“Rosebud” is the sled. Spider-Man dies. L3-37 gets scrapped and turned into part of the Millennium Falcon. Amy framed her husband for her own faked murder.
According to internet etiquette, all of these movie reveals should have been preceded by a big warning: SPOILER ALERT, and you should have averted your eyes. “Spoiler alert” is so ubiquitous, so accepted that the Oxford English Dictionary is adding it to its august lexicon as of this month.
Spoiler alerts have unquestionably conquered criticism; they are standard reviewer practice, not just standard English. But I wish it weren’t so. The idea that you must not give away a plot twist in a film, TV show, game or book is bad for criticism, and worse for art.
The term “Spoiler alert” signals more than a reveal. It indicates cautious criticism that’s worried about giving offense. Alerting readers to spoilers in reviews treats books and movies like delicate works of wonder whose mysteries must be protected rather than explored. The spoiler alert is congruent, not coincidentally, with corporate marketing. (Movie studios regularly warn critics not to reveal plot twists before a certain date, on the implicit threat that if they do they may be denied access to future screeners.)
But caution and delicacy should not be criticism’s intent.
Take, for example, Roger Ebert’s infamous review of the rape/revenge thriller “I Spit on Your Grave” (1980). Ebert starts with this, “A vile bag of garbage named ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ is playing in Chicago theaters this week.” He then summarizes the plot of the movie, from beginning to end, sans spoiler alerts. His point is that “I Spit on Your Grave” is a moral abomination. You can’t spoil a moral abomination. It’s already a ruin.
Alerting readers to spoilers in reviews treats books and movies like delicate works of wonder whose mysteries must be protected rather than explored.
As it happens, I think “I Spit on Your Grave” is a great movie. But I think Ebert’s review is great, too, in its own way — full of passion and uncompromising anger. Ebert refuses to see the film from the perspective of its fans; he insists that he will not stand (or sit) with them. A spoiler alert in his review would be hypocritical, weak — just plain wrong.
If knowing the plot of “I Spit on Your Grave” makes you less likely to pay money to view it, Ebert thinks that’s all to the good. “There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering,” he writes.
A total pan isn’t the only reason to suspend your belief in spoiler alerts. In his book-length work of film criticism, “The Devil Finds Work,” James Baldwin doesn’t hesitate to give away the ending of one of America’s most famous horror movies: “At the end of ‘The Exorcist,’” he writes, “the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing.”
Baldwin doesn’t care about preserving the pleasures of story resolution for future filmgoers. He’s using William Friedkin’s film to make a point about how white people in the United States deny, and conveniently forget, their own acts of evil and cruelty.
“The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in ‘The Exorcist’ is the most terrifying thing about the film,” he writes. “Americans should know more about evil than that, and if they pretend otherwise, they are lying.”
Prefacing his exploration of the movie with “spoiler alert” would have been tantamount to saying “I have a subtle and painful point to make about American racism — but don’t pay attention if you haven’t seen ‘The Exorcist’!”
When fans or studios chastise writers for spoilers, they are saying that criticism must always prioritize the views of those who see art in a certain, narrow, predictable and linear way.
If critics want to preserve a film’s narrative roller-coaster ride, its surprises, so be it. But that shouldn’t be the standard for criticism. Those with something different to say should be allowed to say it without the ritual use of “spoiler alert.” The term is in the OED. But that doesn’t mean critics have to use it.
Noah Berlatsky is the author, most recently, of “The Consequences of Feminism: Women Film Directors.”
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