Why Do We Hate Spoilers AND Surprises?

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by Matt Singer
June 21, 2012 1:04 PM
7 Comments
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"Brave."

There is something you don't know about "Brave," the new movie from Disney/Pixar that opens in theaters this Friday. It's not mentioned in the trailers or the television commercials, but it's fundamental to the plot of the film. Discussing it on Twitter, Matt Patches from Hollywood.com said it wasn't even a twist -- more of an inciting incident. In other words, it's big. And Disney has done an impressive job keeping it a secret.

Maybe too impressive a job. At HuffPost Entertainment, critic Mike Ryan says that he "felt a strange sense of betrayal in regards to the storyline" because the plot of the movie was so utterly unexpected. Explaining what he found remarkable about "Brave," Ryan said:

"I can't remember the last time a film's main plot (not a twist ending) was purposely kept from an audience that wasn't specifically part of the marketing. In other words: This isn't 'Super 8' or 'Cloverfield' -- movies that not knowing the plot is part of each film's appeal."

"Brave" caught Ryan completely off-guard, and he was kind of pissed off about it. If the tepid reactions of many other critics after the "Brave" press screening are any indication, he wasn't alone either. Which is kind of fascinating.

Spoilers are the online critical community's number one obsession; on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this one, people constantly debate their etiquette, morality, and efficacy. Part of that ongoing conversation involves the role of marketing in those spoilers; a lot of studios these days seem all-too-willing to reveal their films' biggest secrets before they even open. Playing coy with details is now the exception in movie trailers, not the rule. Yet here is "Brave," a movie that is truly surprising, and Ryan and others were upset about that, too. So why do we hate spoilers if we also hate surprises?

Though I don't necessary agree with Ryan, I understand what he's saying. He's arguing that the marketing for "Brave" sold him (and anyone who goes to see it) a bill of goods. He expected a brave young woman on an adventure and he got... well, he got something that was not quite that.

Ryan specifically mentions his own expectations, but what we're really talking about here is a movie keeping its promises. If you make a movie called "Titanic," we better see that boat sink. If the director doesn't deliver, is that the audience's fault or the movie's? All cinema is a cycle of setup and payoff. When a character is "casually" informed that the spaceship in "Prometheus" contains an auto-surgery machine, we expect someone use it to perform auto-surgery on themselves later. And sure enough, someone does. But if they hadn't, wouldn't that have been frustrating? (One could argue a variation on this theme is "Prometheus"' biggest problem: it begins as a serious science-fiction movie and ends as a silly monster mash; it raises a lot of questions and then never bothers to answer any of them.)

In the case of "Brave," Ryan says he felt "betrayed" by the movie. If its trailer had revealed major chunks of what happened to the protagonist in the second and third acts, would he have liked it more? Probably not -- that would have just set off the excessive spoiler alarm rather than the excessive surprise alarm. I suppose then that these twin demands are essentially opposite poles on one long continuum, and for a lot of people the ideal marketing would land somewhere in the middle -- not revealing a movie's secrets, but at least alluding to the fact that there are secrets in store, sort of the way films like the aforementioned "Super 8" or "Cloverfield" get sold.

Personally, I was glad Pixar surprised me -- I just wasn't necessarily all that pleased with what they surprised me with. Still, I think the way they handled that mystery speaks to the studio's status as one of the most powerful brands in American entertainment. They don't need celebrity voices or flashy plots to bring in viewers: their name and the line "From the studio that brought you 'Toy Story'" will do the trick. As a result, they can take chances with how they sell their products -- which is certainly what they've done with "Brave," whose title describes its marketing campaign as effectively as it does anything in the actual film.

Read more of "Is Anyone Actually Brave in 'Brave?' (And 24 Other Urgent Questions)."

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7 Comments

  • Nolan | June 25, 2012 2:55 PMReply

    I'm sort of split on Brave right now. I thought the first act was rote and too Disney-princessy. Therefore, after some initial hesitation, I welcomed the shift. I like that they at least attempted to put a different spin on the "plucky young noble girl wants to be her own person" story. I like that it didn't take epic conflicts for anyone to recognize her strength. It was more introspective, and I appreciated that. Still, the narrative shift is jarring and the end really tries to cough up all of the good will the middle section had earned with me.

