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Blockbuster Films Keep Getting Longer; How And Why Did We Get Here?

Thanos' spaceship looms in <em>Avengers: Endgame</em>, only the latest blockbuster to break banks and burst bladders, with a run time of 3 hours, 2 minutes.
Marvel Studios
Thanos' spaceship looms in Avengers: Endgame, only the latest blockbuster to break banks and burst bladders, with a run time of 3 hours, 2 minutes.

"No amount of money ever bought a second of time," says Tony "Iron Man" Stark, patient zero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, midway through the new Avengers: Endgame.

As has frequently been the case in the nine Marvel films in which he has appeared, Mr. Stark is right but also wrong. Endgame, the long-promised commencement ceremony/farewell tour for the founding class of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, has both commodities in abundance. Contrast that with the 1990 Cannon Films production Captain America, starring Matt (Revenge of the Nerds) Salinger as Steve Rogers, which runs a svelte 97 minutes and looks like it may well have cost several hundred dollars.

That was then. As the capstone of Marvel Studios' 11-year, 22-film saga, freely adapted from more than half a century of comic books, the no-expense-spared Endgame dares what few blockbusters have, occupying a bladder-taxing, intermission-free 182 minutes. But then, movies such as this one — franchise entries, popcorn flicks, movies that often harbor artistic ambitions but are always designed to draw a huge audience — began to Hulk out years before Iron Man arrived in May of 2008.

As a trained semiprofessional film critic, licensed, insured and bonded, I am credentialed to tell you that the follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War feels satisfyingly ... finite. I do not consider the irreplaceable 3 hours, 2 minutes that Avengers: Hail Dehydration extracted from my statistically half-over life to have been misspent. But I do feel an obligation to remind you, reader, that that is — and I invite you to check my math on this — 0.0003 years.

That's 17 minutes longer than 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, the only superhero blockbuster that's had to satisfy remotely comparable expectations.

And 33 minutes longer than Avengers: Infinity War.

Still 12 minutes shorter than Titanic, 1997's unlikely box office champion and Academy Awards magnet.

And 28 minutes shorter than the 1963 farce It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Which would be a good subtitle for an Avengers movie.

As a budding cinephile, one who wouldn't see Lawrence of Arabia (227 minutes) until my 30s, I conflated length with substance, just as hardcover books seemed to be more important than paperbacks, regardless of their contents. I have an early memory of phoning my local multiplex to ask the running time of Jurassic Park and feeling relieved to learn it was 130 minutes. Run times shorter than two hours were permissible, if suspect; a footprint of under 90 minutes reflected incompetence on the parts of the filmmakers. Long movies were measurably more entertaining than short ones; that was quantifiable. That was physics.

A few years later, in high school, my girlfriend's mom would kick me out of their house promptly at 11 p.m. unless we were watching a movie that had yet to finish. Amy had a yen for expansive 1950s and '60s musicals and historical epics anyway, but the loophole in her mom's curfew enforcement regimen led us to become well acquainted with our local Blockbuster's complement of double-VHS selections. I don't remember how Doctor Zhivago ends, but I remember being grateful, under the circumstances, that it took 193 minutes — Endgame +12 — for the Russian Revolution to ... succeed? Fail? I think someone sings a song at the end.

When Endgame's run time was first announced, observers on Twitter began opining that it should have an intermission. 2001: A Space Odyssey (the biggest hit of 1968!) does, and it's a mere 148 minutes. Beginning with a chapter called "The Dawn of Man" and climaxing with astronaut Dave Bowman's consciousness-expanding journey "Beyond the Infinite" 2 million years later, 2001 apparently warrants 34 fewer minutes of our attention than does Endgame, which stars Bradley Cooper as a talking, violence-loving raccoon. (2001 cast mime Daniel Richter as an enterprising hominid who discovers weapons, so there's a congruity there. Sorta.)

There's more to be factored in, of course. 2001's humans, by design, do not exude warmth or humor or sex appeal; Stanley Kubrick did not make hangout films. Endgame, meanwhile, is bursting with noble characters embodied by charismatic and good-looking actors — bursting, in fact, like Bruce Banner's shirts (and unlike his suspiciously resilient purple pants). Plus, it's got jokes! One of them is about Bruce Banner's shirts.

How We Got Here: A Brief History of Blockbuster Run Times

In the beginning, there was a great white shark. Jaws, it was called, and though its influence on the movie business would persist for decades, the film that starred him did not overstay. That first blockbuster — loosely defined as a movie that opens nationwide, delivers the sort of visceral experience that would invite comparisons to theme park rides and enjoys repeat business by appealing to 11-year-olds of every age — was 124 minutes long.

