It's quite the moment for popular culture. The biggest movie franchise of all time is currently midway through a victory lap in the shape of Avengers: Endgame, while the biggest fantasy television show of all time – Game of Thrones – is halfway through its climactic season. Years of speculation is coming to fruition as some of the most intelligent creative minds in the entertainment business are attempting to wow and surprise audiences who know these stories like the back of their hands.
And that task is getting harder than ever before. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones are perhaps the most discussed media franchises in the history of the internet, with obsessive fanbases keen to examine every frame of footage in search of clues, like Sherlock Holmes with wi-fi. Anyone with even a cursory interest in these franchises will likely have come across their fair share of 'fan theories', in which every possible notion of how a story could play out – from the plausible to the unthinkably outlandish – gets aired to the world.
Such is the popularity of online fan theories that there is very rarely a scenario available to filmmakers that has not been theorised at length by at least someone on the internet. This is a world in which a viral fan theory suggested that the conclusion to Avengers: Endgame would be triggered by Ant-Man shrinking until he could enter Thanos's rear end and destroy the titan from the inside. When even something that ridiculous is being suggested – albeit with tongue lodged firmly in (butt) cheek – it's going to be difficult for any writer to come up with something that's completely unexpected.
This comes through most clearly in one of the most talked about reveals in the sixth season of Game of Thrones, when fans learned the origin of Hodor's disability – and his unusual name. It's one of the oddest and most surprising developments in a show often built on big twists, but even that had been predicted by a handful of Reddit users and forum posters, with numerous posts resurfacing in the aftermath of the episode's airing. If even the most bizarre plot turn in a big show had been predicted by someone in advance, what hope is there for filmmakers looking to pull the rug?
Dr Sara Wasson of Lancaster University, who has extensively researched fandom, argues that 'fan creators' who craft theories are creating art of their own and that surprise is “not a priority” for all fans. She reiterates her own experience of surveying fans who often seek out spoilers in advance.
She says: “When I ask fans if fan theories make it hard for canon creators to spring surprises, the answer I get is overwhelmingly no. Theories themselves are not really the obstacle to surprise. When I asked why, the answers I got were that anybody can theorise, and we all have access to the same material. There is something democratic about it, and since there are so many theories, the impact of any one accurate one is rather diluted.”
It's certainly true that the sheer breadth of fan theories makes it more difficult for any particular idea to have any impact as a 'spoiler'. In an almost Newtonian instance of balance, every popular fan theory has an equal and opposite theory. While the notion that Bran Stark might turn out to be the Night King has been a widely discussed theory for years, there are equally credible theories suggesting the Night King could be the mythical 'Prince That Was Promised', the supposedly dead Rhaegar Targaryen, or even Jon Snow.
Avengers: Endgame doesn't, as far as I could tell at least, feature a single moment that hasn't been theorised in at least one piece of viral speculation since the magenta megalomaniac snapped his fingers at the end of Infinity War. And yet, the effect is not lessened at all by this. Nobody could watch the film simply waiting for Theory Z to happen, because that idea is contradicted by Theories A through Y.
When all of the possible theories could be spoilers, none of them are.
Dr Wasson adds: “A fan who is emotionally invested in a media sequence may get a particular pleasure from the act of solving, of prediction, of piecing together clues and fragments to make a satisfying whole. But in addition to the intellectual thrill of solving a puzzle and the triumph of accurate prediction, the work of making the fan theory can also be a creative pleasure in itself.”
It's the latter element of fan theories that is often somewhat neglected – the portrayal of them as art in their own right. Certainly, that idea applies perfectly to 'The Pixar Theory', which is possibly the most complex and intricate movie fan theory that has ever been suggested on the internet. In short, the theory goes that every film Pixar has ever released exists in the same universe and goes on to speculate about an apocalypse born of scarce resources, a machine uprising and even time travel. The theory sparked into life from a Cracked video in 2012 and was expanded into its current form by copywriter and novelist Jon Negroni in 2013, who has added numerous further musings since, with the help of commenters, and even released a detailed version of the theory in the shape of a paperback book. It would take someone with a pretty narrow take on creativity not to concede that The Pixar Theory is now a living, breathing piece of quasi-collaborative art in its own right.
So Sully and Mike Wazowski exist in the same world as Buzz and Woody?
Negroni's theory is not about prediction, and it's not really about examination either. It's about transformation, in the same way as that other great bastion of fandom creativity – fanfiction. Even Negroni probably wouldn't suggest that Pixar deliberately designed this enormous, over-arching narrative from the start, but there's certainly a joy in how all of the pieces seem to slot together.
It's in this respect that there's a clear difference between fan theories and spoilers. There's very little evidence that filmmakers and television showrunners are altering their stories or their methods of working in order to scupper fan theories, but there is evidence that the spread of spoiler-phobia is having an effect. Avengers: Endgame is a prime example. Directing duo Joe and Anthony Russo have suggested that Robert Downey Jr. may have been the only actor to read the full script before filming, while Mark Ruffalo has said he got a “dummy script”, Chris Hemsworth has admitted not knowing if Thor lived or died and Tom Holland reportedly wasn't even told who he was fighting in some scenes.
As Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote recently in Vox, we now live in “a world where people are so terrified of spoilers that they film their blockbuster movies in a fashion not unlike assembling several jigsaw puzzles at once”.
So studios are going to extreme lengths to avoid spoilers – even from members of their own cast – but they can't avoid fan theories. Both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Game of Thrones world are huge, expansive tales that have actively encouraged fans to connect the dots. And they are by no means uncommon in that. The HBO Westworld series, for example, seems to be enjoyed on social media far more as an exercise in speculation and prediction than it does as a sci-fi thriller show.
It comes down to a change in the way audiences engage with culture. It's no longer enough for fans to be passive consumers, entirely at the mercy of the creators behind TV shows and movies. Now, fans want to engage and become creators themselves, whether it's through transformative works – no one wants to live in a world without Tony/Cap slash fiction, right? – or by turning detective to figure out where stories are likely to head next. It would have taken a modern audience approximately four seconds to work out that Vader was the Dutch word for 'father', or that someone called Lupin might just be a werewolf, so secrets have to be more cleverly concealed in 2019.
Fan theories will exist as long as people continue to voraciously consume and create them. They are now a part of the cultural landscape, with the conversations fans might once have had in pubs now amplified and intensified through social media and, indeed, the mainstream news coverage that seems to spring from every halfway interesting thread on the Game of Thrones subreddit.
Does the rise of fan theories make it more difficult for popular culture to surprise us? Yes. Does it make that culture less satisfying? Not at all. We'll still weep with every fallen hero as Game of Thrones comes to a close and the cinema in which I saw Avengers: Endgame still cheered when Paul Rudd exploded out of Thanos's rectum and triumphantly sung the chorus to Sir Mix-a-Lot's 'Baby Got Back'.
I'm just kidding... or am I?