions prior to or immediately after release. More than one film critic found themselves being called out simply for saying Endgame was good or lived up to expectations because SPOILER that made the person feel it would be a satisfying conclusion to the story and that was too much to know going in.
Studios have only encouraged this by feeding the spoiler frenzy. Actors and directors are held in such tight control that interviews with them are filled with platitudes about working with the rest of the cast or feeling honored to be part of something that’s been so popular instead of any plot elements no matter how vague. Massive campaigns are run reminding everyone that a *real* fan wouldn’t spoil anything for the rest of the crowd. If the latter seems reminiscent of propaganda campaigns to warn people working at top secret military installations to never discuss what they do or see, you’re not wrong. The same mindset is at work.
Disney and other studios have so much invested in the careful management of these characters and stories they need to run these “loose lips sink ships” efforts lest any potential value go unrealized. That message has been adopted in particular by those identifying as super fans who feel protective of these properties and don’t want to see the sullied, so they become allies, unofficial mobs enforcing their own version of law and order over the unruly masses.
It’s an extension of the emphasis Hollywood has always put on opening weekend as a barometer for a movie’s success. Campaigns encouraging audiences to go see it in theaters as soon as it comes out are now longer sufficient, there now has to be some level of pain associated in the minds of moviegoers with failing to do so. The carrot of being among the first is no longer enough of a message, so the stick of being left behind by your more plugged-in friends and having major twists revealed that will make the movie less enjoyable must now be employed.
This will only get more extreme as time goes by and media habits in the public continue to change. Streaming doesn’t carry with it (at least not yet) that same sort of time sensitivity. Sure, you can be part of the conversation if you watched Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile on Netflix over the weekend, but it will still be right there in six months if you just couldn’t get to it. Netflix may prefer it if you do so sooner, but later works as well, as long as you subscribe. The economics of theatrical release favor quick immediate hits, which is why there’s so much emphasis on seeing the movie *now* unless you want someone to spoil that Endgame ends with Star-Lord discovering Soylent Green is people.