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.
30. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a film that probably had a few people scratching their heads wondering, “Who asked for this?” when it was first announced. Rise is a prequel that sets out to explain the twist ending from the original Planet of the Apes: Just how did Earth get taken over by humanized apes? Well, Rise managed to do what Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake couldn’t and revitalize a once-dormant franchise.
While Rise made some decent coin at the box office, I don’t think anyone involved with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes expected the sequel to almost double Rise‘s box office total. Matt Reeves replaced Rupert Wyatt as director and gave us one of the best science fiction films of 2014 (in a year that was populated by A LOT of great sci-fi features). Andy Serkis’ Caesar is once again the star of the film (the Academy really needs to give this man an Oscar), bringing much-needed depth to what could have been a flat motion-capture character. Dawn joins a rare list of sequels like The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight that managed to be better than the original installment. Well done.
29. Shrek 2 (2004)
Before the days of booking your tickets well in advance online, if you wanted to see a hotly-anticipated movie on opening night, you needed to show up early and wait in line. To this day, Shrek 2 is the only movie I remember that had an insanely long lineup. In 2023, it’s easy to dismiss the impact Shrek had on a generation, but from 2001 to 2011 Shrek was DreamWorks’ most prized franchise. I’d even go as far as to say that — while Pixar definitely released better films during that time period — 9 out of 10 kids would pick Shrek over any Pixar film. The first Shrek was basically the anti-Disney movie, serving as a parody of the studio’s animated classics. Shrek 2 continued the trend but also managed to be a damn good film. (Remember that list of sequels that are better than the original? Yeah, Shrek 2 is on it.)
I mean, let’s run down some of the film’s highlights. Prince Charming is a twat. The Fairy Godmother is his mother. Donkey is a horse. Puss in Boots makes his grand debut. There’s a giant gingerbread man. Pinocchio wears a thong. Oh, and the DVD version has an interactive game called Far Far Away Idol with Simon Cowell. This movie has it all. I repeat: This movie has it all!
28. Iron Man (2008)
I honestly didn’t know who the hell Iron Man was before this movie came out. When my dad asked me if I wanted to see it I was surprised and asked why. He’d grown up with this superhero apparently and it held some nostalgia for him. He was curious, so we bought tickets. I was floored. What a ride! Downey Jr. is so charismatic and likable in the role, and the pace and tone of the movie just sweep you along. It didn’t matter that I lacked context for the character. Iron Man was one of a few summer blockbusters in the last 20 years that I can honestly say I was pleasantly surprised by.
27. Alien (1979)
I was too young to see this in the theater, but I know my parents did, and I know my mother nearly shit herself from fright. Alien, even after all of the years, still manages to create that palpable sense of terror. You can almost feel what the dread and fear that the characters feel.
Beyond the scares, Alien is just one of those really smart sci-fi films that came out in this time period that does such a great job at world building with almost no exposition. It’s almost all done visually, but it works, and it lures you in. You want to know more. You want to know where the Xenomorph came from. I kind of wish we’d never found out, but that’s a totally different write up…
26. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
I remember seeing this in the theater. It was a surreal experience. Not only did I ever in my wildest dreams imagine Miller would actually make a sequel, I never thought it would be rated R and that it would actually be a very good film. People say Fury Road is the best of the Max films. I disagree completely, but it is a damned good film, and a much better one than it has any business being.
25. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
The 2000s will always — at least in my opinion — be the best decade for Disney live-action films. Long before the Mouse House purchased Marvel and Lucasfilm, the famed studio had to actually come up with ideas for blockbuster films, which led to the creation of fan favorites like National Treasure, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
An adaptation of the classic Disneyland ride, the Pirates of the Caribbean film series arguably remains one of Disney’s most popular and commercially successful franchises. The key to that success? Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. While Jack Sparrow was originally written for Hugh Jackman, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Depp in the role now. He redefined the image of a pirate forever with Jack Sparrow and gave us one of the greatest movie characters of the 2000s. The Curse of the Black Pearl is proof that you can adapt almost anything to film if you have the right talent attached.
24. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Personally, I think M. Night Shamalamading-dong is a one trick pony. He had a great twist in this film and kept trying to out do himself and his twists after that. He needed to remember that this film really played more on the strength of it’s lower budget and solid story telling than the actual twist. I remember after seeing it that I immediately wanted to rewatch it to see what I missed. Hell, to be honest I even saw this on video, not the theater. It wasn’t as easy to get spoiled back in the day. Damn, I miss the good old days. Sure this film is now probably a little dated and predictable, but that’s ok. I think it still has some great acting in it, especially the kid. And we all know that normally isn’t the case. Plus, I miss this version of Bruce Willis, before he just started shitting out bad action flicks. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
23. Ghostbusters (1984)
Nothing says summer blockbuster like a group of nerds saving New York City from a giant marshmallow man, right? Right? OK, maybe not. Ghostbusters shouldn’t work. It is a terrible idea. It shouldn’t be absolutely amazing. And yet, it is. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis manage to take the ludicrous idea of three eccentric parapsychologists starting a ghost-catching business and turn it into one of the best comedy-drama-science fiction-action movies to grace the big screen in the ‘80s (or since, I would argue). With the help of a stellar supporting cast of Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts (as the most awesome secretary ever), they manage to prevent an ancient Sumerian god named Gozer from destroying the Big Apple. And they do it all with delightfully ‘80s special effects and a bangin’ theme song.
22. Die Hard (1988)
Taking a gamble on Bruce Willis, who was just a sitcom actor at the time, ended up being one of the greatest casting choices in movie history. Today, we know Willis as one of the best action stars of all time, and pretty darn good dramatic actor as well. That great career is all due to how effectively he brings John McClaine to life in Die Hard. It’s still one of the great action roles in movie history; in a movie that is still one of the greatest action movies ever made. People may try to tell you that it’s a Christmas movie because of when it’s set. However, we all know that Die Hard has the classic make up of a summer blockbuster. The action, the story, the villain, and even the occasional laughs are all there. This movie is a surefire summer blockbuster.
21. The Lion King (1994)
This must be one of the few animated movies on the list. Its place is much deserved, however. The Lion King is one of Disney animation studios crowning achievements. Coming at the end of what many would call Disney’s golden age renaissance, capping a magical run of animated classics. The Lion King reigns supreme. The characters are timeless, and the songs are extremely memorable. Who hasn’t caught themselves randomly singing “Hakuna Matata” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” alone in the shower? The opening sequence captures the bliss of life in harmony. All things aligning perfectly for the arrival of the king. Obviously, the circle of life leads us to the movie concluding in the same fashion. Absolute poetry and a true joy to watch.
What are some of your favorite blockbusters? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!