There is no hard and fast rule that dictates the perfect length for a given film.
The past month has seen a reignition of the old debate about movie runtimes, whether modern movies are too long or too short. This debate often happens in the abstract, sight unseen, as if the measure of a movie’s worth can be determined by reference to a single numer even more absurd than a Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s often accompanied by the familiar refrain that modern movies are getting longer and more indulgent, even if the actual evidence does not support this assertion.
The latest iteration of this debate is driven by two movies on opposite ends of the spectrum. March saw the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the director’s four-hour-plus epic reimagining of the 2017 flop. Had it been released in cinemas, it would have tied with Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet as the longest major studio theatrical release in history. In contrast, there were early reports that the new Mortal Kombat would clock in at “only” 95 minutes, before later data extended it to 110 minutes.
Naturally, these two extremes polarized online commenters. Before anybody had actually seen Zack Snyder’s Justice League, people rushed to declare that it was “too long.” Mortal Kombat found itself embroiled in the opposite argument, as fans who had yet to see the movie claimed that it was “actually frustrating” that it clocked in under two hours. It should be noted that these debates were happening before the movies had screened, which renders this particularly absurd.
There is no one-size-fits-all runtime. The Godfather runs nearly three hours and is routinely cited as one of the best films (if not the best film) of all time. Duck Amuck clocks in under seven minutes and is “a masterpiece of American film comedy.” There’s no rule even within genres. John Waters argued that “no comedy should be longer than 90 minutes,” but It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a box office smash and comedy classic that ran more than an hour over that — in its pared down theatrical cut.
More than that, attempting to artificially impose a runtime on a film often has disastrous results. When Snyder was replaced by Joss Whedon on the theatrical cut of Justice League, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara reportedly insisted on a runtime of under two hours. This did not save the film — quite the opposite. The reviews for Snyder’s four-hour cut are much stronger than the reviews for Whedon’s two-hour cut. Even grudging reviews seem to admit that Snyder’s is appreciably better.
After all, there are reasons why films (and even entire careers) have been salvaged by director’s cuts often freed of arbitrary runtime constraints. Snyder has benefited from this repeatedly. Steve Weintraub of Collider described The Ultimate Cut of Batman v Superman as “a completely different movie” than the one released in theaters. Jesse Hassenger contended that “none of the Snyder director’s cuts are worse than their theatrical versions, and many of them are arguably better.”
Freed of these constraints, many maligned and butchered movies can be recognized as triumphant cinematic accomplishments. Reviewing the theatrical cut of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, James Berardinelli argued that it was “neither as complete nor as rousing an experience” as Gladiator had been. The following year, Berardinelli would revisit Scott’s nearly hour-longer director’s cut and declare it “worthy of the resume of a director with many remarkable titles to his name.”
There are historically reasons why movie lengths have been constrained. When movies were primarily projected from film, length corresponded to physical space; longer films took up more reels, so they were more costly to produce and difficult to transport. Christopher Nolan’s 169-minute Interstellar was the longest IMAX presentation to that point and had to be delivered by forklift. (It was a sound investment; it was the last wholly original live-action movie to earn over $700 million.)
Shorter runtimes also allowed for more cinema showings on available screens and so increased the potential for profit if these films were showing at constant capacity. (Notably, this was not a problem for Titanic or Gone with the Wind.) As a result, while cinematic runtimes for major releases were never as tightly constrained as they were for broadcast network television shows, there was still a sense that runtimes were dictated by forces beyond the needs of the individual film in question.
These constraints are less of a concern in the digital and streaming age. It’s notable that even modern television episodes demonstrate increased flexibility in terms of runtime compared to their counterparts from a decade or two ago. After all, many of the movies driving the whole “are movies too long?” debate, like The Irishman or Zack Snyder’s Justice League, are releases primarily associated with streaming services like Netflix and HBO Max. Bandwidth is not film stock.
This also gets at the reality that how people consume media has changed. By December 2013, a Netflix survey suggested that 61% of audiences binge-watched regularly. In September 2020, a OnePoll survey for Tubi suggested that audiences are watching an additional four hours of media each day on top of what they were consuming before the pandemic. It has been suggested that binge-watching generates dopamine. People appear to enjoy it.
More than that, the advent of streaming allows people more choice in how they pace consumption. Zack Snyder’s Justice League was initially announced as a four-part miniseries, but it was released as a film due to “legal rumblings” about contractual obligations. The finished cut has seven chapters, suggesting natural breakpoints for viewers who can’t watch it all in one sitting. Viewers have even suggested the best way to watch The Irishman as a miniseries.
This perhaps reflects the increasing fungibility between the media of film and television. Television writers increasingly frame their shows as absurdly long movies, with Jonathan Nolan describing the second season of Westworld as “a 10-hour movie” and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss seeing the whole of Game of Thrones as a “73-hour movie.” Some viewers will watch entire seasons of television shows like movies in a single sitting, or they’ll split a long movie over several days.
None of this is to suggest that this is the right way to consume media. There is a lot to be said for the television episode as a single narrative unit rather than an arbitrary chunk of content, and there is a reason Scorsese opted to produce The Irishman as a movie audiences could watch “from beginning to end [in one sitting] if [they’re] so inclined.” The point is that formal constraints on length are less applicable than ever before because of how these movies are produced, distributed, and consumed.
More to the point, for an audience watching a movie, the passage of time is inherently subjective. Studies have demonstrated that people process time at a slower rate when traumatized or afraid and at a faster speed when experiencing “feelings of desire or excitement.” The less-than-two-hour runtime of something like Joss Whedon’s Justice League or Ben Falcone’s Thunder Force can feel like an eternity, while the four hours of Zack Snyder’s Justice League can go in a blink.
Naturally, some movies are too long, while others are too short. However, it’s impossible to know that by looking at the runtime in isolation. As with so many things, it’s only possible to know whether a movie is too long or too short after watching it rather than by looking at the runtime on a website. To put it another way, maybe Roger Ebert was right when he argued, “No good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough.”