A Moral Case for Spoilers

Phillipa Georgiu will return to Star Trek, Quicksilver will return to the MCU and it is immoral to participate in the policing of spoilers.

Now first I want to be precise when I talk about the word, “moral.” The boundaries between concepts are unclear. We have two questions that are particularly difficult to separate – the question of what is good and the question of what is beautiful: Ethics and Aesthetics.

There are many methods of chopping these two discussions of value in order to say this is one thing or it is another. It is good to dispense justice. A painting is beautiful; but there is certainly overlap. The presence of religion gives testament to this as many religious programs attempt to simultaneously define both what is good and what is beautiful in connection to each other. A Christian might say it is Good to live in God’s divine light – but preference for light over darkness is an aesthetic concern.

The truth is that humans don’t easily divide the good from the beautiful. A bigot, upon seeing two men kissing, might excuse himself by saying, “It’s not that what they are doing is wrong, I just don’t want to have to look at it.” These edge conditions multiply persistently wherever we might look for them. How many people would think they have an ethical obligation to their neighbours to keep the façade of their home beautiful? Morality, in the sense I am deploying it here, is to describe a thing that has one foot each in the realm of the ethical and of the aesthetic.

For instance, it is an ethical proposition to suggest an actor has less bargaining power than a multinational corporation. If an actor, in his enthusiasm for a role, announces he will play a part, but the studio, for reasons of marketing, wishes to keep that role silent and the studio then punishes the actor we can hardly side against the actor. After all, some corporations might monopolize the opportunities for an actor to ply his trade; he may have no choice but to sign odious confidentiality clauses or choose against having a career. When facing such a systemic inequality we can hardly call these contracts ones that are negotiated in good faith. And if a corporation has compelled a worker to accept unpleasant working conditions on fear of being unable to work, how could a decent and clear-thinking person say that this worker just should have honored his word? The words that came out of his mouth were never his. This is an ethical concern.

However the problem of spoilers is far more involved merely than a single material relationship between a worker, or even a class of workers, and a powerful avatar of capital. It involves both other ethical concerns, power relationships and the question of group formation, but also questions of what makes for good art.

But before we can address these questions we must first answer a more basic question: what, really, is a spoiler?

To spoil is to rot or to put beyond all utility. Food spoils when eating it makes you sick. But art isn’t food. The problem, I think, is that franchise media wants to make art into a meal: not into something an audience engages with, enters into communication with. But something they dumbly consume. But if art spoils in the same way food spoils, this raises a problem: why would knowing the shape of the plot prior to consuming a work of art make one ill? Perhaps it would be best to push back against the idea of art as something we eat, and to look at art as a vehicle of communication instead. So how do we decompose the utility of art as a vehicle of communication?

We could suggest that a work of art is spoiled when the artist or some third party, through malice or error, eliminates its ability to communicate a coherent message. We would have to put the art into a position of such irreconcilable internal contradiction that it could say nothing at all to truly spoil a work of art.

Monkey Jesus is not a spoiled artwork

Even if we look at grand artistic mistakes such as the amateur restoration off the Borja Ecce Homo fresco, we can see the communication of meaning within the art. Christ’s occluded black eyes and faint hint of a mouth, the abstracted plane of his nose and the indistinct boundaries of hair and flesh all present a contradiction with the subject: Ecce Homo. And yet, behold the man! “Monkey Jesus,” gives a wonderful hint into the animal character of humanity, it puts lie to the suggestion of divinity in a way which still creates a meaningful and significant, if accidental message.

Cecilia Giménez’s Ecce Homo is not a spoiled artwork. It is, in fact, a shockingly successful artwork, as her attempts to restore the fresco, and the beautiful and surprising way she failed to restore it have attracted increased attention to her community and her church. If this Ecce Homo can survive such a transformation unspoiled, why are franchise artworks so fragile that they collapse if only the aspect of surprise is taken from them?

Because this is ultimately the only thing spoiled for the audience. The surprise. Are we, as a culture, so limited that we believe the surprise of reversal to be something fundamental to the quality of art? What then of Romeo and Juliet? How are we to enjoy the art of this famous tragedy when it begins:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Emphasis mine)

Any art so vacuous that it is ruined beyond recovery simply by the knowing of a fact is not art worth anyone’s effort. As such we should contend that, no, art is not spoiled even when the surprise is. But the thing is that while policing of spoilers is about knowledge, it isn’t really about surprise. Rather it’s about secrecy.

Specifically, the spoiler is the inevitable companion of the mystery box. So whose experience of art is truly spoiled by the spoiler? It is the marketer. This becomes painfully clear when we look at how artists are put behind the demands of marketing for secrecy. Tom Holland is given incomplete scripts. He is not allowed to know the secrets of the movie in which he is the star because of the fear he might disclose a secret. His ability to be an actor is hampered so that the marketers can have their way. We cannot have the audience knowing Quicksilver will in fact return before the moment, even if any given audience member with even the slightest spark of critical insight might mark it as likely, because our marketing cycle is built upon the revelation to the press at this time or that of the cameo, of the actor who plays the role, and of all the mystery boxes that will be put in view of the audience with this revelation. And, with its dependence on continuity, and on the interconnection of properties, especially in the case of the MCU with its heavy dependence on lore delivered via cameo-coda, the franchise becomes precisely this: a box containing boxes, containing boxes, containing boxes. Each box carries the promise that there is something inside, some meaning, a kernel of a reason for the art. But the meaning is nothing but an empty box and the endless deferment of the moment of transformation in favour of simulations of catharsis. We cannot spoil the franchise; it’s already rotted to bone, to dust, to void.

