Why Are Movies So Damn Long These Days?

You're not imagining it, they really are getting longer and longer.

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Have you been feeling that movies are just getting offensively long lately? The recent spate of cinematic offerings has come with such bloated run times that you’d be forgiven for wondering if filmmakers are trying to take the piss.

Eternals lasted an eternity with a running time of two hours and 37 minutes, Avengers: Endgame had no end game at over three hours and two minutes, and Dune, which I don’t have a joke for, spanned two hours and 35 minutes.

As for Don’t Look Up? About halfway through this two and a half hour movie, I found myself reluctantly on the side of the earth-threatening comet; waiting desperately for this world to end.

Here in the West, the accepted time range for movies is something like 90 minutes, is it not? Two hours if you have to. But more and more, this seems to have become a minimum rather than a standard; and around this time last year, Netflix even dropped a ‘Movies Under 90 Minutes’ category, in what seemed like a response to filmmakers’ deep disregard for our collective understanding of how long a movie should last.

So what’s actually going on here?

The History Of The Commercial Movie

“If you look back over American movie history, you’ll see, by aggregate, that movies tended to be shorter,” Ari Mattes, a Media and Communications lecturer and movie expert at the University of Notre Dame, tells Junkee. “But bear in mind that often a shorter film — or “B-movie” — would play before a major film. So the total experience of going to the movies would actually have been longer than in the current age.”

And to be fair, sweeping epics from back in the day also ran long: Casablanca is an hour and 42 minutes, Citizen Kane an hour and 49 minutes, and Gone With The Wind takes the proverbial cake at almost four hours. But 2000s classics seem to adhere much more closely to the ‘two hours at most’ rule. Consider, for example, Bring It On (one hour and 38 minutes), Mean Girls (one hour and 37 minutes), or Legally Blonde (one hour and 36 minutes).

“Commercial cinema in the US emerged from vaudeville around the age of circuses, or, as Tom Gunning points out, other popular “attractions” like fairgrounds and amusement parks. The point was to entertain people as intensely as possible.”

This means that commercial cinema is always necessarily competing with other forms of entertainment.

“Following the popularisation of television, [Hollywood movies began to boast] more garish colour processes, and, of course, 3D, which had its first boom in the 1950s,” Mattes explains.

The 1980s home video trend also brought about a shift in the technical material of film (and another 3D boom), with the advent of streaming services like Netflix spurring on more gimmicks still — Ari mentions 4DX cinema experiences and yet another godforsaken 3D boom in around 2010.

Social Media & Binge Watching

Since platforms like TikTok and YouTube have emerged as dominant forms of entertainment, movies may also be getting longer as a way to lure users away from their smartphones. “In an age of TikTok videos and the endless streaming of YouTube onto billions of eyeballs globally, it makes sense that, in order to reconsolidate power, movie studios would make longer movies,” says Mattes.

He adds that making a stupidly long epic is a way that a filmmaker can create a point of difference in a crowded media market. “Anyone can make a dodgy 30 second TikTok video”, he notes, “but can anyone make a three and a half hour epic with insanely loud surround sound?”

Has the advent of binge-watching also had a hand in blowing out movie times? It’s been ten years since Portlandia’s ‘One More Episode’ sketch memorialised the modern ritual of watching a string of TV episodes in a single sitting, with ‘binge-watch’ even declared word of the year by the Collins English Dictionary in 2015. Seven years later, it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing.

In fact, a lot of TV is made with that mode of consumption of mind. Emily In Paris is one obvious example, as is the extremely bingeable Squid Game and Yellowjackets. All of this means we’re getting more used to spending long stretches of time in front of screens.

Perhaps this also has a hand in why movies are getting longer: if we’re happily whiling away eight hours on a weekend for Squid Game, for example, perhaps movies need to be weightier to win audiences over.

It’s the age of prestige TV, after all, and something’s got to give.

The Era Of Superhero Epics

Of course, this is also the fault of superhero movies. “Since [Joss] Whedon did 2012’s The Avengers — and probably before that — films that were supposed to be fun have become pontificating and gruellingly long, tedious epics,” Mattes bemoans.

Chris Klimek was kind enough to crunch the numbers at NPR. He found that the movies making up ‘Phase One’ of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe — starting with the release of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man in 2008 and finishing with The Avengers in 2012 — average 124 minutes in length (a number that Klimek notes was boosted by The Avengers‘ run time of 143 minutes).

The films that comprise ‘Phase Two’, beginning with 2013’s Iron Man 3 and concluding with 2015’s Ant-Man average 127 minutes in length, and ‘Phase Three’, spanning 2016’s Captain America: Civil War to 2022’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, stretch out to an average of 136 minutes.

Mattes notes that because of the vastness of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and how many comic book fans are expecting to be catered to, we’re probably seeing longer superhero movies than the ones we watched as kids.

“The Marvel Cinematic Universe is sprawling enough that to simply include the requisite nods to the fan base seems to cause movie lengths to blow out,” says Mattes.

Indeed, Screen Rant notes that Joss Whedon’s second showing as a Marvel director in 2015’s The Avengers: Age Of Ultron ended up burning him out, as Marvel asked him to squeeze in a multitude of elements: a set up for the Black Panther movie, an introduction to Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, an explanation of how the Hulk would end up on the distant planet of Sakaar, the workings of all six infinity stones, and you know, a fresh storyline.

It’s no wonder the Age Of Ultron poster was so bloody crowded.

So, What’s The Bottom Line?

Annoyingly, there is no single reason that movies seem to be getting longer. The underwhelming answer is that bloated running times are the artefact of a strategy to get more people to watch them amid a ubiquity of other options.

Mattes emphasises it’s best not to think about commercial cinema aesthetically, at least to begin with. Hollywood movies, he explains, exist to build capital and consolidate power.

“America owned the 20th century,” he says. “Because of its soft power largely leveraged through the global export of Hollywood dreams.”

Reena Gupta is Junkee’s culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.