Movie merchandise, and how it’s giving away big spoilers

Action figures and LEGO sets are giving clues to big movie spoilers - even before the films concerned are released. But why?

This article doesn’t contain spoilers for any upcoming films, but does include plot details from Iron Man 3Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Readers of a certain age might find themselves missing the pre-internet age of movie fandom, and the days before it was nigh impossible to go into a blockbuster without knowing what was going to happen. With each new tentpole comes a tidal wave of information from the distributor, from trailers to TV spots to posters to pictures. All of this existed before too, but the internet has served to collect and circulate this in a way that’s harder (though still not impossible) to ignore if you’re a movie fan online.

But at least the studios have control over that sort of release of information and indeed, there’s been a concerted effort to preserve plot elements on the studio end. But increasingly, spoilers have come not from the production, but from the merchandising end, which, as we all know from Spaceballs, is “where the real money from the movie is made!”

Not every toy is a spoiler – no matter what happens in an Avengers film, you can be relatively sure that the Hulk won’t ride his own quad-bike, even if that’s one of the endless ranges of character merchandise that the toy companies will put out. But over time, there are more and more plot details leaking out in advance of major blockbuster releases.

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Last year, toys gave us our first look at The Vision, a character who doesn’t appear until the third act of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and the Indominus Rex from Jurassic World, which, in all fairness, later rocked up in a lot of the trailers too. Plus, if you were inclined to find out some of this information in advance, a cursory Google search would reveal spoilers of various degrees from upcoming movies such as Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Captain America: Civil War and even the Ghostbusters reboot.

We’d never share those this far in advance of the film’s release, but on a personal note, the Civil War one is the most annoying of the lot, because it’s about the difference between spoilers and plot details. It’s an important distinction, because it’s something that might yet show up in the next trailer, but the toys have already given away a surprise that would have been nice to see in the movie itself, rather than on a picture of a LEGO set or, most pointlessly, on a Funko Pop figure, and it’s already being circulated into the news cycle as a matter of fact.

Internet reportage is one thing, but toys are also built in from the pre-production level onwards.

Naturally, it goes as far back as Star Wars – famously, George Lucas retained merchandising rights and enjoyed a heck of a return when the 1977 film became a phenomenon. The supply of toys couldn’t match the unprecedented demand and starting with the sequels, toy companies were given access to character models during production – including Boba Fett, the ultimate ‘we don’t know what he does, but he looks cool’ character – so that toys would be ready in time for the film’s release. Heck, the big The Empire Strikes Back spoiler was revealed in a tie-in novel, so this isn’t an entirely new problem.

An inarguable turning point in the relationship between merchandisers and film production though was the promotion of Batman Returns. When asked about the circumstances that led to him being fired from the third Batman film in an interview with Yahoo! Movies in 2014, the gist of director Tim Burton’s account was “I think I upset McDonalds.”

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The fast food giant put a huge marketing push behind the sequel after the 1989 film was a mega hit – at one point it was reported that they matched Warner Bros Pictures dollar for dollar on their marketing budget on the film. There were TV adverts and Happy Meal toys for the film, and apparently, the company was as surprised as anyone by the darker and weirder tone of the follow-up, from the sophisticated sexuality of Catwoman to the black-vomiting grossness of the Penguin.

The film wasn’t as much of a box office hit and McDonalds had to deal with a PR catastrophe over kids nagging their parents to see a movie that was entirely inappropriate for them. Warner Bros eventually replaced Burton with Joel Schumacher, who took the Batman movies back to the brighter and more colourful tone of the 1960s Adam West series that had been so definitive for a generation.

At the studio’s request, Schumacher also made it more ‘toyetic’, a buzzword that was coined by Bernard Loomis, an executive for Kenner Toys who would go onto acquire the Star Wars licence, when he told Steven Spielberg that Close Encounters Of The Third Kind didn’t have enough toy-friendly characters. But neither Spielberg nor George Lucas had made their films to make toys and in contrast, by the time of the much-maligned Batman & Robin, the toy companies were dictating what the Dynamic Duo would wear.

The subsequent resurgence of superhero movies inevitably brought more toyetic films, but it’s started to affect the films less. Toy lines needn’t be exactly faithful to the film and while there weren’t many Deadpool toys, the viral marketing campaign still took aim at spoilery toys as part of its arch-mockery of comic book movies in general.