  • Olli | June 25, 2012 2:42 AMReply

    I love it when a movie reveals it`s twists and turns during it`s running time and not in the trailer. The marketing of a movie should raise my interest and not tell the whole story in short snippets via it's trailer. And I like to be surprised even if not every surpise really succeeds. So I totally agree with Scott Mendelson.

  • winter | June 24, 2012 7:42 AMReply

    Based on the original name for this movie I sort of picked the direction of the 2nd act. So what that the trailer didn't show it, it is still a well made movie. Is it as good or better than Toy Story no, but it will be a long time before anything supasses that, it is still better than Cars 1-2 or UP.
    If the critic was complaining about the movie for technical reasons ie: screenplay/actors/direction that would be ok, but this one seems to be complaining that he wasn't spoonfed the story from the trailer. Don't critic's usually whinge that the trailer reveal all the jokes/best scenes/the plot twists to a movie? You can't have it both ways.

  • Justin Kownacki | June 23, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    I agree with Max. If a critic is so bad at his or her job that they resent a film for not divulging the entirety of its contents in a 2 minute trailer, that's the fault of the critic. But when the plot "reveal" is as poorly conceived of as the one in Brave is, well... that's the fault of the filmmakers. I'd be surprised if the "reveal" is what's actually upsetting critics; I think they're more shockingly disappointed that the reveal is so lame.

  • Max Weiss | June 21, 2012 2:21 PMReply

    Matt, I think you are giving Pixar too much credit. I don't think this was a move on Pixar's part to keep a little mystery in the film and enhance our viewing experience. I think it was a marketing strategy, plain and simple. My guess is that they saw that plot number 1 (young men vying for the hand of a rebellious young princess in an Olympic-style competition) tested well and that plot #2 (I won't say here) simply didn't. . . or was perhaps too complicated to convey in a trailer. Frankly, I thought plot #2 was kinda lame so I can't say I blame them.

  • Corey Atad | June 21, 2012 2:20 PMReply

    The idea that someone could be betrayed by a movie because its marketing didn't show the 2nd act inciting incident is completely ridiculous. I have complaints about the way the second act of Brave plays out, but the fact that I didn't know it was going to happen was a nice change from normal. And it's not like the marketing for Brave sold it as a different kind of movie. It simply showed the first act of the film and got across the premise for the main character, a girl who wants to change the fate being forced on her by her mother. The movie is still about that, it's just about that in a surprising way because the trailers smartly didn't give away any juicy plot twists.

  • Scott Mendelson | June 21, 2012 1:24 PMReply

    Wrote about this a couple weeks ago in regards to Prometheus*, but our film culture has become so used to knowing everything about an upcoming film that even rudimentary 'unspoiled' narrative beats are considered 'shocking plot twists!'. Moreover, as evidenced by the critical reaction to Brave and Hancock back in 2008 (a movie I like more than most, but I digress), there is an expectation that a major film will be marketed in such a way that all of its major storytelling avenues will be revealed. I'm still aghast at the many negative reviews for Hancock that took umbrage at the fact that the film actually had third-act story beats that weren't blatantly revealed in the trailers and television spots, that it was a somewhat more complicated movie than a simple 'watch Will Smith be a drunk superhero' comedy. We as a film culture feel damn-well entitled to spoilers, exclaiming 'the first teaser for Skyfall *finally* arrives' or writing about 'ten clues that that new Amazing Spider-Man poster tells us about the film'. What's worse is that this 'gotta know everything now' mentality has become accepted marketing dogma, with a never-ending stream of spoiler-filled trailers and countless film clips released online before opening day. Even The Dark Knight Rises has gotten into the act, with a fourth and needless trailer and so many television spots that one eventually gave away a major plot turn by default (yes, I unknowingly chose to watch it so I must accept some blame). I can't wait for the major studio release with the courage to just say "Okay, you get a teaser, a short trailer, a theatrical one-sheet, and three TV spots made up exclusively of footage from the trailers and that's it!". Bah... rant over.

    * For those who care - http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2012/06/in-film-culture-seemingly-entitled-to.html

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