Why movies are getting longer

Mainstream movies have crept up in length. A few years ago, feature-length films regularly ran a tight 90 or 100 minutes; today, that brevity feels increasingly rare. Almost half of the movies I watched that came out in 2021 ran for 130 minutes or longer, many from genres that historically tend to be shorter: action (F9, No Time to Die, The Matrix Resurrections, The Suicide Squad), biopics (King Richard), coming of age comedy romances (Licorice Pizza, Red Rocket), and neo-noir (Nightmare Alley). I suspect inflated runtimes trend beyond my tastes.

Superhero movies are a significant influence. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Comics have produced the biggest movies around for almost a decade, seen worldwide with record profits, and generate endless discourse everywhere from film journals to Twitter. They also tend to run long. Most MCU movies have a runtime over two hours, with installments from the popular Spiderman and Avengers series regularly exceeding two and a half hours.

While superhero movies can fold in elements from multiple film genres (comedy, crime, romance), action-adventure is the consistent backbone; conflicts tend to resolve through effects laden set pieces. So as superhero movies have become the standard bearer of action, it’s only sensible their influence spreads to other action films. Hence No Time To Die becomes the longest James Bond entry. It’s also partially why every Fast and Furious sequel for the last decade gets progressively longer, culminating in 2021’s F9 running a whopping 143 minutes. Perhaps tellingly, the last Furious movie that wrapped up in under two hours – 2009’s Fast & Furious – came out before the MCU machine established momentum.

But because superhero movies are the one kind of movie almost everyone watches in 2022, their long runtimes can have a creeping influence across other film genres as well. An audience that has the patience for a nearly three hour Batman movie can help give Guillermo del Toro the green light for a full 150 minute cut on Nightmare Alley. Granted, some movies can run long and feel otherwise sealed off from mainstream influence (exhibit A: Drive My Car). However, distributors have an eye on revenue and audience expectations at almost every budget. The more moviegoers happily wade past two hours of runtime, the more directors, screenwriters, and editors will get a longer leash to keep extra content off the cutting room floor.

But a factor beyond Marvel and DC has helped push movie lengths to new highs: television. Today entire TV seasons debut en masse, streaming sites spend lavishly to lockdown star actors and directors for exclusive content, and mid-budget movies aimed at adults have mostly dried up. These factors have pushed serialization to its logical extreme in the form of the limited series, a start to finish story in a handful of episodes. Watchmen, Station Eleven, Mare of Easttown, and Twin Peaks: The Return are all standout examples that saw critical raves, awards, and mainstream popularity. Notably, none of these shows debuted before 2017.

Given serialization and other borrowed cinematic elements, limited series often blur the line between TV and film in a way more traditional TV formats can’t. Is the procedural drama Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet and other recognizable talents a TV show or a movie spread out over six hours with breaks? David Lynch wrote and directed a single long shooting script for Twin Peaks: The Return and later broke up the work into eighteen episodes. Do these actions turn The Return into an epic movie or the third season of a popular 90s TV show?

At a minimum, limited series challenge audience expectations of film adjacent experiences, if not films directly. So as limited series become more popular, audiences and critics alike become more accepting of sprawling stories that require a higher than usual runtime.

There are, of course, elements beyond Mare of Easttown and Spiderman: No Way Home that push movies to go on a little longer than before, like when a director gets more confidence in his sophomore feature with an expanded budget and shooting schedule. But I still see superhero films and limited series as breakout phenomena that actively compete for attention with other films in a way no other media does. Both are inescapable art forms to everyday audiences, often a few taps away on their streaming service of choice.