Essay Question: How much should critics worry about spoiling a film?

OFCS members answer the question:

“How much should critics worry about spoiling a film?”

This was inspired by critic Christian Toto calling out Rex Reed for spoiling The Wolfman in his review of that film and Stephanie Bunbury’s recent discussion in The Sydney Morning Herald about how long critics should wait before not worrying about spoiling.

Answers after the jump.

Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed:

Critics should worry a great deal because even in the face of our decreasing relevance we still hold the power of the film in our hands. Most, if not, all of us are able to watch new movies before anyone in America and we are the ones who get to decide whether they’re worth valuable time or not and we are the ones who also hold the secrets and twists and should not take that power for granted. We should use our advantages to help the readers and movie going audience instead of just flat out ruining an entire experience just because we weren’t pleased. It’s like Stan Lee once said “With great power comes great responsibility.” I try to use that in all of my reviews.

Pablo Villaça, Cinema em Cena:

A lot. I always use specific scenes from the film as examples for my arguments during the review, but I make a point of either not telling anything too important about the plot or cautioning the reader that I will indeed have to discuss an important plot point in order to discuss it. But to simply include a spoiler in a review without warning or a reason is an extremely douche move.

A.J. Hakari, Passport Cinema:

One’s best judgment should always be used, but I find that the “less is more” policy works best. Flat-out spoiling crucial events is a no-no, and even hinting that twists are ahead can get dicey. There’s always a way to express what you want to say and be clever about it without revealing vital information.

Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Films:

Newly released films need to be reviewed without spoilers or with spoiler alerts if the critic deems it absolutely necessary to reveal part of the plot. It’s not fair to the audience or the filmmaker to interfere with the viewing experience, which often requires some suspense to be enjoyable. Older films may stand up to more plot reveals, but again, critics should be judicious about it, as many viewers may be approaching older films with virgin eyes. It’s not always ruinous, however, to include “spoilers.” After all, Robert Bresson named his prison escape film “A Man Escaped,” and it’s still an edge-of-seat experience.

Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat:

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an incorrect assumption that people read reviews before seeing the movie; my guess is that at least 50% of the time, a reader comes to a review afterward, looking to see if others share his/her opinion. That said, there is still an ethical question at play. If a critic includes a spoiler in a review, the purity of the viewing experience will be taken from those readers who have not yet seen the film in question. On the other hand, if we are to properly review movies, we need the freedom to be able to judge all of their merits/flaws and to fully explain our reasoning. I generally reveal only what’s already obvious from a movie’s trailer. If I cannot fully articulate my opinion without giving away key plot points, I alert the reader at the top of the review. This allows those who have already seen the movie and those who have not to sort themselves out.

Oh, and one more thing – it typically takes a movie 12-18 months to play theatrically, go to DVD, and have a pay cable run. After that, I think it’s all fair game. You can’t keep secrets forever just because some people wait years and years to see a movie.

Margot Harrison, Seven Days:

I’m adamantly against spoiling third-act twists and the ending. However, some readers seem to think almost any plot-related information is a “spoiler.” One commenter on the New York Times review of Edge of Darkness called out A. O. Scott for revealing that the bullet that kills Mel Gibson’s character’s daughter was actually meant for her, not her father. To my mind, this was obvious early on and doesn’t count as a “twist”; it’s part of the plot setup. On the other end of the spectrum, I had an editor who insisted I reveal that Bridge to Terabithia has a distressing twist toward the end (if not what it was). She thought parents might be upset otherwise. Of course, just saying, “There’s a twist” starts readers speculating. I think I might have been more enthralled by The Sixth Sense (and not spent the whole movie wondering, “Isn’t it obvious he’s dead?”) had I not read a review that mentioned a gargantuan twist at the end.

But in the end, a good movie is good whether it’s been spoiled or not. And spoiling a bad movie (like The Wolfman) can be a critic’s none-too-subtle way of encouraging readers not to bother with it.

Jonathan Richards,

Many people — including members of my own family — won’t read reviews before seeing a movie. They don’t want to know too much. A reviewer’s responsibility is to give the flavor of the movie without giving away too many specifics. The temptation is strong to quote the most quotable lines, but the critic must resist the temptation to be like those trailers that throw a film’ s best moments up on the screen over and over again until they’re dulled when you come to see the movie. Key plot twists and suspense elements can’t be spelled out. There’s a reason they’re called “spoilers.” It’s an imperfect art, but as much as possible we have to remember that we’re not the main event. The movies are.

