When the clock struck 12:01am PST on Wednesday, the embargo for Star Wars: The Force Awakens reviews lifted, and myriad dissections of the series’ latest installment began crisscrossing the internet at lightspeed. Anticipation for the blockbuster has gradually snowballed over the past year, stoked by impressive trailers and infinite fan speculation that reached a fever pitch around Thanksgiving.
Like many critics, The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday worked with her editor, a Star Wars fan who’d also screened the film, to ensure her review didn’t include too many plot details. An overly descriptive piece would not only constitute lazy criticism, but would also inflame moviegoers who have grown fanatically wary of “spoilers.”
“I really do take it seriously, and my editors are pretty sensitive to it too,” Hornaday says. “When in doubt, don’t give it away. That’s our idea of a best practice.”
Nevertheless, Hornaday received an email from a disgruntled reader on Wednesday afternoon. “For the love of God,” it began, “please please please have someone add a disclaimer before your review that says it includes plot spoilers … I can’t remember the last time I felt so compelled to write to a newspaper, if ever.” The spoiler, the reader added, came with Hornaday’s mention that “[Luke] Skywalker has been missing for the past 30 years, during which time an evil empire known as the First Order has taken power.”
It was the most basic of plot descriptions. Yet the reader’s email was emblematic of a great disturbance felt across the social Web since Wednesday morning, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror that their Star Wars-watching experience might be ruined by mundane scene-setting. Spoilerphobia has steadily grown over the past decade, reaching a new zenith this week. News organizations responded by explicitly advertising their Star Wars reviews as spoiler-free, publishing multiple pieces with various gradations of synopses, or—in Hornaday’s case—quietly working to find the ideal balance of minor plot details and broader cultural criticism.
“Most reviewers try not to give away an ending,” she says. “But the joy and pleasure of watching a movie is also the surprise of it every other step of the way … . The last thing you want to do is spoil people’s enjoyment. That’s our hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.”
The angst among many Star Wars fans this week played out across old and new media alike. A Chrome extension was created in an effort to block spoilers entirely. Reddit moderators scrubbed threads of plot details and banned commenters who ventured to the Dark Side.
Citizen policing on social media attempted to battle those who inadvertently gave away any information, not to mention trolls threatening to do so on purpose. Actual police in Philadelphia, meanwhile, also responded to the spoiler-alert populism.
Spoilerphobia has emerged as a cultural phenomenon alongside the maturation of the internet, as casual audiences and ardent fans alike can accidentally stumble upon revealing information with one misguided click. The mania has only expanded with the growth of recap coverage—“Here’s what you missed on Game of Thrones last night”—among entertainment media.
“Everybody does recaps, and they are incredible traffic generators,” says New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. “They’re nothing but spoilers.”
The environment has led the fear of, say, knowing that Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense is dead all along (sorry!), to metastasize into a sort of preemptive hypochondria, the fear of having a film “ruined.” “For some people, almost anything constitutes a spoiler,” Dargis says. “To those people, I say, Don’t read any reviews … A movie is not about this and that happening, but how it all happens.”
Dargis began her Star Wars review Wednesday with the gentlest of jokes: “The big news about ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is—spoiler alert—that it’s good!” And without shying away from basic plot details, she continues with solid analyses of the film’s themes, the director’s and actors’ performances, and the promise of a more diverse galaxy far, far away. The piece frames the film as a cultural artifact, adding considerable value to the movie-going experience.
“In whose interest is the spoiler alert?” Dargis says. “The fans have their own agendas. And I don’t want to be dictated by their agendas because I’m writing for the readers of The New York Times, which is a much more general audience.”
Other media took different routes. Many labeled their reviews as spoiler-free in headlines or on social media. Wired told readers they’d find “mild spoilers” in its piece, while Variety warned that “those seeking an untainted viewing experience are advised to avoid reviews, this one included, until after they’ve seen the movie.” Adds Peter Sciretta, editor of slashfilm.com, in an email: “It’s not that we don’t post about spoilers, it’s that we don’t post about spoilers openly in the public. We give fair warning and hide the details after a page jump.”
“I thought my Star Wars review would stand out from the others because it was written spoiler free” - ever writer, every site, right now— Peter Sciretta (@slashfilm) December 16, 2015
It’s hard to say whether outlets are responding to a legitimately popular demand or bowing before the whims of an outspoken minority of Star Wars fanatics. For what it’s worth, Mashable’s “spoiler-free” review has been shared about 2,300 times, according to analytics displayed on its article page. Its “spoiler-light” piece? Roughly 1,500 social shares.
“I do understand why people don’t read reviews until they see the movie themselves,” the Post’s Hornaday says. On the other hand, she adds, some readers also complain of too few plot details. “There’s sort of a golden mean.”
Hornaday replied to her disappointed reader Wednesday with a conciliatory note asking what exactly she ruined—“I feel terrible!” she said. The man wrote back with a good-natured response of his own: “I’m really looking forward to taking my 6-year-old daughter this weekend,” he wrote. “She’s super excited and I think this one will have great role models for her.”
It was a happy ending in the life of a spoiler-conscious critic. Balance, it appears, had been restored to the Force.
David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.