The Four Types of Spoilers and How Reviewers Should Handle Them

A rough and inevitably incomplete guide to the taxonomy of spoilers

These two factors probably explain why most critics overdescribed Mr. Burns's latter parts. The 2012 horror film The Cabin In the Woods is a good, strong example of this type of spoiler. Most critics wrote about it with appropriate caution. Movie critics seems to be better at this than theater critics are—or at least they have more practice thinking about it.

But what about, say, the 15-minute "Dawn of Man" prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or the dinosaur interlude in Tree of Life? These are not elements audiences would have been expecting, based on these films' marketing or their directors' prior work. Or the fact that last year's terrific sci-fi thriller Looper settles down to spend its last act on a farm, just like Witness? I would have preferred to not have known about these things in advance. You can intelligently assess these films' merits without divulging these surprises.

Some measure of description—albeit far less than is frequently given, in my opinion—is required both to promote plays and movies and to critique them substantively. Writing about theater, I feel obliged to participate in the Consumer Guide function of criticism because, for the majority of the audience, the live experience of a play or a musical is inconvenient and expensive. You can't wait for them to show up on Netflix or borrow them from the library for free. One of the things I have enjoyed about reviewing pop concerts is that the critic is completely removed from the purchasing calculus. Because most acts play only one night, and then move on to the next city on the schedule, they were already gone by the time my review appeared. The piece could simply be a subjective attempt to record something of the event for posterity.

A narrative spoiler in Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
A narrative spoiler in Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
In The Cabin In the Woods, a formal spoiler
In The Cabin In the Woods, a formal spoiler

Recommendation: Say as little as you can while keeping your argument understandable. Also, be cool. If you're all, Hey, there is a big secret I'm not telling you here, tee hee, then you're kind of spoiling. Use your judgment: Reviewing art isn't a science, it's . . . another thing.

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Recommendation: If an actor is famous but not named in the opening credits, don't name that actor in your review.

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A film professor I studied under once began a class by saying, "Rosebud is the fucking sled. If you think I've just ruined Citizen Kane for you, please get out." His point, I think, was that if you're only watching a film because you want to know how it ends, you're closing yourself off to all its other, non-narrative expressions of artistry.

My point is different: "Rosebud" is the MacGuffin in Citizen Kane. The reporter trying to discern the meeting of Kane's final deathbed utterance cares what it means, but do you? Did you care any more about it at minute 90 than you did at minute 15? The extremely low-yield reveal of Rosebud's identity tells us Kane's dying thoughts returned to his early memories, which doesn't seem at all unusual. If it's intended to illuminate Kane's character, well, we'd already seen plenty of evidence that he remained selfish and childlike as an adult. Who doesn't yearn for the simplicity of their childhood?

Moreover: Who names a sled, anyway? Now, if "Rosebud" really were, as Gore Vidal has claimed, William Randolph Heart's nickname for his mistress Marion Davies' lady parts . . . that would an item of interest.

To offer a more recent, less prurient example, Star Trek: Into Darkness had a spoilable secret, but it wasn't the name of its antagonist. Director J.J. Abrams and his usual entourage of writer/producers wanted fans to believe for half the movie that Benedict Cumberbatch's villain was a ne'er do well named John Harrison. But when he monologues to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock that he is, in fact, duh-duh-DUUUUH Khan Noonien Singh, the name is as meaningless to them as "John Harrison" is to us: In this clean-slate iteration of Trek, they've only just met the guy. He could've said, "I'm Batman," or, "Bond, James Bond," or, "They call me Mr. Tibbs." Sure, some largish portion of the audience is coming in with the knowledge that in a prior telling, Khan became the franchise's most flamboyant villain. But the net effect within this movie is that a guy we thought was a bad guy is actually . . . a bad guy.

But not the only bad guy! I'm convinced Abrams implored critics to protect the fake secret of Cumberbatch's character as an act of misdirection, to keep the film's legitimate narrative and formal spoilers from leaking—perhaps to keep audiences from realizing it was part remake. I didn't love the movie he made. But this plea to critics not to throw his movie into the briar patch was fairly brilliant.

Recommendation: Spoil on, you crazy diamond. Your readers may cry for your head, but you'll know that you were right.

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The pervasive notion that knowing the end cheapens the journey calls out the way stories by their very nature distort reality, despite our deep need to use them to frame our lives.

This is a recurring theme in the films of Christopher Nolan, possibly the 21st century's most skillful cinematic wool-puller. All of his films have spoilable elements, but it's his criminally underseen 2006 thriller The Prestige, which follows a rivalry among 19th-century illusionists, that best expresses the narrative power of withholding. With typical Nolan symmetry, the story follows the three-part structure of the illusions its characters perform, giving us a "pledge," a "turn" and, finally, a "prestige." The audience's natural inclination is to try to deduce the rational explanation for the seemingly impossible thing the magician has just shown them. But: "You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled," Michael Caine warns us in narration that bookends the film.

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