For the first time in most of our lifetimes, your local movie theater won’t have a summer blockbuster season. The covid-19 pandemic took care of that, pushing most of the big-budget popcorn films scheduled for this year’s summer months into fall, spring, or even next summer. Since we can’t enjoy summer blockbusters in theaters this year, we’re taking it as an opportunity to remember the great summer films of the past.
We’ve been going decade by decade—starting with the ‘80s, then the ‘90s, into the 2000s, and now we finally land in the 2010s. Unlike the previous decades, though, the 2010s come with a few minor hiccups. For example, in previous articles, there was a need to mention io9 mainly covers sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies. So comedies, dramas, and straight action films are not eligible. In the 2010s, though, that’s way less of an issue. Especially during the summer months when ostensibly every big movie fits into the genre categories. Guess Hollywood learned something.
Also, in previous articles, I qualified “summer” as any film with a release date between May 1 and August 31. But in the 2010s, that distinction began to get way looser. Later in the decade, what most would call “the summer movie season” started in April. Maybe even March. For the purposes of this list, we were a little looser and included some obvious April movies from after 2015. Finally, while ranking blockbusters that are decades removed was relatively easy, these films all still feel very contemporary. It’s impossible to really measure which, if any, will have any long-lasting cultural impact, or which movies will break out and become all-time favorites. History hasn’t decided on many of these yet so there’s a good chance this list could be very dated in a few years.
All that said? Let’s move on with the show. To start, here are a few other films released during that time that we considered but ultimately did not make this list: Super 8, Prometheus, Now You See Me, This Is the End, World War Z, Pacific Rim, The World’s End, The Wolverine, Godzilla, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Tomorrowland, Ant-Man, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Suicide Squad, Shazam, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, Aladdin, and many more. That’s a pretty good list, but not good enough. Check out what did make the cut below.
Here’s the problem with Despicable Me. In the years since it was released, what was originally a very good movie about a villain gaining a heart through the love of some children has degenerated into a commercial for minion merchandise. But go back to the source and the first movie is still funny, sweet and, of course, had a huge cultural impact, even if it’s not quite a good one. (Opened July 9, 2010)
In a decade filled with franchises, you look back with a little extra appreciation at a high concept original comedy like Ted. It’s lewd and crude, but in all the best ways, and though its far inferior sequel certainly tainted the legacy a bit, the original was a massive hit and will still make you chuckle. (Opened June 29, 2012)
Fourteen years. That’s how long the wait was from the unforgettable first Incredibles and its 2018 sequel. In this day and age, that’s a rather long time to wait for a sequel to a movie that grossed $630 million, so it wasn’t a big surprise the sequel more than doubled that, grossing over $1.2 billion. It turned out to be just as exciting and emotional as its predecessor. (Opened June 15, 2018)
The 2010s saw the release of three outstanding Mission: Impossible movies (4-6 respectively), but for our money, this most recent installment is the best of the bunch. The only reason it’s not higher or joined by another sequel on this list is despite grossing hundreds of millions of dollars, the franchise simply doesn’t leave a huge cultural footprint. (Opened July 27, 2018)
When you talk about Jurassic World, you have to talk about it in a big picture sense. On its own, as a movie, the first installment of the new series is “OK” at best. And yet, it was a wild financial success and found a clever, entertaining way back into an iconic franchise. Actually seeing a version of Jurassic Park open to visitors was so exciting! Plus, it spawned sequels and, eventually, will let us see the original cast all back again. For those reasons, quality aside, it belongs here. (Opened June 12, 2015)
One of the great gifts the 2010s gave us was the return of Keanu Reeves in an unforgettable action franchise. And while the first film was released in the fall, and the second in the spring, the third installment was finally deemed worthy for summer—and wow did it deliver a pulse-pounding, intense, fun ride, which outgrossed its previous two installments combined. (Opened May 17, 2019)
While Zack Snyder’s subsequent DC films got a little too dark and dreary for many fans, it’s easy to forget his first movie was not that at all. Well, okay, Superman snapped a dude’s neck, but before that, it was a bombastic, aspirational summer blockbuster that had us begging for more. (Opened June 14, 2013)
