From The Dark Knight Rises, to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Star Trek Into Darkness — they all have one thing in common: Secrecy. Ridiculous, insane levels of secrecy. To call it a double-edged sword would be an understatement. Fans want to know everything, and filmmakers don’t want to tell us. It’s the eternal tug of war, and the nature o the Internet has only magnified the struggle.
Though incidents like the makeshift wall that J.J. Abrams built to keep prying eyes from sneaking a glimpse at the Star Trek sequel and the outright lies about Khan’s existence take most of the attention, this conflict had become an issue long before Abrams started cranking out blockbusters. Heck, he started pulling super-secret stunts like this all the way back in his Alias days, while guys like Christopher Nolan have been planting Batman-related misinformation for years. Plus, Marvel has become a straight-up secret factory wherever the tighter details about a new Avengers movie are concerned. But, is it really all worth it? Does it actually improve the TV and movie-watching experience?
Honestly, the answer isn’t black or white, as even Abrams himself admitted following that massive will they-won’t they debacle with Khan. Though he told IGN he wasn’t trying to “maintain the mystery box” during the media blitz, hindsight tells him that all the buzz over the secrecy only worked to distract from the film itself. So, yeah, not the best move. But, despite the problems, Abrams still thinks some secrets are a good thing:
“I do think it's a mistake to ruin stories for audiences. In that one [Star Trek], fans of the series are aware that he's either Khan or not, so it was probably a mistake not to just say he was Khan and get past it. But the problem in the movie is that there's an hour in the film that the characters don't know, so I thought, 'If the audience was told will it ruin the experience?' But the truth is it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference in that regard.”
The words make sense, but the actions speak a whole lot louder. Going back to his Lost finale, which was shrouded in a mountain of secrecy that had fans and the public at large frothing at the mouth for answers, the build-up was a lot more fun than the payoff. After seeing the finale, there remains a large contingent of fans who’d have preferred some of the better fan theories.
Abrams' Trek colleague, Roberto Orci, also has his own thoughts on the matter, noting “you don’t want to give away twists,” but the way Into Darkness was handled shows a failure in the approach to promoting the story and selling the concept. After watching Star Trek Into Darkness (whether you love it or hate it), previous knowledge of the Khan reveal didn’t hugely affect the enjoyment of the story. They tried to put a spin on the classic story (though fans would argue as to how successful that effort was), and that’s what they should’ve hung their hat on. Instead, they hung their hat on the big “reveal,” and the movie fell flat for it.
But, here’s the thing: It’s not just about keeping secrets for the sake of secrets. It’s about keeping the right secrets. On the flip side of the coin, the folks at Marvel have the art of secrecy-done-right down to a science, and they’ve reaped the benefits of it. For example, take the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s not coming out until 2015, but we already know the big bad and which new characters will be introduced — and that’s OK. It doesn’t ruin the movie, because there’s a lot more to it than that. Director Joss Whedon and Marvel are focused on what they’re going to do with those characters, and that storyline, not on the sheer fact that they’re using them. It’d be annoyingly futile to try and hide those details, so Marvel makes a big splash of dropping those project announcements and casting scoops themselves, and we eat that stuff up.
That secrecy also trickled down to the launch of small screen effort Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though, sadly the quality of the product didn’t quite match the build-up. Marvel kept the pilot under extreme lock and key, which had fans dying for a peek...and the eventual debut was sadly underwhelming. But, to their credit, Marvel has learned from that mistake, and is now dropping big comic-related scoops about the series in advance to try and build excitement, just like the big screen properties.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise also benefited from the right kind of secrecy, where he let a few details get out to the point that people thought they knew what he was doing - but then, he’d subvert those expectations and blow our collective socks off. Uber-composer Hans Zimmer, who worked with Nolan on his Dark Knight trilogy, distills this point perfectly in a chat with the LA Times:
"We’re supposed to go and surprise you. And part of the experience has to be a surprise. It feels a little bit like we’re working very hard at protecting part of what is great about movies — the surprise. Because it seems like the world doesn’t want you to do that anymore. They want to know everything, they want to know about the stars and [this and that] immediately. And it’s not important to us. To us, really, the thing is the writing and the script and the ideas and the journey, and making it into something really good.”
Bingo. It’s about keeping the right things under wraps for as long as possible and not losing focus on the goal of actually making a movie that doesn’t suck. Some folks get that, others are still having trouble reconciling the two. Secrets are a good thing, but if one little secret can completely ruin your movie, then the movie might not be very good to begin with.
It’s about the journey as a whole, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. Why do you think we go back and rematch our favorite films and TV series over and over again? Yeah, we know every twist and turn is coming, but it doesn’t make it any less fun. Star Wars fans still let out a little gasp during that iconic Darth Vader reveal, and the fact that we know X-Files will eventually go a bit off the rails by the end it doesn’t make those early seasons any less awesome and entertaining.
It’s high time movie studios realize we don’t just come for the secret twists, what we really keep watching for are the characters and story lines we love. We want to be surprised, but in the right way - and that’s no secret.
What do you think? Does total secrecy add to your moviegoing experience, or do you think the studios are taking it too far? Sound off below!