Does it really matter if Justice League isn't insanely long?

Contributed by
Oct 24, 2017

News broke over the weekend that the next movie in the (unofficially named) DC Extended Universe, Justice League, has a running time of two hours and one minute. The length of the film was first confirmed by a blog called Manabyte, which checked with Regal Cinemas, AMC Theaters and two other smaller chains; exhibitors are given notice of running times in advance so that they can figure out how many showings to book per day and how many tickets to make available.

Out there in the vast and unwieldy Twitterverse, this information was greeted with no minor amount of consternation: after all, how could a movie about the launch of one of the two most legendary comic book superhero teams in history be a mere two hours? Actually, when you take away end credits and studio logos and all that, it probably comes out to around 1 hour and 53 minutes. What? 113 minutes to tell the epic origin story of the goshdarn Justice League??

Earlier this year, Polygon reported that an initial cut of the movie had a running time of 170 minutes -- nearly three hours -- which would fit with the escalating lengths of not just movies in general but the other DCEU films: Man of Steel clocked in at 143 minutes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hit 151 minutes and Wonder Woman was 141 minutes long. Suicide Squad was kind of an anomaly at 123 minutes, but that film was also heavily re-edited after director David Ayer turned in his cut.

It's that latter example which may be giving DC fans the willies: after all, a somewhat similar situation has arisen with Justice League. Director Zack Snyder was forced to leave the film due to a terrible family tragedy, and Joss Whedon was recruited to oversee some rewrites, a few reshoots and the long post-production process. But for months word has circulated that Whedon was actually doing extensive reshooting and reworking of the movie, adding tens of millions of dollars to the budget.

We may never know just how much Whedon reshot, took out or re-edited, but the fact is that Justice League now stands at a length of two hours and one minute, making the briefest film in the DCEU by far and one of the shortest superhero tentpole movies in recent memory. The question is, is that a bad thing?

The answer is not necessarily. If a movie is working, if all the parts come together and make cinematic magic, it doesn't matter how long the thing is. One of the great horror films of all time, The Bride of Frankenstein, tells a complete and rather large-scale story brilliantly in a mere 75 minutes. If you watch that movie today, a few dated elements aside, it still works beautifully: the story, the direction, the cast and the tone all gel together to create a superb Gothic morality play.

Now of course, The Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935 and it cost an average of a quarter to see a movie back then; for your 25 cents you usually got two features, a cartoon, a short, a newsreel and maybe some other goodies. Nowadays for your nine bucks (the average price of a ticket in 2017), you get about 20 minutes of trailers and one feature film. Prices are even higher for 3D and IMAX screenings. So there's an expectation that you're going to get a lot more bang for your buck from the one movie you're going to see, and inherent in that is the idea that the movie -- especially if it's supposed to be a blockbuster or spectacle -- should be lengthy.

But that assumption works against the essentially intangible nature of art itself, and movies are definitely an art form. In fact, they are perhaps the most unusual of all art forms because they are the most collaborative. A writer works mostly alone, until he or she hands the book off to the editor; a painter or sculptor or photographer answers to no one else either. Musicians compose either alone or in small groups. A film, however, is the result of dozens or hundreds of people all working together, with the director, the writer(s), the producer(s), the cinematographer, the cast, the composer, the production designer, the studio execs and many others all hopefully sharing the same vision. When they do, the result is usually a great film. And whether that film is 85 minutes long or 160 minutes in length just doesn't seem to matter.

Look at some recent examples (and I'm aware that this is mostly my opinion only, but some of you may agree with me). Each film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy clocks in at two and a half hours or longer, with Peter Jackson's director's cut of The Return of the King hitting 200 minutes. But those films move, mostly: a few slow spots here and there don't damage the overall experience. The story is engrossing and cleverly adapted from the 1,000-page novel, the characters are well developed, the vision and atmosphere and look of the movies are all working in sync.

Now look at The Hobbit: three movies, all around three hours long, and based on a slim book that barely reached 300 pages. This time, Jackson and co. had to force themselves to stretch those stories out, add new material that wasn't there before, and work with a template partially left over from The Lord of the Rings and partially the result of years of development by another director (Guillermo Del Toro). I don't know about you, but I found all three Hobbit films to be a dreadful slog -- it's as if you could feel the filmmakers themselves getting more bored as they went along.

Other examples: Captain America: Civil War is the longest Marvel film to date (147 minutes), but that picture really cooks, juggles several interweaving storylines and is a great viewing experience. Same with The Avengers, which clocks in at 142 minutes. But Avengers: Age of Ultron is 141 minutes -- 60 seconds shorter than its predecessor -- and feels a lot longer because it doesn't tell its story nearly as elegantly and goes down too many pointless side tracks. Iron Man, the first and still considered one of the two or three best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, wraps things up in 126 minutes.

The original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back weighed in at 121 minutes and 124 minutes; are you going to tell me that any of the six Star Wars films that have come in their wake, all of which are from 10 to 20 minutes longer -- are better than those first two? The Exorcist, perhaps the gold standard of horror pictures, scares the living bejesus out of you in just 121 minutes; heck, the original Night of the Living Dead, Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre all did it in 96 minutes, 91 minutes and 84 minutes respectively.

The first Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire, which had to build a world, tell an origin story and introduce a villain, made its mark in 121 minutes, so did Guardians of the Galaxy, which had to set up a whole slew of new characters and a heretofore unseen quadrant of the MCU. Did those movies not get the job done? Two of the best sci-fi films in recent memory, Looper and Ex Machina, laid out their characters, plot and some heady concepts in 118 minutes and 108 minutes.

As I said earlier, your mileage may vary with any of these films - art is subjective that way. And that's the point: it doesn't matter how long the movie is if it touches the viewer emotionally, viscerally or intellectually in a way that is both awe-inspiring and intimate. Is it possible that Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, their cast and the legions of craftspeople sweating over Justice League for the last two years have found a way to do all that and spin an epic modern myth with just two minutes more than Citizen Kane had? Yes it is. It's also possible that film's many problems created such an unsalvageable mess that the studio decided to release the shortest version it could in the hope of generating more screenings and thus more ticket sales. We won't know until we sit for those 121 minutes and absorb it all. And if you're not happy afterwards and want more...well, the director's cut on this one should be one hell of an interesting watch.

P.S. Anyone out there who issues death threats over the running time of a movie, here's a message for you: turn off Twitter, go get some air and grow the f--k up. There are far more important things in life to worry about (and yes, I say that as someone who just spent nearly 1500 words on the subject. But at least I got paid for it).