Why do people broadcast film and book spoilers? (No spoilers!)

Yesterday saw the release of the film Avengers: Endgame, the latest in the franchise of superhero films based on the Marvel comic books. These films have been roaring commercial successes. I myself am not a fan of the genre and have watched just a couple (The Avengers and Spiderman: Homecoming) to see what all the fuss was about. I had not planned on seeing the latest film.

But last evening I got an email from someone I do not know in which the subject line, all in upper case, revealed what is apparently a major plot twist in this film. The person who had sent out the spoiler had gone to great lengths to make sure that every single person who might in any way be connected to my university (including alumni) was made aware of the spoiler. The address line contained the addresses of about 250 email address lists (not individual addresses) that seemed to cover pretty much everyone. I think my address was in the list of physics faculty, staff, students, and emeriti. This person had gone to great lengths to obtain all these email address lists, presumably by hacking into the university server that has the database that contains all of them.

Needless to say, there was a furious reaction at this attempt to ruin the enjoyment of people who had been looking forward to seeing this film. The original spoiler email was followed in rapid succession by about a dozen other emails condemning the first one for revealing a major spoiler on the very first day of the film’s release, with some using the strongest language and even threats of violence. (I remember a similar incident some years back when the sixth book in the Harry Potter series was released that had a major plot twist and someone put out a blog post announcing the twist including the page number in which it occurred in the title, again all in upper case letters so that no one would miss it.)

People can get very angry with people who behave this way. Take this report about a scientist stabbing another person at a remote Antarctic research station.

We all know someone who does it: ruin a movie or book by telling you the ending. In frozen Antarctica, however, one guy took a bit too personal.

Russian scientific engineer Sergey Savitsky, 55, is accused of stabbing a welder at the Bellinghausen research center on King George island because “he was fed up with the man telling him the endings of books,” The Sun reported Tuesday.

The alleged victim Oleg Beloguzov reportedly gave up the endings of books Savitsky checked out of the station’s library.

I know someone who would blurt out the endings but not with any malicious intent. If you mentioned a book or a film, she would say things like “Is that the one where at the end…?” I learned never to discuss things with her that I was planning to watch or read.

I do not understand why anyone would deliberately go out of their way to spoil the enjoyment of others, including total strangers. What do they gain by it? To paraphrase Iago (Othello, Act 3, Scene 3):

“[H]e that filches from me my [enjoyment of a book or film]
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”


  1. Jean says

    This is a relatively benign way that some people use to reduce joy and/or increase suffering for others to make themselves feel powerful and significant. I doubt most of them know or care why they do it other than that they enjoy it. The same thinking does lead to more extreme and consequential situations.

  2. Holms says

    People are nasty for fun. Regarding the Antarctic stabbing, if it had been a punching I’d entirely support it.

  3. Stevko says

    I never really understood what is the problem with spoilers. I usually read plots on wikipedia before watching movies.
    That said, I know other people do not like it so I do not tell endings to other people. It is not nice.

  4. starskeptic says

    “I usually read plots on wikipedia before watching movies.”
    What’s the point of watching the movie, then?

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    starskeptic @8: Maybe in the hope that it is a good story. If it can actually be spoiled by spoilers, it can’t be much of a story. If a cinema nearby decided to replace the latest Avengers film with a showing of Seven Samurai, I’d go, even though I’ve seen the film many times.

    Based on the Avengers films I’ve seen on telly, there’s nothing to spoil anyway. I’d go if they paid me enough, or if I was guaranteed that Robert Downey Jr would get kicked in the nuts. Maybe.

  6. Mano Singham says

    For me, a good film is one that makes one care about at least some of the characters. If one knows what is going to happen to them from the get-go, then one’s identification with the character will be affected. I agree that the really great films not only survive but even benefit from multiple viewings.

    But apart from everything else, it should be up to each person to decide if they want to know the plot of the film before seeing it. Depriving them of that choice by forcing spoilers on them is wrong.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I hadn’t noticed this before but this film runs for three hours! That’s pretty long. Do they have an intermission half way?

    I also looked at the cast and it seems to consist of a huge number of well-known actors. I find that having a lot of such cameos is distracting in a film because it can make it into a game of ‘spot the famous actor’.

  8. consciousness razor says

    I hadn’t noticed this before but this film runs for three hours! That’s pretty long. Do they have an intermission half way?

    No intermission. It’s fairly long, but I thought that was good. (Maybe I have a higher tolerance for that kind of thing, as a “classical” musician.) It wasn’t too slow-paced generally, except for sad parts where you need to let it breathe in order to get the right tone. There’s just a lot of stuff happening throughout. In terms of telling the whole story, they really left a lot to occur off-screen (i.e., it’s only mentioned/implied). They could have easily used another three hours to fill in the gaps. No joke.
    Trying to avoid spoilers here, but based on talking to friends and seeing others discussing the same issues, I think many people were somewhat confused by certain plot elements. So clarifying that could have helped. But I think actually showing some of it would’ve undermined some of the themes and emotional impact that the movie was aiming for. They wanted you to feel like it was a satisfying conclusion to the overarching story about the infinity stones, but you might feel a little differently about it if you really understood how that sausage was made.

