When school is out and the days are long, it’s time to go to the movies. Summer blockbusters are a long-standing film tradition, with some of the biggest flicks of the year opening in the months of May through August.
Some of what you’ll see here won’t surprise you at all: Films from franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars are featured, among others. But it’s interesting to see the rise in the popularity of superhero movies, as well as the influx of films that are shattering long-standing box office records. These are the biggest summer blockbusters every year of the 21st century.
2000: Mission: Impossible II
The second entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise premiered on May 24, 2000, in the U.S. Hitting screens four years after its predecessor, the film once again followed Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, this time as he works with an international thief (Thandie Newton, long before her career-making Westworld role) to stop her ex-boyfriend.
The Paramount film grossed more than $215 million at the box office, making it the third-highest grossing flick of the year. It was topped by Universal’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Fox’s Cast Away, both of which had winter release dates. The franchise continues to this day, with July 2018’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout an unlikely contender for the 2018’s biggest summer blockbuster.
DreamWorks made its first major attempt to compete with Pixar when it released Shrek on May 16, 2001. The film was a surprising success, showing a twist on a the typical Cinderella story and featuring the voice talents of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy.
The kids’ movie made more than $267 million at the box office and, like the year prior, ranked third for the year overall. It came in behind two winter releases that were also the first in their franchises: Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and New Line Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
At the time of this film’s run, superhero flicks were very hit and miss. So 2002’s Spider-Man not only kicked off the webslinger’s first franchise, but gave a glimpse of what was to come for Marvel and beyond.
Premiering on May 3, 2002, Sony’s epic film starring Tobey Maguire topped the second film in three other major franchises as the highest grossing film of the year: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Spider-Man made more than $403 million at the box office.
2003: Finding Nemo
Pixar has its first major hit since 1999’s Toy Story 2 with Finding Nemo, the sweet story of a fish that swims through the ocean in search of his son. Released on May 30, 2003, the film beat out another summer Disney property: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
With a box office total of more than $339 million, the film was the highest grossing G-rated flick for several years before another Pixar film overtook it. The only flick to gross more in 2003 was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final film of the original franchise, which opened in December.
2004: Shrek 2
The follow-up to 2001’s summer blockbuster, Shrek 2 was also the highest-grossing film of 2004. Continuing the original story, the kids’ flick, released on May 19, 2004, brought back the same voice talents while adding more layers to the tale, and it was clearly successful.
Raking in more than $441 million at the box office, Shrek 2 topped another summer sequel, Spider-Man 2, as well as the year’s most controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, and its competitor’s offering, The Incredibles. It also beat out Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, another summer blockbuster, by quite a lot. Pretty surprising, no?
2005: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace was the number one film of 1999, but it wasn’t until the final entry in the prequel trilogy that Fox topped the box office charts again. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith brought the story of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to become Darth Vader to a close, much to the relief of many fans.
This film, which opened on May 19, 2005, slaughtered its competition, bringing in more than $380 million. It wasn’t a great summer for blockbusters anyway, but Revenge of the Sith also beat out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, both of which were released that fall, by nearly $100 million.
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Though its predecessor lost the top slot to Pixar years before, the sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, beat out the other summer Disney property this year, Cars. The Pirates film, which brought back stars Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, and Orlando Bloom, opened later than many of the other films on this list, with a July 7, 2006 premiere date.
Clearly, fans were excited for this sequel, as it brought in more than $423 million at the box office, surpassing the next highest-grossing on the list by nearly $175 million. However, this was the last of the series (thus far) to make this list.
2007: Spider-Man 3
The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy ended on a high note. Opening on May 4, 2007, the third and final flick featuring this incarnation of the superhero made Sony a whopping $336 million at the box office.
It also beat out two other second sequels: Shrek the Third, which it just narrowly topped, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Rounding out the top five films that year were Transformers and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
2008: The Dark Knight
Three years prior, Batman Begins failed to crack the top five films at the box office. But things turned around in a major way for DC and Warner Bros. when The Dark Knight premiered on July 18, 2008.
The film grossed an impressive $533 million, more than $200 million more than the its rival, Iron Man, which similarly launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the time of its release, it was the fourth highest-grossing film of all-time.
2009: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
The follow-up to the 2007 original, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen followed stars Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox as they continue to learn about existence of factions of alien robots. And while the film broke the $400 million domestic gross mark, it missed on being the biggest film of the year by a longshot.
This was the year that Avatar broke the record set by Titanic more than 10 years prior for the highest-grossing film of all-time. However, James Cameron’s sci-fi adventure premiered in the winter, so Revenge of the Fallen, with its June 24, 2009 release date, wins the summer blockbuster trophy.
