Posts Tagged ‘Disney’

A Tale of Two “Spoilers”

December 31, 2015


WARNING: This essay contains no spoilers, but only because I don’t care.

Was 2015 the year of the spoiler? Aversion to any public discussion of plot details has been bubbling up since DVRs became commonplace and even more so once streaming services began releasing entire seasons of debut shows all at once. As a result of the two, or simply as a byproduct of the lessons learned from the Golden Age of Television, television dramas, and even comedies, became more serialized, meaning learning a plot detail could reveal secrets of multiple episodes or a whole season instead of just this week’s caper/case/folly.

But spoiler warnings became industrialized this year, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, highly competently directed and cowritten by a flesh-coated vessel of the Walt Disney Corporation. Reviews, even those from serious outlets, carried seemingly obligatory promises that they didn’t contain spoilers, and think pieces made sure to warn readers that they did. My Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with people bemoaning the possibility that some evil people somewhere might spoil The Force Awakens, followed by threats that they would either leave social media for a few days until they had seen the movie (mostly not actually carried out) or unfriend anyone who revealed plot details (carried out in at least some cases). Some claimed that even saying whether a person liked the movie or not constituted a spoiler. In what I hope was good humor, comics stores posted signs threatening to ban for life those who spilled plot details. They probably don’t do that if you shoplift or punch or grope someone, at least not the first time. (It is worth pointing out that the story of the person beaten up for shouting a spoiler in a movie theater was not real.) The whole thing was spoken of as though to reveal anything about the movie was an unforgivable crime, an act of violence against the poor nerds who had already suffered so much. Spoiler warnings somehow became trigger warnings.


The whole thing was so fervent and so universal as to feel unnatural, as if it were all part of the marketing campaign, the publicity teams at LucasArts and Disney expertly playing fans. As a friend pointed out, there is plenty of precedent, going back at least to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the marketing materials warned that no one would be let in late and implored viewers not to reveal the movie’s twists to anyone. In the era of social media, marketers have perfected making fans believe that such a thing is their idea, not something they’re being told. I never actually saw any Force Awakens spoilers, and while I didn’t go out of my way to find them, nor did I make any effort to avoid them. Other people I know did see some and dutifully unfriended the offenders, but none seemed as desolated by whatever details they had learned as they’d feared, just annoyed.

To be clear, I’d be annoyed too. If I know I’m seeing a movie, I prefer to go in knowing as little as possible to let the experience unfold before me with a minimum of prior expectation. I don’t tend to see trailers for movies I know I’m going to unless they show before another movie I’m at, and I save the reviews of my favorite critics to read after I watch. Surprises are fun, and I went to at least one movie this year knowing literally nothing about it other than that people I respect had raved.

So I understand all that. However, I cannot relate to the recent mania over spoilers, the apocalyptic manner in which the faithful spoke in panicked, hushed tones of their fears of The Force Awakens being “spoiled”—and how I hate that word, reducing the experience of a movie to its plot points, with the implication that foreknowledge of them ruins everything. If knowing a few plot details in advance ruins one’s enjoyment of a movie, then that enjoyment was taking place on a narrow register of what movies offer. Fandom, at its worst, is a fetishism of details over aesthetic, and it’s distressing to those who actually care about movies and other forms of storytelling.

A movie is so much more than its plot. At risk of being sent to editor jail, I’m not sure that I place plot in the top five of things I care about in a film story, not when there are voice, tone, theme, performances, dialogue, cinematography, rhythm, and so many other aesthetic elements to consider. All of these are dismissed when fans fixate on spoilers. I like a good plot, and some of my favorite movies have some of my favorite plots, but the majority of the movies I treasure, I do not primarily do so for the plot, for if plot were truly primary, there would be much less incentive to once again revisit something I had watched so many times before.

