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by Jason F. Koenigsberg
The Summer Blockbuster
June 20, 1975- March 13, 2020
With it looking more and more likely that the summer of 2020 may be non-existent at the box office what better time than now to look back and reflect on the best summer blockbusters of all time. With movies being pushed back and cancelled from now until around August there is not going to be much to see or write about in the upcoming months. The summer of 2020 will not go down in history as the worst summer at the movies, that would be 1983, go ahead look up what came out that season, nothing but Return of the Jedi and a lot of stinkers. This summer there is just going to be no activity whatsoever because of the continuing fear of spreading the Coronavirus. What usually was a glorious time, at least for younger audiences, the summer usually meant when studios would release what they thought would be their biggest moneymakers between early May and August. Bombastic productions with big stars and even bigger special effects. As of 2020, the summer blockbuster season has ended or is at least on pause until normal life picks back up and maybe in 2021 movie theaters will still be in business to provide box office results that studios used to care about so much. Until then people are stuck at home streaming whatever movies and TV shows they want on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. Not exactly as exciting as the collective theater experience.
The mandates set forth in this article are simple. The movie must be released between the months of May and August. Last year Disney/Marvel tried to kickstart the summer blockbuster season even earlier by releasing Avengers: Endgame on April 26. Summer movie season used to kick off Memorial Day weekend with films beginning with Star Wars (1977), the first major blockbuster to use this weekend and it eventually became the unofficial start of summer. The studios later started to take advantage of the weekends leading up to Memorial Day with big blockbuster movies like Twister (1996), The Mummy (1999), and Gladiator (2000) all being released in early May to huge box office success. So for all intents and purposes to be on this list the movie had to be released at some point between May 1 and August 31. Even though summer does not technically end until mid September, by then the kids are all back in school and people have less free time to gather at the cinemas for a big event movie. Plus, usually in mid to late August the studios use as a dumping ground for titles that they did not have much confidence in with films like The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Mimic (1997), and The Thirteenth Warrior (1999). The films that I ranked are based on their influence as summer blockbusters on our culture and future summer blockbusters, not necessarily my opinion of what is the best movie. Hence why films like Forrest Gump (1994) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) are not listed yet films like Independence Day (1996) and Spider-Man (2002) are. Why those movies are selected will be explained below.
Also the movie must have been released after Jaws which came on out June 20th, 1975 and that is often regarded as a milestone in cinema for being the first summer blockbuster. It established that movies could do major business the likes of which had never been seen when kids were out of school and families had more leisure time. Sure there were huge hits in cinemas before but Jaws was the game changer and started the cultural phenomenon of summer blockbusters. Also, the movies considered had to have that blockbuster feel, a movie meant for the masses to showcase the best Hollywood can offer in terms of escapism. Therefore this list does not include some great movies that were also influential films such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), or Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009). Those are all examples of terrific pictures that could have come out anytime of year. They were released over the summer to varying degrees of box office success but were all bigger critical hits and not exactly feel good movies meant for the masses. Plus, Spielberg is represented enough on here so even though you could argue Saving Private Ryan is one of his best films, it does not feel like one of his quintessential summer blockbusters. These films are ranked by their merits as well as each films cultural influence. So now without any further ado here are the Ten Best Summer Blockbusters of all Time…
10. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) directed by James Cameron
The biggest hit of 1991 was also the biggest hit of mega star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and the now defunct Carolco studios who were major blockbuster players in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was the biggest hit of director James Cameron’s career after his success with the summer blockbuster sequel Aliens (1986), and he would go on to top his T2 box office standings with both the holiday releases Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Terminator 2: Judgment Day marks a high point in everyone’s careers, and in computer generated special effects melded with Stan Winston’s practical make up. It also set a precedent for an R-rated film during the blockbuster era that it was possible to have the highest grossing movie of the year and be rated R as long as the film had near universal appeal with its cutting edge technology, terrific performances, and a lot of heart.