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As to the ones that do give things away, many of the advance online spoilers come out of Toy Fair, the annual industry showcase which takes place in January. It’s a good few months before most of the promoted movies will be released, and that may be why the studios would struggle to suppress plot spoilers if they wanted to.

Toy companies have early access to scripts long before the movie reaches audiences, expressly so that the merchandise will be ready before the movie comes out. While there must be at least some communication between the studio and the merchandisers, it’s the prerogative of toy companies to promote the movie and its related products, rather than protect plot spoilers.

With its Spaceballs-sized wave of merchandise, it’s still a small marvel that Star Wars: The Force Awakens reached multiplexes without too much of the plot being leaked. As with his previous films, JJ Abrams pretty much kept the plot of the movie a secret in all of the trailers, which focused more on iconography than on what Episode VII was actually about. Given how the film press seized upon any opportunity for a Star Wars headline in the run-up to its release, it’s seriously impressive that hardly anything got out.

Still, if you were looking, just one week before the film was released, there were online reports of Walmart stocking an action figure of Rey, in her ‘Resistance outfit’ from the very end of the film, with Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Arguably, this is only significant in a situation where Abrams had been treating everything in the film as a spoiler up until this point and even teasing reformed Stormtrooper Finn as the character who inherits Luke’s lightsaber in the marketing.

But like the spoiler we alluded to earlier, the moment where Rey uses the Force to grab the lightsaber off Kylo Ren ahead of their big fight is one of the many pleasant surprises the film had to offer as a result of the secrecy. Your mileage may vary on how much spoilers affect your enjoyment of a film, but in a case like this, where the plot was completely locked down, it’s telling that some stuff was not just leaked by anonymous ‘insiders’ but actually made in plastic and put in a shop before the film had even come out.

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Then again, it’s not a free-for-all. In a world where the Hulk needs a quad bike, the variety of toys related to big movies is pretty much endless, and completely unconstrained by such piffling limits as what actually happens in the film. Christopher Nolan didn’t carry on the legacy of Batman movies being driven by toys in his Dark Knight trilogy, which spawned a number of colourful variants of Batman’s costumes and gadgets that weren’t seen anywhere near the more grounded films themselves. But amid rampant speculation, you didn’t see clickbait pieces about Orange Hang glider Batman like you do now, about LEGO sets that give early peeks at climactic scenes.

While we’re distinguishing between plot details and spoilers though, the only Marvel movie that has actually hinged upon a major twist thus far is Iron Man 3, in which it turns out that Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is just a front for Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. LEGO didn’t give it away – the film ends with a smackdown between Killian and his Extremis-fuelled goons and a bunch of remotely piloted robot suits and not, as one set would have you believe, with Iron Man facing down the Mandarin in his flame-throwing tank.

Of course, the target audience of these toys are less likely to be concerned with spoilers – if you tell a young Marvel fan that Iron Man fights a flame-throwing tank in a film, they’re probably not going to quibble about that film being ‘ruined’. On a side note, this is partly why there was controversy about the lack of Rey toys in advance of Star Wars‘ release – it’s down to you if you give them the benefit of the doubt about their protecting spoilers, rather than a side-effect of the unfortunately more prevalent problem with action figures of female characters (see also: Black Widow in Avengers and even the packaging that referred to the female dinosaurs from Jurassic World as male).

But most of these films are rated 12A/PG-13 and although we older geeks forget it, there are some kids who love these characters who are still too young to watch them. Merchandising is solely about promotion, rather than storytelling integrity, but they’re also products completely separate to the film and thus needn’t be governed by accepted spoiler etiquette. In many cases, we get an early look at something that the studio plans on showing us in trailers anyway.

It will be interesting to see if future Star Wars episodes can repeat the same feat as The Force Awakens by keeping spoilers locked down in an age where merchandising leaves much of it open to the voracious online news cycle. If you’re getting spoilers for the film from toys, we can almost guarantee you clicked something you shouldn’t have, rather than happening across them in Toys R Us. All in all, it might be best to avoid speculation about how the breakfast cereals, the colouring books and the flamethrowers (kids love that one) figure into the plot.

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