Why are franchise films becoming so long?

NO TIME TO DIE

This week it was announced that the latest James Bond outing, No Time to Die, will be 2 hours 43 minutes long, thus officially making it the longest entry in the 23 film series, and will inevitably be one of the most bladder-busting blockbusters to be released in 2020. While there has been intense discussion surrounding this shocking length, it’s interesting to observe that almost nobody is surprised that a franchise film is coming in at almost 3 hours long. Indeed, it is almost becoming the norm that tentpole pictures not only justify their importance through budgets and stars, but also through how long one has to sit through it.

Indeed, the film that almost encompasses this latest trend is last year’s Avengers: Endgame, coming in at 3 hours 2 minutes, a runtime that dominated headlines this time last year. It truly was unheard of for a superhero movie to go on that long, but if you take a step back and acknowledge the progression of these blockbuster films, this was a natural progression from what had come before. Infinity War only the year before was 2 hours 40 minutes, already a stunning length and only six of the twenty-two MCU releases come in under two hours. As Marvel embarks on a period of introducing new characters and beginning new storylines, it will be interesting to see if running times decrease or continue their trajectory of uncommonly long stories.

To take an example which allows for direct comparison between previous eras and now, the Star Wars franchise has slowly been gaining in length. For instance, the three shortest entries in the entire saga (including both spinoffs Rogue One and Solo) are also the three shortest, and the most recent two are the longest, with The Last Jedi coming in at 2 hours 32 minutes long. The biggest movies of previous decades like Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future all came in just above or below 2 hours, the old benchmark for these types of blockbuster films.

Of course, there have always been epics, movies which were usually standalone and particularly long in length. These have been a relative constant throughout Hollywood history and notable examples like Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and Titanic all share a runtime well over 3 hours. But what’s interesting is that franchise films are asserting themselves as the epics of our time, a conclusion bound to cause a slew of furious comments on social media.

But does the ballsy attempt from studios to make these tentpole films the epics of the 21st century have any basis, or right? I would argue that on the whole, yes, and indeed, in an age when sagas have over 20 films in them, the stakes need to be constantly upped, and one way of facilitating this is to just add more characters, more fight sequences, and in essence, more plot. No Time to Die‘s advertising campaign has rested on the fact that this is Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007, and the return of previous cast members Lea Seydoux and Christoph Waltz hints at a continuation of Spectre’s narrative. Thus, it may only be natural that the filmmakers have fallen into the trap of making the narrative longer and by definition, more epic.

It’s a technique that’s working. Blockbusters (mainly superhero features) are more popular than ever, regardless of rising runtimes. But that can only last so long. Picture the current trajectory of Hollywood filmmaking as a growing house of cards, or a game of Jenga. It’s all the more impressive the longer you keep it going, but one of these days, it’ll arguably come tumbling down, as growing stakes become stale and stories are recycled.

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