Film thoughts: predictions, spoilers and narrative as equation

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/7/19 2:00am

Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the film “Avengers: Endgame.”

It’s been a little over a week since “Avengers: Endgame” came out. I’m not exactly sure when the moratorium on spoilers ends, but here goes: Thor lops off Thanos’ head in the first five minutes. Iron Man and Black Widow die. The Avengers save everyone through time travel.

The thing about listing spoilers like they’re items on a grocery list is that none of them really mean much without the context of the film. The Avengers use time travel? Cool. Does it actually work as a convincing narrative conceit or is it trite? Iron Man and Black Widow die? Well, we always knew not everyone would live to the end. Thanos dies in the prologue? That’s weird. Why would they dispose of their most intimidating villain so early in a three-hour film? 

On their own, all of these moments are “spoilers,” but they don’t actually “spoil” anything about the actual film. It’s not until you see “Avengers: Endgame” that you appreciate how all of these elements are synthesized and contextualized in a larger narrative that I would argue is mostly satisfactory. 

Nevertheless, “Avengers: Endgame” was subject to the most intense “No Spoilers” campaign that I’ve ever seen. Not only did the directors create the hashtag #DontSpoilTheEndgame, but Disney even had Spider-Man actor Tom Holland record a PSA, warning audiences that there would be “Endgame” spoilers in the upcoming “Spider-Man: Far From Home” trailer. Moreover, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe turned borderline aggressive in their insistence that no plot details whatsoever be revealed before their viewing experience.

Just to be clear, I am not trying to condemn anyone who politely requests “no spoilers” before entering a conversation with someone about such a highly anticipated film. The joy of a story you’ve been looking forward to surprising you because you got to watch it unfold in real-time is genuine. Desiring that experience makes perfect sense, and it’s a request that any decent fellow filmgoer should be able to honor courteously. But for some fans, spoiler avoidance tips over into what I’m going to call active “spoiler aversion” — wherein spoilers are policed in a manner that is tinged with hostility. This attitude leaves one to wonder whether or not it potentially indicates a broader trend reflecting how certain individuals choose to create and consume narratives.  

Frankly, I think that “spoiler aversion” culture is just a symptom of a much larger attitude to cinematic narratives that has grown increasingly prevalent as of late. Moreover, “Avengers: Endgame” is the perfect vehicle through which to discuss these various issues. As is often the case with big-budget genre films like this, the months leading up to the release were dominated by fans making predictions about how “Endgame” would wrap up what Marvel apparently insists we call the “Infinity Saga” (i.e. “Endgame” plus the 21 MCU films preceding it).

Sometimes the prediction machine relies on the seemingly endless stream of “leaks” that seem to filter onto the internet, but just as often, they are built around paying attention to the most minute and inconsequential details in trailers and other related films. As a result, many fans enter the film not just with expectations, but elaborate theories, having practically mapped out their own version of the story in their heads before the opening credits even roll.

Yet from what I’ve observed in my personal experience, these same fans are often those who perpetuate active “spoiler aversion” culture. Of course, once these fans do actually see the film, they get to decide how accurate or inaccurate their carefully researched predictions were (spoiler alert: they are almost always wrong). Thus, these fans return to the internet, creating articles and videos using granular, nitpicky details to determine whether or not the film’s actual “spoilable” moments make logical sense. These very details become the subsequent fuel for predictions about future films, and the cycle repeats itself. 

On the surface, this may seem to reflect little more than an enthusiastic — if potentially extreme — obsession with geek culture. And in many cases I suspect it is little more than that. But often it tends to result in a mode of film spectatorship that treats narrative as equation and not “narrative as equation” in the way Russian Formalist literary critics attempted to understand how narratives and storytelling function from an almost mathematical perspective.

Rather, I’m referring to a mindset which views stories as puzzles and which understands the role of the spectator as the person who needs to out-think the filmmaker by solving the puzzle. It’s an approach that demands that every aspect of a narrative conforms to the fan’s specific understanding of “logic” — thereby conveniently bypassing meaningful discussions about themes, ideology, etc. This line of thinking insists that films are good just as long as E does in fact equal MC squared. Recent video essays like Lindsay Ellis’ “That Time Disney Remade Beauty and the Beast,” Dan Olson’s “Annihilation and Decoding Metaphor,” Bob Chipman’s “Plothole Surfers,” Patrick Willems’ “Shut Up About Plot Holes” and Sage Hyden’s “Can You Judge Art Objectively?” have all noted this problem

Indeed, these essayists document how such an approach is not just pedantic but frequently insidious. Efforts on the part of fans to logically outmaneuver filmmakers often manifest as a means of declaring a film with an ideology that they disagree with is “objectively” bad. The “narrative as equation” approach permits an irate fan to seem as though they take issue with a character like Admiral Holdo from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” because it isn’t logical for her to not tell her plan to protagonist Poe Dameron. However, in reality that fan’s worldview can’t fathom why an assertive woman who is also decidedly at ease with her personal approach to femininity would be in a leadership position and then subsequently not choose to divulge top-secret information to an arrogant man who initially fails to respect her.

 Therefore, the “narrative as equation” approach can easily be used to make such a regressive worldview seem palatable because it is presented in a context that purports to be objective.

I want to clarify that I don’t think all the people — or even the majority of the people — who make fan predictions, avoid spoiler, or chat about plot mechanics are also trying to hide troubling worldviews behind the veneer of logic and objectivity. Rather, I argue that extreme versions of these tendencies are a starting point that lead all too quickly to these problems. Seeking to outsmart a film and its creators this way doesn’t make someone look smart. It makes that person look like they’ve completely missed the point of storytelling — which they kind of have. The thing about elaborate prediction theories and extreme spoiler aversion is that they treat “big” moments in anticipated films as somewhat separate from the context of themes or filmmaking. No matter how shocking, a twist simply doesn’t work if it doesn’t possess thematic resonance. Similarly, a film that fulfills all of your predictions still isn’t good if the filmmaking and execution is awful. The cultural value and impact of narratives emanates from their totality. 

In the wake of “Avengers: Endgame,” I’ve seen a myriad of articles and videos trying to explain the mechanics of the film’s time travel subplot. Everyone wants to know how this has managed not to rip a giant hole through the franchise’s fictional space-time continuum. I reiterate that this is not an inherently bad thing. Predictions are fun. Walking into a film without any foreknowledge is great. And speculating about the odd technicalities of a film’s fiction machinations can be extremely entertaining. I certainly do all of these things to some extent. The problem is that you can’t just stop there; one needs to be willing to approach these stories in terms of ideology and themes because that’s where they leave an impact beyond mere entertainment, whether it be for good or for ill. 

Have all the fun you want debating the physics of the time travel, but also acknowledge that the film actively tried to hand-wave away these kinds of logic questions; the time travel ploy is used purely because it allows each of the major characters to receive a sense of closure by revisiting the past. By approaching the whole affair as a prediction, a spoiler or an equation, though, these moments of thematic resonance become nothing more than ones and zeroes in a story stripped of its potential to actually mean anything.