Ultimately, the purpose of a franchise artwork is not about anything resembling meaningful communication between an artist or artists and an audience. It’s about the construction of a community, a lifestyle, a fandom. Fandom, with its desire to catalog, to be encyclopedists, to be those who are in the know, polices the spoiler because it allows them to identify those who are to be included as fans and those who are not. An altogether common, and altogether revolting conversation about a work of art on social media will begin: “No spoilers, but OMG, franchise title.” This is a is such an awful exclusionary tactic. It says, “I would love to talk to you, but only after you pay the franchise owner with your time and money.” It denies that anyone might engage with a work of art but as a fan. It denies that any passion should be allowed in response to art but enthusiasm.

This idea, that only enthusiasm is permitted in public discourse surrounding art is summed up in perfect vacuity by the “let people enjoy things,” meme.

But I am, in fact enjoying myself, get your hands off my mouth you irritating twit.

This is an infantilization of an audience. The fan has invested so much of their identity in being a fan of this franchise or that, of being a trekker or of being a Marvel fan, of loving Barbie or loving Batman, that any criticism of the art for its technical execution, its message, its deployment of novelty or of repetition becomes a violence committed against the fan.

Recently, I made the mistake of discussing my opinion of WandaVision on social media, and I said that I thought it was, and this is a complete quote that would not be transformed by context, “Not… good.” Two words, one ellipses. Not… good. A fan replied, “I feel like you kicked me.” Like I had kicked them. My statement, that I denied the quality of this work of art in which they had invested their identity, was seen as being indistinguishable from an assault upon them. Confronted with an artwork consisting of empty boxes, this fan put their heart inside. When I opened up the box and declared it empty, it was as if I had nullified their heart. But fannishness is the worst form of art appreciation. It is nothing but a surrender to the art. It denies that the audience has anything to say about the art, that the audience has any role beyond a mouth chewing.

Fannishness is full of pointless activity – the curation of wikis, the argumentation over “fan theories” and “head canons,” the hunt for easter eggs – but for all this wasted effort in sorting the franchise into digestible bites, easier to chew, there isn’t really anything for a fan to do. To become an artist, to take the work and to make something of it, involves a tearing down of the art to the ground. The once-fan-become-artist unmakes the old art to create the new. This is an escape from fandom; the fanfiction artist has set themselves apart from fandom through the act of responding to the art. Likewise a critic cannot be a fan. Criticism is an act of cutting. We slice apart the art, open up its hidden layers, expose its secret parts to sunlight. A critic must keenly look for the hidden box, rip off the lid and announce its contents to the world. Marketers who want to hide the interiority of the art because they know it to be lacking are enemies of critics in the same way copyright lawyers are enemies of artists.

And so we come to the point where a fan can be identified as what they truly are: an unpaid brand manager. Of course we’ve seen from fandoms what toxicity this ambassadorship can engender.

The best movie I saw in theatres in 2020, and the best superheroic movie released within any franchise since Black Panther in 2018, the only comic book movie worth the effort of watching since the release of Black Panther, was Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. This movie took the only redeemable kernel of value from the otherwise putrid Suicide Squad – Margot Robbie’s excellent performance, which managed to shine through even the monstrous editing of this film – and crafted from it a brash and explosive movie which shamelessly obliterated the authoritarian apparatus of the superheroic genre in a riot of glitter and cocaine.

So, of course, the brand ambassadors of the “Snyderverse” have taken to voluntarily sticking advertisements for their preferred version of the DC brand on the front of dvd boxes for this far-better film. This is just marketing. Unpaid marketing, marketing as competent as the art-restoration skills of Cecilia Giménez’s but with infinitely less charm. And likewise, those discussions that demand we refuse to become either artists or critics, that demand we express nothing but enthusiasm for the next bite of our pablum, are nothing but marketing.

Furthermore, this fannish preoccupation with avoidance of spoilers is a particularly cheap marketing ploy that factionalizes social groups to those who are in the know and those who must get caught up lest they be left out. Let’s be blunt. People who oppose the disclosure of spoilers make their demands in the name of respect but spoiler aversion isn’t about respect for friends. If my friend was about to dig into a steaming plate of offal because some slick liar persuaded them it was steak, I would be a good friend to say, “don’t eat that, it’ll make you sick.” Refusing to discuss art like a critic or like an artist, demanding all public discussion of art permit only enthusiasm is not respect for your friends. In fact, it is deeply disrespectful to your artist friends who would burn down the old work to create the new, or to the critic who enjoy laying the secrets of the artwork visible. Policing spoilers is fundamentally disrespectful to everybody but the brand ambassador. It is respect of the franchise alone.

And this means it is just a roundabout way to lick a particularly polished boot. An empty one at that. There is one final definition of “spoil” I think we could address. One spoils a child by giving in to their childish impulses, by allowing them to dictate what should be done even when their guardians know better. A spoiled child demands that their parents do and say the things they like or they will throw a tantrum. Fandom is an infantilization of the audience. Perhaps we should stop spoiling their detrimental impulses and start talking about art without averting our eyes.

4 thoughts on “A Moral Case for Spoilers

  1. Pingback: On the artist – critic relationship, a response to “On Fanfiction, Fandom, and Why Criticism Is Healthy,” by Stitch | Simon McNeil

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