    I also looked at the cast and it seems to consist of a huge number of well-known actors. I find that having a lot of such cameos is distracting in a film because it can make it into a game of ‘spot the famous actor’.

    Many of them are onscreen for only a few seconds (yes, despite the epic length of the movie). It does show dedicated Marvel fans what they want to see, at least for a moment, so for them it’s not so much a distraction, just more fan service like most of the movie. Those cameos are sort of needed in the story that was decided on, so I guess it’s not gratuitous so much as lazy writing…. It did make me wonder how much they had to pay actors X, Y, Z to stand in front of a camera for 5 seconds and look like their characters.

  9. Mano Singham says

    consciousness razor,

    Thanks for that information. The length issue for me was not so much about sustaining interest as needing to use the bathroom! But I guess with younger audiences, it is not such a problem.

    I recall that older long films like Lawrence of Arabia would have a scheduled intermission. And classical concerts and operas and plays also often have intermissions, so not having one seems like an aberration.

    I would have thought that cinemas would like an intermission to increase concession sales. Also an intermission might have been helpful for people who were not quite up on the complex interweaving storylines to get clued in by their more knowledgeable friends so that they could enjoy the second half more.

  10. consciousness razor says

    Yeah, you reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia when you asked about an intermission. (Also 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Good movie, and a good question. What can I say? I’m old-fashioned, and I do wish audiences were more accepting of longer movies that aren’t in the 1.5 hour range. Really, I don’t know if it’s the audiences or the studios (or both) which are driving that.
    My strategy was to not buy a drink at the theater. I still took a bathroom break (lots of coffee earlier in the day), but I don’t think I missed much. It was a moment somewhere in the middle, and it was fairly obvious to me how things would go for the next few minutes.
    There’s a very definite three-part structure, all roughly the same length. Almost like three stylistically different movies stitched together, end-to-end. I would’ve been okay with it, if they had put an intermission somewhere in the middle of the second act — just split the movie in half, doesn’t matter exactly when. There were lots of scene changes then which offered minor conclusions, and they could’ve used any one of them for that purpose. They just didn’t.
    If you haven’t seen many of the other MCU movies (maybe a dozen are relevant, if not all 21 of them), there’s no point in watching this movie at all. You would need a very long intermission indeed, in order for your knowledgeable friends to help you put all of the pieces together, but most of them still probably couldn’t explain the convoluted plot, just because it’s sort of a mess all by itself. 😉 However, you personally would have no trouble with the sciencey stuff the film gestures at, which is where some people might struggle.

  11. Jenora Feuer says

    I’m kind of with Stevko; I’m relatively spoiler-proof. Spoilers don’t annoy me. That said, I also understand they annoy other people, and so I try not to give them out.

    A good chunk of the reason I’m relatively spoiler-proof is that I’ve been a voracious reader for a long time, and have written a number of things myself, and you start to see the patterns. (I’m the sort of person that TVTropes exists for.) I actually go to movies (when I do) in part to see how the sausage was made; I don’t go for the plotline so much as I go to see how well it was executed.

  12. Curious Digressions says

    When wintering in Antarctica, the limited entertainment available is Serious Business. I have a friend who spent a winter at McMurdo. If the jury was pulled from fellow folk stationed there, there’s no way stabby-guy would be convicted. All he would have to do is use the “he just needed stabbing” defense.

    I’ve heard that the MCU films follow the comic plot fairly closely, so much of the fan base is relatively spoiler proof. I haven’t read them, but a lot of the viewers have.

    I did accidentally spoil the 6th Harry Potter book for a friend. I thought everyone in the room had already read it and said, “I can’t believe they killed [character].” I felt terrible. Only jerks would do that on purpose.

  13. Mano Singham says

    Curious Digressions,

    I think that there is an implicit statute of limitations for spoilers, or at least should be. For example, surely people should be able to discuss the ending of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet?

    For more recent stories, it is a little trickier to gauge how long is enough. I was one of the few who had never got around to watching the film The Usual Suspects. I finally got the DVD years later and was planning to see it. But that very day, I attended a seminar in the cognitive science department and the speaker used the key surprise element of the plot to make her point!

    When I laughingly told the speaker afterwards about the coincidence, she was mortified at having revealed a spoiler but I said that it was my fault that I had been so slow in getting round to watching the film. At some point, people should able to assume that others know, though one should still not reveal spoilers unless necessary, as it was in the case of the seminar speaker.

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