One of my favorite moments when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier came when the sub-titular character was unmasked, and someone in the theater let out an exclamation of genuine surprise. I envy the person that experience. I really do. Same with the people who didn’t pick up that Anthony Mackie’s character was a high-flying superhero before the reveal.
And when I figure out the central mystery to a story before a big reveal, I feel great about it.
But not every story is a mystery, and I wouldn’t trade decades of comic fandom knowledge for not knowing who the Winter Soldier and Sam Wilson are before seeing it on the big screen.
And you know what? While I didn’t share in the experience of the people who were surprised, knowing who those people were didn’t diminish my enjoyment. It just changed the nature of it. My pleasure came from seeing how these familiar stories were pulled off this time.
And that’s something I think is often missing from our discussion about spoilers. The idea that knowing what’s going to happen diminishes the experience of hearing a story is a kind of strange and fairly modern idea. I mean, there came a point in time where Homer’s telling of the Trojan War became codified as “the official” one, but Homer himself was a performer, not a scribe. Do we think he told the story the same way each time? Do we think people edged away from him when he started up with that “RAGE!” spiel again because there was no point in hearing the story again if they already knew where it was going?
To imagine this requires us to ignore the fact that the story of the war with Troy was old when Homer was young. He might have increased its popularity, but it’s also likely that its permeation into his culture is why his telling became one of his best known works.
Of course, the historicity of Homer and the connection between the surviving written version of The Iliad and any such person is far from a settled question. But I think we have enough evidence to accept that people out there were singing of the rage of Achilles, and we can imagine one such person who was particularly successful at it and call this person Homer.
The point is that while there must of necessity have been a point in any Hellene’s life when they first heard of the rage of Achilles, the strength of Ajax, and the wiles of Odysseus, that point would not usually have been the last time they heard of these things, nor the one and only time they enjoyed them.
A few years ago, there was a raft of articles referring to a study that indicates that having a story spoiled may actually make it more enjoyable by in essence allowing us to sit back and just take the story as it comes. In the time since then, I have increasingly come around to this way of thinking.
I’ve also started to wonder if the disdain for spoilers isn’t tied to the idea that there is (or should be) a “real telling” of a story. The idea of “canon” to mean “the fixed, objective reality of What Really Happened in a fictional timeline” rather than “a body of work” is also a relatively new idea, one that probably dates back to the original Sherlockians trying to reconcile details that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had simply fired off and then forgotten about, but not much further in any concrete form, and one that has only really penetrated into the ranks of the storytellers themselves as young fans who grow up caring more about such continuity concerns become content producers themselves, and inspire another generation who cares about it even more…
I’ve seen people talking about a divide in fandom between people who see Canon as something to be kept, an immutable stone record that is mastered through memorizing and internalizing the minute arcana which makes it up, and those who see Canon as a set of building blocks and foundations to build on, to be mastered by exploration and analysis and creative rejiggering.
This divide is not intrinsically sexual, but is fairly heavily gendered in practice, as represented by the Geek Boy who quizzes Geek Girls about the trivia of the t-shirts they are wearing, while the same Geek Girls have folders full of fan art and fan fic.
The gender divide is not what interests me here, so much as how deeply entrenched the point of view of the Canon Keepers is and how it might be affecting the prevailing view of spoilers as, in effect, a crime against the art. Now,
only the Sith deal in absolutes few things in life are black and white, so rather than describing Canon Keepers as people who believe there is absolutely one telling of a story, maybe I should try a more nuanced description: some tellings are official/real, and no others are. So you can accept the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the 616 comic universe and maybe some of the other versions as “real”, but for each “real version”, there is a single Approved Telling, and you have exactly one shot to see/hear it in the Approved Fashion.
The plot summary on Wikipedia, your excited co-worker at the next cubicle telling the person one cubicle over, the clever parody gifsets circulating on Tumblr… these are not the Approved Tellings, and they therefore diminish it by their existence.
In spelling out this speculation… and I should point out that much of the last two paragraphs are speculative… I’m not trying to say there’s anything wrong with the “carved in stone” approach to canon versus the “built from tinker toys” approach, nor with this potentially related approach to reading stories/seeing movies.
I’m just raising the question of where it comes from, in the interest of examining if it’s really necessary, on a person-by-person basis. I feel like some of us have just accepted the idea that spoilers spoil in the sense of ruining a movie.
You ever notice how the second time you watch a movie, you often catch a lot more than you did the first time? The genuinely clever lines, the little background details that show how much thought went into the worldbuilding and plot, stuff like that? This will always be the case, but I suspect based no my experience that you catch more of it when you’re also not trying to put together the larger details.
It’s true that I’ll only see a movie the first time once, but I also generally only see movies on the big screen once. If I want to get the most out of that opportunity, I believe I’m best served in most cases by having read a fairly detailed plot summary. I don’t want to know all the twists. I don’t want to know all the jokes. I don’t want to know all the background details.
But I want to know the story, in the same way that an ancient Greek crowding around a poet singing on the street corner would know of the rage of Achilles.