Two Memorial Day weekends later, Star Wars took us to a galaxy far, far away but got us home in (again) 124 minutes, becoming the top-grossing movie of 1977. Exactly six years after that, when Return of the Jedi brought what felt like a close to the biggest movie franchise the world had yet seen, its run time was upscaled accordingly, to 134 minutes. The cinematic event of 1983, a movie that grossed 2 1/2 times what the year's next highest earner (the James L. Brooks drama Terms of Endearment) brought in, was the same length as this year's Shazam! — an amiable, kid-focused superhero comedy that has no business being a minute longer than 1 hour, 45 minutes, which is the length it would have been had it been made in the prior century.

Not until the turn of the century did megabudget movies begin to suffer from mission creep. Seven of the year-end top grossers released during the 1980s ran under two hours. But from 1991 to 2000, only three of the top earners were that compact.

Only two year-end box office champs this century have had sub-two-hour run times, and both were animated: Shrek 2 (2004) and Toy Story 3 (2010).

Even the Marvel movies have swollen. I did the math: The six films that comprised Marvel's Phase One, beginning with Jon Favreau's Iron Man and culminating in Joss Whedon's The Avengers, averaged 124 minutes — a number significantly inflated by The Avengers' 143-minute run time. The six Phase Two movies averaged 127 minutes.

In the 11-film Phase Three (2016's Captain America: Civil War through Spider-Man: Far From Home, due in July) the average run time has swollen to 136 minutes. (Far From Home has not been factored in here, as the movie's running time is still TBD.) The only hero regularly getting it done in less than two hours nowadays is, appropriately enough, Ant-Man. And just barely.

Predictably, even graybeard blockbuster franchises have begun to emulate the youngest one. The longest film in the 57-year-old James Bond series is also the most recent, 2015's Spectre (148 minutes). In fact, the three longest of the two dozen EON Productions Bond entries released since 1962 have all starred the current occupant of the tuxedo, Daniel Craig. (He also headlined 2008's Quantum of Solace, the shortest 007 joint, but also the first one in the series to continue the storyline of the prior film.)

The longest film in the 42-year-old Star Wars franchise? The Last Jedi, released in 2017. 152 minutes.

The eight (!) Fast & the Furious movies circa 2001-2017 average 120 minutes, but that's because each of the latter four are almost half an hour longer than the initial four. They swole up, run time-wise and gross-wise, with 2011's Fast Five, when Dwayne Johnson joined the cast.

The Harry Potter movies, by contrast, were always long. Released between 2001 and 2011, the eight movies have an average run time of 147 minutes. This makes sense; J.K. Rowling's novels are doorstops.

But what about Pirates of the Caribbean? There are five of these, somehow, running an average of 144 minutes. These are perhaps the purest blockbusters, in that they were literally extrapolated from a theme park ride.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy films were each substantially extended for their home video releases, but in their original theatrical runs circa 2001-2003, they averaged 186 minutes. Released one year apart from one another and featuring the same cast and creative principals, all displaying a great reverence for the literary material being adapted, perhaps these were the movies that convinced Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige that such an ambitious act of translation could succeed. Certainly the current Marvel movies more resemble these interlocked early-aughts blockbusters than they do Sam Raimi's roughly contemporaneous (2002-2007) trilogy of Spider-Man movies.

Why We Got Here: The Benjamins

Movies can be so long nowadays because there is now less financial pressure to keep them short. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, there were 40,837 movie screens in the United States in 2018. In 1987 that number was 22,697. That year's box office champ was Three Men and a Baby, running 102 minutes, or Endgame-minus-80. In those days, screen real estate was more scarce, and movies that ran much longer than two hours would reduce the number of potential screenings per day. Availability is seldom an issue now, with single-screen theaters having all but vanished, and theatrical exhibition windows having shrunk to as little as 60 days, when there's a theatrical exhibition window at all.

Let's consider some other metrics that may have changed in that three-decade period, like, say, the human lifespan. For men and women of all races in the United States, life expectancy has ticked up by about four years since the mid-1980s, from 74 to 78. We've each been given, on average, another 1,460 days to spend as we will. I suppose you could use that extra time watching more movies or reading more books, or basking in the laughter of your grandchildren, if that's your sort of thing.

Plus, the entertainment options competing with theatrical movies are more format-agnostic than they've ever been. Streaming video platforms have made it so that episodes of what I'm still calling television can run barely into the double-digit minutes or as long as 90. The number of episodes that comprise a season is just as malleable.

Endgame is probably where this wave of expanding theatrical run times will break. These massive temporal footprints shall and should remain anomalies. Sixteen years ago, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King became both 2003's top-grossing film and its Best Picture winner despite a theatrical (and intermissionless) run time of 201 minutes.

Endgame +19.

0.0004 years.

In this economy? Who can afford to watch a movie like that?

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