9. Back to the Future (1985) directed by Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis is no stranger to summer blockbusters and his career plays out sort of like the little cousin of Steven Spielberg. Back to the Future was produced by Spielberg and had a lot of the energy and appeal of a film Spielberg could have directed. This is one of the most inventive and fun summer blockbusters ever made and its July 3rd release date set the mark that the July 4th weekend could be a prime time to release a big budget movie and earn back a huge profit. Studios would not exactly take heed to this until 11 years later. Back to the Future ended up being the highest grossing film of 1985 and arguably the best film of that year and one of the best films of the 1980’s. It made a superstar out of then TV based actor Michael J. Fox, and created a legacy that despite recent years with studios being obsessed with remakes and reboots, nobody at Universal has wanted to touch Back to the Future since it is widely considered to be such a masterpiece.
8. Batman (1989) directed by Tim Burton
1989 was one of the most crowded and biggest summers in movie history (more on that another time) it is amazing that the biggest hit of the year came from an unproven director based on a comic book property that had never been done before. Warner Bros. had a lot banking on Batman and few thought that it would end up being the cultural phenomenon it was back then and the legacy this film would create leading up to motion pictures, television shows, and merchandise today. Comedic actor Michael Keaton was cast against type and is considered by many to be the best real life iteration of Bruce Wayne/Batman on the big screen. Jack Nicholson was the only bonafide star and let’s face it, The Joker was a part he was born to play and he nailed it. Without Tim Burton’s original Batman there would be no dark and serious comic book movies. Maybe somebody else would have eventually picked up that mantle but Burton did it first in the summer of 1989 making superheroes deeper and more mature than just kids stuff and campy Adam West frolicking in tights.
7. Spider-Man (2002) directed by Sam Raimi
What makes Spider-Man so special is not that it helped to usher in the modern era of superhero movies, or that it was the biggest film based on a Marvel comic at that time which would later spawn the dominant MCU, but Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst dominated the box office in the summer of 2002 and became the first film to become the number one movie of the year the same year that a new Star Wars movie came out. Spider-Man beat Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones by over $100 million at the box office. A monumental feat that most likely nobody including the studio heads at Sony/Columbia Pictures who green lit Spider-Man ever saw coming. It also further established the first weekend in May as the new official kick off to the summer movie season with its May 3rd release date bringing in record breaking amounts of money and lasting all summer long. Spider-Man is a flawed film and is not the first summer blockbuster based on a Marvel comic character. Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000) were summer hits before it, but the original cinematic Spider-Man is undeniably one of the most influential summer blockbusters of the twenty-first century.
6. The Dark Knight (2008) directed by Christopher Nolan
The summer of 2008 will be remembered for two major comic book movies which both have had a long lasting impact Iron Man for creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe which dominated the box office for the next decade plus, and The Dark Knight for taking superhero movies into unchartered mature territory the likes of which had never been seen. This is the second Batman movie on the list but it is very different than Tim Burton’s film whereas most Marvel movies have followed the same template. Since Spider-Man unofficially kickstarted Marvel’s dominance over the summer box office, rather than repeat a lot of what was already said regarding Iron Man, The Dark Knight has had a long lasting impact on how movie studios deal with major comic book releases. Superman started it and will go down forever in history as the first, Batman took it to another level and added depth and darkness into a genre that had never been taken seriously as legitimate entertainment and art for adults, The Dark Knight showed that a film based on a comic book, could be every bit as powerful as an Oscar winning epic. The fact this movie did not earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture still conjures up feelings of outrage and injustice. So much so that the following year, the Academy changed their rules from the usual 5 Best Picture nominees to 10 for the first time in six decades. The Dark Knight feels more like an action-packed crime drama from Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann than it does a popcorn summer blockbuster, even with larger than life superhero characters. For a brief time The Dark Knight was the second highest grossing movie ever made sitting behind James Cameron’s Titanic.
