Perhaps you’ve seen the recent headlines: New Toys for the Upcoming Ghostbusters Reboot Spoil the Movie.
Collider framed it as a question,”Did ‘Ghostbusters’ Toys Just Reveal the Film’s Villains?” ComingSoon took a more authoritative angle, “The Ghostbusters villain revealed at Toy Fair.” You had to scroll down for a while to find any headlines which merely commented on the actual appeal and quality of the toys as opposed to what they tell us about the film’s plot.
How did we get to this point in pop culture? When exactly did we start looking to toys for movie spoilers?
This most recent example comes out of the New York City Toy Fair, which is sort of like the Comic-Con of toys except instead of rolling out panels and new movie trailers they display rows of movie-related toys well before they ever go on sale.
COURTESY SPOILER WARNING
Those headlines I mentioned earlier were all inspired by the following video from Instagram user and YouTube star PixelDan:
So, the new Slimer looks pretty much like the old one, and the new bad guys are named Mayhem and Rowan. The latter is the most notable because it looks just like a more menacing version of the ghost from the actual Ghostbuster logo if it had razor-sharp teeth and wore a red bowtie. Out of context, it’s very easy to mock. In context, well, it may still look pretty bad, but we won’t know until we see the movie.
END GHOSTBUSTERS SPOILERS
This is part of a new trend. In the push to be the first to break big plot spoilers from a blockbuster movie, various corners of the internet have learned to look toward movie-related toys, hopeful that the film studio and toymakers tripped up somewhere. Sometimes it works, particularly with LEGO sets for Marvel movies. That’s how Iron Man 3’s big twist with Aldrich Killian was spoiled, and it’s where the world got its first look at Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s version of The Vision. Other times, it adds up to nothing, such as CinemaBlend’s argument last year that Lego’s Ant-Man toy set supposedly revealed Hank Pym to be the film’s secret villain.
It’s not just comic book movies. Hasbro’s Jurassic World toys revealed the code names of Owen’s velociraptors, specifically Charlie, Delta and Echo (not Blue, though), and the first full look at the Indominus Rex. Maybe velociraptor code names barely qualify as a spoiler, but it’s still something which feeds into the never-ending news cycle for a movie like Jurassic World.
Of course, as far as sources for plot spoilers go toy sets are near the bottom of the list, somewhere below movie trailers and overly descriptive song titles on original soundtracks. However, isn’t it kind of weird that they’re a source for spoilers at all? It’s a natural side effect of Hollywood’s need to eventivize each new blockbuster movie with market saturation advertising, ultra-wide worldwide openings and early production and releases of various related toy products to kickstart a film’s true source of profit, i.e., merchandise, not ticket sales. The toy companies are granted early access to film scripts and character models, both to avoid any chance of another Batman Returns-McDonalds fiasco and also to get started on toy designs and production.
But when exactly did movie-related toys transition from fun recreations of characters and scenes kids have already seen to tantalizing hints of what’s yet to come?
Cue the John Williams theme in 3, 2, 1…
Like so many other things movie merchandise-related, it goes back to Star Wars. Ohio-based toy company Kenner produced the original Star Wars toys, but they were so unprepared for the market demands they had to create the infamous Early Certificate Program where if you bought a fancy display box they swore they’d get the actual action figures to you in a couple of months. Though successful, it wasn’t the kind of strategy anyone wanted to repeat.
Lucas decided to help Kenner out by giving them advanced access to the early designs from Empire Strikes Back. Kenner got new toys to make, and Lucas got to use those toys to publicize the new movie.
Boba Fett was the centerpiece of this strategy. In fact, Kenner employees were the first non-LucasFilms people to ever see the Boba Fett design, and they began advertising their mail-in offer for a Boba Fett action figure before his official debut in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special:
A toy for a brand new Star Wars character no had ever seen before? Oh, I have no idea who Boba Fett is, but he must be awesome! Look at that rocket firing jetpack! What’s that you say? You had to take that part out of the toy because you realized it was a choking hazard? Darn. He still looks really cool, though.
Kenner didn’t technically have the exclusive on Boba Fett, though. They were but one piece of LucasFilms’ multi-pronged strategy to build up a mystery around the masked bounty hunter before his film debut. He was introduced at a County Fair. He ended up in a comic strip. Obviously, he was in Holiday Special, and kids were playing with his action figure, all well before the release of Empire Strikes Back.
That wasn’t normal back then. It wasn’t even normal a couple of years later when Kenner opted to retain a sense of mystery for the new Return of the Jedi characters and not spoil anything until the movie came out. It’s not even necessarily normal now. Many of our modern spoilers-from-toys are based not on toys freely available for purchase but instead ones which can be glimpsed in very early print ads and at toy fairs. However, when we look at Rowan, the unfriendly ghost, from the new Ghostbusters movie 5 months before it’s actually in theaters we are following in the tradition of all those late ’70s kids who looked up at the Boba Fett action figure for the first time and wondered, “Who the heck is that?”