According to Robert Pattinson, the most important accessory on the new batsuit was not the batarang, the bat lasso or the bat grapple, but a Velcro flap that allowed him to pee when needed. No such easy escape, though, for audiences of The Batman, who must display superhuman willpower and gird their loins for its 176-minute runtime. Given that it joins No Time to Die (163 minutes) and Avengers Endgame (181 minutes) in the ranks of recent blockbusters dicing with the bladder-busting three-hour limit, is it time we reinstated that staple of another era of maximalist cinema: the intermission?
It feels like a relic of a more civilised epoch. But, with more franchises than ever happy to take their sweet time, the intermission would be a welcome opportunity to hit the WC, as well as loosen the legs and buttocks and avail ourselves of refreshments, while musing with fellow cinemagoers on the semantics of grunge in The Batman. Elongated runtimes have become so common that many franchises, such as Avengers, The Hobbit and It, started breaking up unified stories into multiple parts anyway – effectively enforcing months-long intermissions. So why not make it official and, once a film tops the 150-minute mark, give us all a break?
However, the death of the intermission has actually been much exaggerated: it still survives in Iceland, Switzerland, Egypt, Turkey and, of course, India, where movies contain so many volcanic emotions that a break to let everyone cool off is practically a public health measure. They have made the occasional return in showcase screenings of latter-day Hollywood film, to enhance the old-timey mood – as with Peter Jackson’s King Kong (187 minutes) or Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (187 minutes) – or simply out of mercy in the case of the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League (242 minutes). But essentially, at some point, some Hollywood analyst decided that a 10-minute hiatus was incompatible with the “pack ’em in, six shows a day” production line of the modern multiplex.
Gandhi, in 1982, is often cited as the last major western film to feature an intermission. This would be fitting as this multi-Oscar-winner was a holdover – in a world leaning into the streamlined blockbuster machines ushered in by Spielberg, Lucas et al – from the old-style, sprawling epics that parted their productions midway as surely as Charlton Heston did the Red Sea.
Originally, intermissions were a legacy of theatre and opera, though in early cinema they had a technical justification: giving the projectionist time to change the very big reels. But in the 1950s and 1960s they became part of the deluxe theatrical experience the studios laid on for widescreen epics such as The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia and the original West Side Story, in an effort to entice viewers back from the young pretender, TV. These behemoths were first wheeled out at “roadshow” screenings in major cities, often with the full trimmings: overtures, entr’actes and intermissions that allowed weary punters to hit the concession stalls and get a Coke to see them through another two hours of warring gangs, endless desert treks or Egyptian plagues.
But 21st-century cinema now faces its own existential threat: streaming. No one’s going to pretend that bringing back intermissions would suddenly reverse the post-pandemic malaise of movie theatres in the face of Netflix, Disney+ and others. However, especially compared with the degraded home viewing experience, interrupted by social media every 30 seconds, they might help bolster the status of cinema-going as a prestige event.
Over the last decade, it feels as if the movies have tried every gimmick – from 3D to Imax to immersive, Secret Cinema-type masquerades – to rejuvenate the night-out experience, but these all come at a premium. Intermissions could lend a sense of occasion and ceremony to today’s cold-eyed franchise lineup and subtly link back to a more genteel era of film-making. This would come at no extra cost – and indeed the extended pause would help boost the snack sales that already deliver the fattest profit margins.
They might even help blockbusters lift their game. It’s a regular complaint of the CGI era that story – frequently retro-fitted around VFX sequences – takes second place. Under the yoke of those long runtimes, a kind of digital fatigue often sets in, where you’re suddenly unable to distinguish one muddy monster smackdown from another. If intermissions were a regular feature, it might force studios to think more about structure again – to carefully modulate the rhythm of their screenplay around the pause, and see what cliffhanger, or other dramatic effect, they could spirit up.
Lawrence of Arabia, with Peter O’Toole and his Arab chums having the bit between their teeth, hits the intermission on a chastening note from Claude Rains: “He’s riding the whirlwind! Let’s hope that we’re not.” In Seven Samurai, some villagers are beginning to think they can beat the bandits without all this extra help, but Takashi Shimura takes them to task right before half-time: “This is the nature of war: by protecting others, you save yourself.” This is the intermission working smartly: as an introspective inflection point, a minor fall before the major lift. With the Snap, when Thanos seemingly irreversibly finger-clicks half the universe’s population out of existence, Marvel managed a true coup de théâtre to close Avengers: Infinity War – and what a marvellous intermission it would have made if Endgame had followed immediately. But that kind of poise feels like a rarity for their formulaic Lycra-fests.
In truth, though, the return of the intermissions seems about as likely as Batman smoking a bong. But maybe, just hypothetically, we can float a gentlemen’s agreement with Hollywood: if you’re going to insist on stretching out comic-book juvenilia to Tolstoy proportions, how about doing the decent thing and letting us take our time too?