A plot, at its most basic level, is simply a device to make a story take place over a period of time, since we are not capable of experiencing the above list of aesthetic elements in a single instant. At the commercial art level, the plot exists to move the characters into place so that audiences are teased to return for the next installment. It is in the interest of a studio like Disney to make its Star Wars movies primarily about what happens next, as that is ultimately controllable, and it’s easier to keep fans in a state of anticipation by constantly emphasizing the next movie over the current one. More so than the films themselves, this is the innovation and the art of the Marvel movies.

Ironically when I saw the movie (disclaimer: for free) it didn’t contain a single surprise or unpredictable moment, with nearly everything that takes place obvious almost from the first act. That it so closely follows the beats of the original Star Wars is a factor, but everything is telegraphed anyway, and I doubt those who have never seen a Star Wars film before would have much difficulty guessing where the story is going. The more I think about it, the more clearly intentional that decision must have been, with the movie serving as a soothing pat on the head to those fans burned by the 1990s–2000s Star Wars trilogy. Those few elements that are genuinely new appeared only in vague “mystery box” form, all part of the tease for the new episode. The marketing machine has already geared up to insist that next time big, unpredictable things will happen, and maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t.

And inevitably, fans who love the new movie do not do so primarily for the plot. Even its loudest defenders feel compelled to make excuses for its many repetitions, coincidences, and illogical turns. Instead, they are taken with its new characters, its action sequences, the nostalgic rush of its skillful callbacks (with attendant groans at its clunkier ones), and the unprecedented sight of a Star Wars movie composed entirely of good performances. Those who have seen it a second time mostly report enjoying it more on that subsequent viewing, despite knowing the entire plot in advance. While those who stumbled upon unwelcome plot details before their first viewing likely had their initial enjoyment diminished by a percentage point or two, I’m willing to bet that they got over it once they were sucked in, and for all of the time they spend with the movie in the future it will simply be a nonfactor.

Nor are the pleasures of the original Star Wars movies in their plots, but rather their themes, worlds, humor, busted-racecar aesthetic, and sometimes characters. This is not a condemnation of their plots, which are serviceable, but simply an acknowledgement that, like any other good movies, the Star Wars films are more than their plots. While The Empire Strikes Back contains a plot detail that has resulted in the most notorious spoiler of all time (with the possible exception of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud,” although the entire point of that film’s MacGuffin was that it actually revealed nothing), it continues to be frequently rewatched after the cat’s been out of the bag for decades. I’m reminded of how I knew the twist in The Usual Suspects before I saw it and had a good time anyway, and how I didn’t know the twist of The Sixth Sense and had a bad time anyway.


In the course of my original social media rant about the all-consuming fear of spoilers, I invited people to spoil The Hateful Eight for me, as Quentin Tarantino’s films often have clever plotting, but hinge far more on visual moments and extended dialogue exchanges, things that can’t really be spoiled by someone letting a detail slip on Twitter. No one took me up, but it was quickly pointed out to me that The Hateful Eight contains a mystery with multiple suspects, and I wondered if I’d set a trap for myself. Yes, obviously I would prefer not to be told before seeing the movie which character would ultimately be unmasked. I felt generally confident that whether or not I enjoyed the movie wouldn’t turn on that alone, but maybe it would be central to the film after all.

As it turned out, Tarantino is Tarantino. A lot happens in the course of the movie’s three hours, and the mystery, such as it is, doesn’t feel very important. It takes up a relatively small portion of the film’s runtime and there’s only a single major clue, which is underlined in voiceover and which eliminates almost all the suspects in one fell swoop. The mystery was by far the least interesting part of the story, and it appears that Tarantino thought so too. After we learn the truth, there’s a flashback to events before everyone arrived at the inn and, even though we know exactly what’s going to happen and to whom, it’s riveting. Kind of like The Force Awakens, but to vastly different impact, as there’s unlikely to be a sequel, much of what’s most compelling in The Hateful Eight are the questions we never learn the answers to.