2010: Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 was a long time coming, but it was certainly worth it. The Pixar flick, which opened on June 18, 2010, continued the story of the toys that Andy had since forgotten on yet another adventure out in the big world.
The film brought in more than $415 million domestically. It narrowly beat out Iron Man 2, and managed to eclipse The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
All of the Harry Potter films (save for one) managed to crack the top five in domestic gross the year they were released — however, this was the first time that a summer release topped the chart. The final installment in the eight-film series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 saw our eponymous hero and his wizard pals defeat Voldemort once and for all.
The film’s take away of $381 million didn’t look impressive next to the last few years of box office feats, and the July 15, 2011 release only narrowly beat out Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which premiered two weeks prior.
2012: Marvel’s The Avengers
It’s hard to imagine a time when Marvel movies didn’t bring in fantastic box office numbers, but The Avengers, the superhero team-up film four years in the making, was the first to really show off the profitability of this growing universe. It was also the beginning of Marvel beating DC, as the flick surpassed The Dark Knight Rises.
Opening on May 4, 2012, The Avengers grossed more than $623 million, landing it in the top three of the all-time domestic box office (it has since moved down a few slots). In addition to the conclusion of a Batman arc, the movie also took down the first installment in Sony’s reboot of its own Marvel property, The Amazing Spider-Man.
2013: Iron Man 3
Marvel clearly got new fans interested with The Avengers, because Iron Man 3, released on May 3, 2013, saw more big numbers for the now Disney-owned brand. The film was also the first conclusion of a three-installment character arc, closing out the story of the hero that put the whole thing in motion.
Iron Man 3 grossed approximately $409 million at the box office, beating out Frozen, Universal’s Despicable Me 2, and the first entry in the DCEU, Man of Steel. It was only bested by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which had a November release.
2014: Guardians of the Galaxy
For the third year in a row, Marvel nabbed the top summer blockbuster slot. Guardians of the Galaxy was a bit of risk for the now-established MCU, but the space adventure managed to delight audiences, thanks to star Chris Pratt.
However, the film was only the third-highest grossing domestically of the year, falling behind the Clint Eastwood drama American Sniper and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. It’s August 1, 2014 release date secured its spot on this list, beating out the spring Marvel offering, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, by less than $100 million.
2015: Jurassic World
Rising movie stars often find themselves in a few big features back-to-back, but few star in the blockbuster of the summer two years in a row, as Chris Pratt did in 2014 and 2015. His film Jurassic World, which opened on June 12, 2015, solidified his action hero status with an impressive domestic gross of $652 million.
Of course, this wasn’t the biggest film of the whole year: that title goes to December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first installment in yet another Star Wars trilogy, which is currently the third highest-grossing film of all time. In its favor, Jurassic World beat out Pratt’s Marvel buddies in Avengers: Age of Ultron by nearly $200 million.
2016: Finding Dory
Just as its predecessor was the hit of the summer 13 years prior, so was the Pixar sequel Finding Dory. Released on June 17, 2016, the follow-up saw another member of the aquatic family go missing, and her pal’s search to bring her home.
Finding Dory beat out major hits like Marvel flick Captain America: Civil War, Disney’s live-action reboot The Jungle Book, and the first R-rated superhero blockbuster, Fox’s Deadpool. It was only bested by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first in what may be an endless series of Star Wars companion films.
2017: Wonder Woman
It finally happened: at long last, a female-led superhero film was a major hit. Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, broke all kinds of records, becoming one of the most profitable films to not only star a woman, but be directed by one.
The DCEU entry, which opened on June 2, 2017, grossed more than $412 million at the box office. It lost to a spring Disney film for highest-grossing flick of the year: the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, and also was surpassed in the box office by the second installment in the sequel trilogy, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which had a December premiere. Wonder Woman’s other notable claim to fame is that she beat out five male-led superhero films that year, including Justice League, which she also starred in.
Since we’ve only just entered summer blockbuster season this year, we can’t officially declare a winner. But despite the impressive line-up of big budget flicks headed our way in the coming months, it seems unlikely that anyone will top the current leader.
Avengers: Infinity War, the culmination of 10 years of Marvel magic, was released on April 27, 2018. Thus far, it has grossed upwards of $598 million domestically and holds the slot of the fourth highest-grossing film of all-time. Its Marvel companion, Black Panther, currently has a higher total gross, but its February release makes it ineligible for this category.
So who could potentially oust Infinity War from the top of the heap? The most likely contenders are Solo: A Star Wars Story, the long-awaited Pixar sequel Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, another Marvel offering Ant-Man and the Wasp, or Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Stay tuned to see how this summer plays out.