While the term “blockbuster” has been around since the early 1940s, it didn’t come to mean what it does today until 1975 when Steven Spielberg unleashed Jaws unto the world. Suddenly, audiences were part of a new era for Hollywood, one that was filled with films that left you on the edge of your seat. As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, blockbusters grew in budget. The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future; if it had thrilling set pieces, fast-paced dialogue, and the so-called “buzz,” you can be assured that audiences would be flocking to the theatre not once, but multiple times to view the latest in blockbuster entertainment.
Although Blockbusters may not hold quite the same power now that they did in previous decades, when something special comes along audiences have shown time-and-time-again that they will turn out in droves to view it. Movies, especially blockbusters, are made to be seen on the big screen. Here are 50 films that best exemplify what it means to be a blockbuster.
These are the 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters of All Time.
10. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Honestly this movie never should have been made. But thank jebus it was. It’s SO much better than the original. And even if they are just practicing the Death Star trench run the whole time you get sucked in. They toned down the love story scenes from the first film, and while they are still present in this one, they are much better this time around. This will be one of those forever rewatchable films for me. No matter when it’s on I’ll sit and watch it.
9. Speed (1994)
Many of the best action movies of all time start with a simple, yet inventive premise. This time around that premise revolved around a public city bus, full of passengers, that can’t go below 55 MPH or else a bomb will detonate. Such a premise lends itself to some really exciting moments of both dramatic intrigue and action spectacle. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are perfect action stars – able to deliver lines with a carefree suaveness that most don’t possess. Dennis Hopper may be one of the best villainous actors of all time. His performance here is just legendary (“Pop quiz, hot shot!”). Come for the action, stay for the great characters. Mix in one of the most devastating cinematic deaths, and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster classic.
8. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back is widely thought of as the best Star Wars movie. After making Star Wars, George Lucas had no interest in directing a sequel and brought on Irvin Kershner to helm the movie in his stead. The interesting thing about this is that at some point between Star Wars and Empire, Lucas had the idea that there would be multiple Star Wars films, and that he would bring on his fellow film school buddies to direct. Each film would be unique interpretations of the Star Wars universe according to each director’s creative direction. But with Empire Lucas found out that he didn’t much care for someone else playing around in his little galaxy, so that idea never came to fruition. Somehow, though, he managed to let Kersh do his thing, and the result is that we got one of the best films of all time.
7. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
This is the pinnacle of comic book movie entertainment. It dares to dazzle. Raimi is operating on an absolutely bonkers level here. You never know what’s in store for the next scene. In one moment, it’s slapstick comedy. The next scene, pure horror. Mixed in is great emotion, killer action sequences, and a very odd yet satisfying musical number. This movie is packed with more singularly iconic shots than we have time to list. The subway battle is hands down one of the best sequences in any action movie, let alone a superhero movie. Raimi crafts the entire battle with such mastery it’s impossible not to sit there in complete awe – no matter how many times you’ve seen it prior. I remember seeing this movie thrice in theaters. Now, I pop in the DVD about once a quarter, and I still just can’t seem to get enough of it.
6. Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park is essentially a reboot of writer Michael Crichton’s first film – Westworld – but with dinosaurs, and it deals with the same basic themes. That mankind creates without responsibility. That we cannot control complicated systems, even if they’re ones that we created. That science is not inherently ethical (nor is nature). That our reach, to be more succinct, exceeds our grasp. It’s all about hubris, and the price of hubris is to be shot by our own robots and eaten by our own dinosaurs. Stephen Spielberg managed to take heady discussions of chaos mathematics, genetic engineering, and the moral dilemmas involved and inject a human element into the center, making it more of a thrill ride.
Jurassic Park was also a revelation, filmmaking-wise, in that it really put CGI in the forefront in a good way. The 1990s were the decade in which CGI first flexed its muscles and there was good (Terminator 2, The Matrix), and bad (The Lawnmower Man, Star Wars ‘Special Editions’). Jurassic Park showed how it could be used judiciously to enhance and supplement a film without being glaringly obvious or overwhelming (with a few exceptions). A lesson a few more modern filmmakers could still stand to learn.
5. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
Marvel’s The Avengers is the film that changed modern Hollywood. I remember seeing this opening weekend and not having to wait in line for tickets. Iron Man may have been a massive box office success, but the rest of the Phase 1 heroes (Hulk, Captain America, and Thor) were only moderate successes. And let’s not forget that the idea of crossing over a bunch of different superheroes/genres was still a foreign concept. Marvel was risking it all and thank god it paid off. As audiences, we’re still feeling The Avengers‘ impact in 2023. No one wants to make a “trilogy” anymore. Now, it’s all about the “shared universe.” Marvel’s The Avengers showed Hollywood that this concept could work, but only if you got a great cast, a solid story, and a director that knows how to build comedy with action and drama. Much like how Jaws gave birth to the blockbuster, Avengers was the dawn of the “blockbuster universe.”
4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
In the summer of ‘91 I was 15 years old. Schwarzenegger was a god of the cinema and I was enamored with him and action movies. Terminator 2: Judgment Day to 15 year old me was like Christmas and birthday all on the same day. It had everything. It had Arnie. It had quippy dialogue. It had explosions. It had car chases. It had a scene where LA gets nuked. It had a kid about my age doing all kind of cool shit that I’d never get the chance to do living in Podunkville.
But Judgment Day wasn’t just all action, muscles, and explosions. The movie had heart. It was a film about our relationships with our parents. It was about humanity and wanting something better for the human race than mutually assured self destruction.
You put it all together and you’ve got one of the best summer blockbusters of all time.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
There has been an age old argument that Indy did not need to be in this movie. If the Nazis still would have opened the arc and been melted into nothingness. Well that’s a bunch of horseshit. Indy’s being in the film saves Marion and we all love Marion. So shut it, nerds.
That all being said, this film is one of the all time greats and you can’t convince me otherwise. I just hate that the sequels fail to reach this movies greatness. they all have great parts (sans KotCS) but all fall short of what made this film such a hit. I would have been perfectly ok if they never made any of them and left this standalone on it’s own two feet.
2. Star Wars (1977)
My dad likes to tell the story of the first time he saw Star Wars in the theater and how the opening scene where the Star Destroyer glides by overhead made such an impression on him. It’s easy to forget from where we sit in 2023, where just about anything is possible with computer generated effects, just how singularly unique Star Wars was in its day. We’ve all seen it a million times. We’ve lived with the merchandising, made it through the prequels, and the Disney acquisition. We’ve seen spoofs and porn parodies (God help us) and enough fan films to last a lifetime (God help us). So, yeah, it’s easy to forget the impact this little science fiction film from 1977 had on the world at the time. But it was enormous and its impact on the blockbuster is still being felt today.
1. Jaws (1975)
It’s fitting that Jaws is No. 1 on this list since it is largely considered to be the first summer blockbuster. Of course, even if that weren’t the case, it would still be deserving of the No. 1 spot in my (not very humble) opinion. I have approximately 352 reasons why, but since this is supposed to be a short blurb, I’ll keep it to the top 3 on my list and these are in no particular order:
1) Are there any two musical notes in all of history that, when combined, evoke such instantaneous recognition as John Williams’ theme for Jaws? No, of course not. That “ba-dum … ba-dum” is simplicity at its finest and sends a chill down my spine every time I hear it.
2) “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” There are many movie lines that etched themselves into the collective consciousness of all humanity, and this is of course one of the best among them. Roy Scheider delivers it perfectly.
3) Quint. As a character, the grizzled shark hunter is entertaining and well-written, and Robert Shaw does an amazing job giving him endless depth. The USS Indianapolis monologue is an unforgettable moment, awesome and terrible all at the same time.
I think the only real mark against Jaws is that the mayor doesn’t get eaten, but I suppose that cliche would have cheapened the movie too. Still, he sure deserved it.
What are some of your favorite summer blockbusters that didn’t make the list? Share them in the comments with us!