The Hateful Eight is a flawed movie that I had some issues with, but I enjoyed it more than Tarantino’s recent efforts, and it is considerably better than The Force Awakens. I am certain I’ll see it again to savor its dialogue, gorgeous cinematography, and hilarious and frightening performances, and will likely groan again at its excesses and confused politics, but I doubt I’ll spend any of those viewings searching for clues I missed the first time around, because they aren’t the point. I’m sure I’ll also end up seeing The Force Awakens again someday, as life is long and I’ve been lured to Star Wars movies by cute girls before, and if I’m feeling soft in the moment I may get lulled into its carefully calibrated simulation of playfulness and, like I did before, have a decent but not great time. I’m sure there will be some pleasure in the plot being already known rather than merely obvious.

We’ll have to wait until 2017 to see if the next Star Wars whips up this level of frenzy over spoilers. The fact that they ultimately didn’t matter much in the case of The Force Awakens will hopefully be taken into consideration, but Star Wars is a corporate product and the plot of the next movie will be highly speculated upon by fans and treated by Disney as supremely important, and the marketing team has an incentive to restoke those fires that played so much to their benefit this time around.


Howard the Duck

November 23, 2014


I was two years old when the George Lucas–produced Howard the Duck film was released, and by the time I became a comics reader nearly ten years later, it was largely forgotten except as a cautionary tale. Though I’d heard of the character from time to time, I don’t think I ever encountered him in comics form either until Marvel published the Essential Howard the Duck collection in 2002, at which point I was a freshman in college. It was also my first prolonged exposure to Howard’s cocreator Steve Gerber, and the collection made me an instant fan.

As I wrote when Gerber died, I was immediately struck by how angry the writing in Howard is, a quality I would later find in other Gerber-written comics I read on the strength of my love for Howard. It’s right there in the tagline, “Trapped in a world he never made”: life is unfair and so much of the world’s suffering—suffering being a theme Gerber returned to again and again, notably in his final work, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery—is created by the callousness of forces beyond our control and people beyond accountability. A classic outsider, Howard has the insight to question elements of society that those who grew up within it take for granted and the lack of social graces to make those questions forceful. A classic outsider, much like Gerber himself in many ways.

Over the years I’d go on to read a lot more of Gerber’s work and learn more about his history with Marvel Comics, including his lengthy and hard-fought series of legal actions over Howard’s ownership and the suits filed against Marvel by Disney over an allegedly infringing similarity to Donald Duck. While Robert Stanley Martin assembled a very compelling case earlier this year that Gerber repeatedly affirmed his understanding that Howard was created in a work-for-hire environment and was unambiguously owned by Marvel (going so far as to promise never to sue over ownership), the case was still valuable in shedding light on how work-for-hire has been and is interpreted by the major publishers and the courts, and in spurring debate over the difference between a character’s legal ownership and its connection to its creator, who I believe can and should be said to “own” the character in a sense. That ownership is more meaningful to me than instruments like trademarks and copyrights, but as Gerber’s situation shows, the two can come into conflict, and the company’s rights to the character easily trump what since 1928 have been known as “moral rights.” (Correction: Disney’s actions regarding the Howard/Donald situation did not actually include a lawsuit. See Martin’s comment below for a better explanation.)

After all, the circumstances that led Gerber to attempt to claim ownership over Howard appear to have less to do with his ability to profit from Howard—he already licensed the character from Marvel for posters and buttons, which reportedly sold in great quantities—than with disagreements with Marvel stemming from his firing from the Howard comic book and strip, and Marvel’s acquiescence to Disney, in a settlement over the Donald Duck lawsuit, which allowed Disney to redesign Howard and enforce that design on Marvel and Gerber. (The Disney suit appears to have had more to do with overseas confusion in translation than concerns that Howard represented any threat to the Disney brand domestically, and the enforcement of the redesign, which mostly involved the shape of Howard’s head and a mandate that he wear pants, was lax to begin with, and abandoned after the failure of the Howard movie, until the last decade.)

