Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

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.


Simon Pegg writes about spinning childhood obsessions into nerd gold

October 17, 2011
Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to
Becoming a Big Kid

Gotham Books – hardcover, $27.50
By Simon Pegg

This was an interesting read immediately after Grant Morrison’s Supergods, as both examine largely American popular culture from a UK point of view and delve into its influence beyond American shores and on the authors specifically. Of course, whereas Morrison limits his discussion to superhero comic books, Pegg’s interest is in popular culture broadly, though with a focus on those types of films, television, books, and even comics (a little) that engender in a certain type of viewer/reader a desire to obsessively re-watch or endlessly discuss nuances with others of the faithful. In other words, the popular culture that appeals to nerds. The importance of these works to Pegg’s biography is hard to overstate, as his career as actor and writer from the television show Spaced to movies like Hot Fuzz and Paul is built on extended riffs on such material.

Nerd Do Well
is, on one level, Pegg’s memoir of growing up and developing his comic voice, spanning his childhood and young adulthood, up through the filming and release of Shaun of the Dead, the film that brought him to semi-prominence to American audiences. However, with the exception of a few passages describing the formulation of early jokes and an acknowledgment of his creative debt to writing partners Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright, Pegg delves very little into the process of writing or shooting the television and movies that he’s been involved in. Indeed, while the book is a work of autobiography, Pegg repeatedly expresses reservations about discussing his life, and outside of a few comic anecdotes, he plays the book’s biographical elements close to the vest.

That’s fine, as the real purpose and value of Nerd Do Well is as a book-length answer to the question, “What are your influences?” Where the story of Pegg’s early childhood is amusing but largely unremarkable and disjointed (another quality the book shares with Supergods is a tendency to reveal details out of order, following a narrative thread across a few years, moving onto a new topic, and then finally returning to where he left off a few chapters later), he brings enormous passion to the discovery and discussion of the films and television that formed his artistic sensibility.

Here Pegg is generous and eloquent, and the book comes to life when he describes the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time. Having studied film in college, Pegg is fluent in critical theory and expounds at entertaining length on his theories as to the resonance of popular franchises with audiences. Star Wars, he speculates, came out at a moment when America was ready to guiltily reevaluate its position as global empire, and he notes similarities between the United States and the Galactic Empire, which peaks when the Empire is defeated in a jungle environment by a vastly outgunned militia of local inhabitants in Return of the Jedi. Of course, he never loses sight of the surface elements that attract young viewers and is an equally astute observer of the less macro emotional levels that these films work on, mentioning on more than one occasion that E.T. brought him to tears as a child.

Later, Pegg turns the same critical lens on his own work, bringing a refreshing self-awareness to a description of the Oedipal issues at play in Shaun of the Dead, an analysis of the consequences of two possible interpretations of the film’s ending and the male wish-fulfillment aspect of the female lead implied by one of them. The feeling is not unlike that of watching a film with audio commentary more concerned with emotional honesty than on-set hijinx.

The tone will be familiar and welcome to many readers in its down-to-earth perspective and genuine humbled excitement at the accomplishments and opportunities Pegg has had. The book’s structuring element is the ESTB—electro-static time ball—which Pegg imagines using to visit a younger self who has just fallen in love with a particular film or television show to announce that his grown-up self has just gotten to contribute to the genre in question or work with the director in question. It’s a disarming technique, although it becomes overused toward the end, when the book devolves into a a series of encounters with famous actors and directors and the ESTB metaphor seems to get pulled out on every page. The enthusiasm for meeting these people feels genuine—it doesn’t seem like namedropping in the sense of trying to impress the reader—but Pegg’s pleasure at meeting yet another beloved filmmaker becomes tryingly repetitive.

One more device that overstays its welcome is the fictional story that opens each chapter, depicting a superheroic version of Pegg on a mission to save the world. Early on it plays a counterpoint to Pegg’s discomfort with sharing the details of his life by giving him something else to write about, and the beginning is amusing, particularly in how the over-the-top description of Pegg’s prowess, both crime-fighting and sexual, makes Pegg himself the butt of the joke without resorting to self-depricatoin. But as the main narrative becomes more pleasurable, the superhero story becomes an unwelcome interruption, though individual installments remain brief. It’s a minor issue, but the inclusion of this element feels distracting.

Nerd Do Well is not the greatest work of pop culture critical analysis you’ll read this year, but it is a clear-eyed and enjoyabe look at how a nerd-culture figure like Pegg has transformed the fictions of is childhood and young adulthood into nostalgic yet fresh-feeling stories today. He includes a wide range of influences from Raiders of the Lost Ark to 2000AD and presents a clear path from experiencing the work to absorbing it to synthesizing it with his comedic style and a few autobiographical touches (though very few of those are explored, the primary one being the influence of a recent breakup with a pseudonymed woman on Spaced. Channeling his heartbreak over the terribleness of The Phantom Menace falls into a weird middle ground) to create his comedy and film writing. Though a flawed and incomplete portrait of Pegg’s creative process, for most of its pages Nerd Do Well is a fun and genial tour through the pop culture of the 1980s through the 2000s and how much they mean to one of their more eloquent admirers, like a long, funny chat over drinks with one of your smarter, nerdier friends.