5. Independence Day (1996) directed by Roland Emmerich
Perhaps not as critically acclaimed as some of the other titles on the list but Independence Day is a landmark for summer blockbusters. It solidified the July 4th weekend as a goldmine for opening up a big budget tentpole film. It also emerged as the highest grossing film of a jam packed summer which included Twister, The Nutty Professor, and Mission: Impossible among other big titles. This film also illustrated state of the art special effects and what they could do for the blockbuster era with giant sized alien space ships blowing up massive cities and national landmarks. Ever since 1996, the July 4th weekend has become one of the ideal times for a studio to make big bucks on what is likely their biggest release of the year. It also established The Fresh Prince as a bonafide movie star and Independence Day remains Will Smith’s highest grossing film of his career. The following July 4th he would once again save planet Earth from aliens with the less influential Men In Black which would become the biggest hit from the summer of 1997.
4. E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) directed by Steven Spielberg
Another crowded summer and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. may also be the most crowd pleasing and personal film of his entire resume. Earning a then unheard of sum of over $300 million. E.T. took the world by storm and left in its wake that summer a number of classic films that were financial failures at the box office and would eventually find their audiences years later like Blade Runner and The Thing. Few films of blockbuster status have captured the emotions and imaginations of children and adults alike. Spielberg crafted a very unique vision of friendship, loneliness, and family that seemed to speak to everyone. It worked as a metaphor of child anger and frustration over their parents divorce. Henry Thomas as Elliot remains the best leading performance from any child actor in movie history. Few films have ever been as much of a personal emotional journey as E.T.. This is easily the best feel good summer blockbuster of all time.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg with the help of his friend George Lucas managed to top his own personal best record and make the most fun adventure movie of all time the first time Harrison Ford dawned the iconic fedora and picked up the whip as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg’s career was sort of in doubt prior to this movie. Sure, he had back to back mega hits with Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) but his World War II farce 1941 (1979) was a monumental flop and Hollywood started to change during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Studios were taking back more control from the auteurs they let run wild throughout the 70’s. Spielberg did not have anything lined up and thought he might direct the next James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only (1981) until his best buddy George Lucas called him up and offered him the job to direct this project he wrote while Lucas served as the producer. This gave Spielberg added incentive to make a winner and not disappoint his best friend. He certainly did not and ended up making one of the biggest and best action adventure movies of all time and created a legacy and a hero that would rival the cultural impact of the James Bond series.
2. Jaws (1975) directed by Steven Spielberg
The first official summer blockbuster. First is the worst… not in this case, first is arguably the best, or really close to it. The movie that made everyone afraid to go in the water at the beach and started a cultural phenomenon that lasted up until the COVID19 scare of 2020. Jaws changed cinema and launched the career of Steven Spielberg who would eventually become one of (if not the) greatest director of all time. This is his third consecutive movie on this list and any director who made Jaws, Raiders of The Lost Ark, and E.T. are three of the biggest and best movies of all time. That is not even including summer blockbuster hits Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park (1993) or his more serious adult films that are just as incredible such as Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan. It all started here with a troubled production that ended up being a series of happy accidents and the biggest record breaking movie of its time, until two years later when the next movie on this list came out. For a filmmaker not really known for horror, Jaws is without a doubt one of the scariest movies of all time. Spielberg is also not known for directing great actors to Oscar winning performances, only two actors have won Oscars for a Spielberg film, but the performances in Jaws from the three leads Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfus are outstanding and make the entire second half of the film work better than it could have.
1. Star Wars (1977) directed by George Lucas
Yep. This may be the cliche answer, but it is the biggest and best summer popcorn movie of all time. Star Wars created a cultural phenomenon bigger than just blockbusters. A mythology for the twentieth century that is still going strong today nearly half a century later. Star Wars is almost like a religion to some people, seriously, Jedis consider themselves a religion. Lucas could have started a cult if he did not focus so much on the business aspect of Star Wars making and selling merchandise. For years this was the highest grossing movie of all time and set records the likes of which have only been toppled by inflation and by the original films sequels. Star Wars, like Jaws and E.T. changed what movies could be and changed how studios conducted business once they saw the profits from Star Wars and the dollar signs it created. Movies throughout the 80’s and 90’s became all about the receipts and less about the story. Summer movies themselves became more about making money off of toys for Happy Meals and advertising dollars. That may sound like a bad thing to sacrifice art for money, but Star Wars and the rest of the original trilogy are so great, wholesome, and endearing movies that it is hard to imagine a life without them.