Gerber’s attempts to win ownership of Howard has always seemed to me (and in case it’s not already clear, this essay is entirely my point of view not an objective declaration of how things are) something Gerber had to do because Howard meant so much to him personally. Gerber’s situation was not like the one faced by Jack Kirby, who had cocreated the bulk of the Marvel universe in a time of vaguer contracts and was repeatedly promised more than he received. Gerber appears to have completely understood the legal side of Howard’s ownership when creating the character, but the degree to which legal ownership allows businessmen with no investment in the character itself, only its earning potential, more say than the creator to whom that character is incredibly personal seems to be a grievance that built up over time, until he felt he had to take action. The case was ultimately settled out of court and nondisclosure agreements have kept the exact terms of the settlement private.

In the years since, Gerber has written the character a few more times, most memorably in an in-story smash-and-grab of the character in a crossover with the Savage Dragon and Destroyer Duck (a character Gerber cocreated with Kirby to fund Gerber’s suit against Marvel) and later a mature-readers miniseries from Marvel’s MAX imprint, in which the Disney redesign was obviated by Howard’s transformation into a mouse, surely a move aimed at tweaking Disney, if the company still cared at that point. Howard has shown up in occasional miniseries by other writers, none of which I’ve read, with the exception of Fred Van Lente’s Marvel Zombies 5, which includes Howard as part of an ensemble. I’ve never had much interest in Howard not written by Gerber.

Gerber died in 2008, and in 2009 Disney acquired Marvel, placing ownership of Howard with the company that once claimed he infringed on its trademarks. This year Howard appeared in an after-the-credits sequence of Disney/Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know anything about the Howard part beyond the still frame below, but there he is, wearing pants, owned by the second largest media company in the world. Looking at that frame makes me feel, in the kind of reductionism comics readers like me sometimes fall prey to, like the bad guys have won.


People remember Howard exists now, so naturally a new comics series has been announced. I like the work of both its writer and artist, and I wish them well with this series and their future endeavors, but I can’t feel anything but disappointment at this announcement. I don’t begrudge any writer or artist taking on a gig like this—for all I know they are huge fans of Gerber and Howard and intend to create this comic in his spirit—but I am saddened that the series will be published at all. There is already evidence that Marvel misunderstands Howard and Howard‘s value: in explaining who Howard is for readers unfamiliar with past stories, the word “everyman” has been thrown around. That’s incorrect. As mentioned up top, Howard isn’t an everyman; he’s an outsider. And more to point, in many ways he is Steve Gerber. Howard’s worldview, his anger, and his bouts of depression are Gerber’s. The series is full of things that interested and angered Gerber personally. Over the years, this has been remembered as general social satire, but it was explicitly satire from Gerber’s point of view.

It’s not that no one else can write angry, outsider work or skewer social mores that offend them personally, it’s that Howard is an alter ego of his creator, and the idea of someone other than the person to whom a character is an alter ego writing that character is uninteresting to me. I wouldn’t be able to care about someone other than John Updike writing Henry Bech, someone other than Kurt Vonnegut writing Kilgore Trout, someone other than Hunter S. Thompson writing Raoul Duke, or for that matter someone other than Woody Allen directing a film about Alvy Singer or someone other than Francois Truffaut directing a film about Antoine Doinel. And so on. I feel the same way about Steve Gerber and Howard the Duck. I’m confident that other creative teams, including probably this one, can create funny, clever Howard the Duck stories, but I read Howard the Duck for its look into Steve Gerber, and no one but Steve Gerber can provide that.

P. S. Earlier this year I sold my Essential Howard the Duck reprint and started assembling a collection of the original comics. It’s been a brand-new experience reading them in their original colors and with the letters columns and ads for the Howard for President buttons and so forth, and simply a pleasure rediscovering the work itself, which I hadn’t read for a few years. When Guardians of the Galaxy was released and word of the Howard cameo came out, I was worried this would boost the prices I was paying for the old comics, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The series is available digitally, and Marvel is reissuing the Howard the Duck Omnibus, so hopefully the newly curious will be able to find out how great the original material is without making my efforts too much more expensive. (I’ve put together about half the series so far, with the Howard the Duck Treasury Edition standing in for the severely underprinted #1, and including issue #13, which costs more than the rest for the irrelevant-to-me reason that it is KISS’s first full appearance in a comic.)