Rob Gonsalves, eFilmCritic:

I try not to spoil movies if I can help it; if I absolutely have to, a spoiler alert should suffice. Sometimes, in order to unpack what’s wrong with a film, you kind of have to spill some plot. For all that Reed deserves to get kicked around, it’s not like he reveals the plot twist just to be a dick; he makes it part of his overall criticism — it’s not like “Oh yeah, and then this happens.” And it’s not like the plot twist isn’t telegraphed miles in advance anyway. So Christian Toto is, as usual with conservative bloggers, blowing off steam about nothing. Stephanie Bunbury, on the other hand, raises interesting questions about the statute of limitations on spoilers — how old and/or well-known does a movie have to be before we can discuss its plot with impunity? There probably are still people out there who don’t know Darth Vader’s true relationship to Luke, or (more likely) what Rosebud is. I suppose a well-placed spoiler alert would work well there, too.

Mark R. Leeper:

It is the responsibility of a critic to improve the movie experience for his/her reader. Barring that the critic should do no harm. Within those constraints the critic should inform the reader about the film i

f possible. I try to make it a point not to spoil any plot twist after the first ten minutes of the film. If I want to tell something that breaks those rules, I do so after the main body of the review and label it beforehand “Spoiler…” Sometimes avoiding spoilers becomes an interesting game. (Spoiler: When I reviewed Terminator 2 I had to find a way to describe the plot without mentioning that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a “good guy” in this film. Mine was the only review I saw that did that.) Some films are extremely hard to review within my spoiler rules. The major premise of Ladyhawke is a plot twist that does not come until well into the film. I had to sacrifice being informative in order not to spoil the plot twist. I should add my rules apply only to a review of a current film and do not apply to a retrospective analysis. I would have no qualms in revealing that “Rosebud” is …

Kevin A. Ranson,

As a rule, I pride myself on spoiling nothing that hasn’t already been revealed through advertising or trailers; after all, you’ve got to know something about the film if you have any interest in it at all. It’s always difficult to critique specifics that audiences aren’t yet aware of, so I look for examples from other films to bring my thoughts across as often as possible while taking care not to give away the farm. Nonetheless, I personally know purists out there who refuse to read any reviews or watch any trailers for fear of learning too much and ruining their enjoyment, and I can’t say I blame them.

Robert Roten, Laramie Movie Scope:

When I first started writing reviews, I didn’t worry about spoilers. Then I started getting complaints from readers. They clearly don’t like critics who reveal too much about the endings of films.

Since then, I’ve been very careful about spoilers. If I do talk about the ending of a film, I give the reader fair warning that I am going to do just that and it put those comments in a separate, well-labeled section of the review.

Most of the time, however, there is no good reason to reveal the ending of a film, other than to be lazy or arrogant or to annoy people on purpose. I am sometimes guilty of some of these sins, especially when I find a particular film especially annoying in some very offensive way.

Don Levit, Reel Talk:

I try not to, though more and more my editor inserts “Spoiler” somewhere in my reviews. I suppose it’s not the best thing, although frankly many new films are so obvious — especially when they try not to be — that it’s impossible to “spoil” them. Probably best to try to avoid giving away too much, though critics should not flagellate themselves about it.

Wesley Lovell, Cinema Sight:

I know that when I write my reviews, it’s very difficult to discuss some aspects of the film without giving away pertinent information. How often did we want to break down and analyze the big reveals in The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense or any other film that relied on the shock factor to embellish the quality of the movie. Sure you can refer to them tangentially, but for an in-depth discussion, it’s very difficult to not do so. And what if the ending is terrible? If you ruin it for others you’re saving them, but maybe they don’t feel the same way. If it’s so critically important to my writing, I will preface the spoiling material somehow (spoiler brackets, an all-caps prep notice, etc.) so that I can preserve some measure of suspsense for those that haven’t seen it.

Tyler Foster, DVD Talk:

If a film is more than a year old, I generally wouldn’t have a problem spoiling parts of it in a review, although, in those cases, I will always add at the beginning of the review that I am going to spoil some information within. I also have reviewed films (like the early ’90s Hulk Hogan film I’m currently writing up) where I just don’t think the appeal of the film or interest in it is even predicated on the twists and turns of the plot.

Still, there are some things in films I would refuse to reveal, such as the ending to David Fincher’s Se7en.

Gabe Leibowitz, Film & Felt:

If I feel like going into something that requires a spoiler, I just start the review by stating “this review contains some spoilers.”

David Cornelius,

It’s all a matter of remembering your audience. Reviewing a movie when it opens? Nobody but your fellow critics and the people that made the movie have seen it, so spoilers should darn well be avoided. There are some “fair game” grey areas around what’s been revealed in the film’s marketing, but anything else should either be skipped outright or, if a fair discussion absolutely demands spoilers, plenty of warning must be given. Analyzing a classic? Spoilers are pretty much mandatory if you’re offering a full critique, while a more introductory review deserves a more delicate touch. Of course, if the spoiler in question has become a pop culture punchline of the “I am your father” variety, then all bets are off.

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