Snowpiercer didn’t even gross $5 million in the United States. Some blockbuster, right? Well, internationally it made over $80 million, and in the long run it introduced many audiences to the work of eventual Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho; starred Captain America himself, Chris Evans; and eventually became a TV show. That’s a lot to accomplish in a few short years for a movie barely anyone saw. We think history will be even kinder to the excellent film too. (Opened June 27, 2014)
This is another case of a recent movie that’s already gained cult status. While the Edgar Wright comic adaptation barely grossed $50 million worldwide, its quality and cast have endured way beyond that. It features a who’s who of current Hollywood stars (Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, etc.) and plays midnight shows across the world. It’s a film that will have a life you can’t measure in box office. (Opened August 13, 2010)
You knew the Marvel movies were coming. First up is Captain America: Civil War, which delivered on the epic scope and excitement many fans felt was missing from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Here you had a dense, personal story of dueling beliefs in a package that featured introductions of Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Giant-Man, plus one of the best action scenes in the franchise. (Opened May 6, 2016)
As discussed in the previous list, the X-Men franchise is slightly problematic, even beyond its weird timeline. But for our money, it peaked with Days of Future Past, which attempted to blend the various iterations in a twisty, turny, awesome superhero movie that went on to huge success. (Opened May 23, 2014)
Spider-Man has been a summer movie staple for going on two decades, but few of the films had the life and joy of Homecoming. Tom Holland’s first full film under the mask gave fans a Spider-Man for today in a story that felt more John Hughes than Marvel Studios. Throw in Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Donald Glover, Michael Keaton, and more? Just wonderful. (Opened July 7, 2017)
Director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to the summer blockbuster season, releasing seemingly all of his recent movies during that time. And though most of those films star a Caped Crusader, this original sci-fi actioner is arguably better than all of those. A fascinating, star-studded masterclass of big-budget filmmaking. (Opened July 15, 2010)
Though Toy Story 4 is certainly a good film, it can’t touch Toy Story 3, which most of us figured would be the end of the franchise. More than just a huge commercial and critical hit, Toy Story 3 told a powerful story of change, innocence, and learning—and in the end, it made us all cry like little babies. It remains one of Pixar’s best films, let alone sequels. (Opened June 18, 2010)
The first Planet of the Apes prequel, 2011's Rise, is a solid film, but it wasn’t until director Matt Reeves took the franchise over in 2014 that things were taken to a whole new level. With both Dawn and War, Reeves made summer blockbusters that felt like they were from another era. Layered. Interesting. Human. And all of that with some of the most advanced digital effects ever. They’re simply superb. (Opened July 11, 2014 and July 14, 2017)
Edge of Tomorrow is one of those movies that’s so revered nowadays you’d assume it was a massive hit. It wasn’t. It was successful for sure, grossing almost $400 million on a budget of around $175 million, but not enough to immediately warrant a sequel (though fingers crossed, we’re getting one). And yet, the Doug Liman-Christoper McQuarrie time-loop action film starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt has everything going for it. It’s so unbelievably good it almost hurts. A perfect summer blockbuster. (Opened June 6, 2014)
Horror movies are generally saved for the fall, or dumped in the spring. Not The Conjuring. Warner Bros. clearly knew this James Wan stunner had the goods, and not only did it gross over $319 million (on a budget of $20 million), it spawned its own massive connected universe. Which is something we’re guessing no one saw coming. (Opened July 19, 2013)
In terms of eyeballs that saw them, nothing touches Avengers: Infinity War or Endgame. These were record-breaking, all-time successes with a level of spectacle the world has never seen. The reason they aren’t at the top of this list is that as the culmination of the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that’s exactly what everyone expected them to be. Blockbusters among blockbusters. So that lack of surprise, culturally, places them a little lower on the list than similar films. (Opened April 27, 2018 and April 26, 2019)
Take Guardians of the Galaxy for example. Though it was a big-budget, summer Marvel movie, no one could’ve predicted it becoming the game-changing cultural hit it was. It made superstars of its cast, icons of its characters, and grossed in a month what other movies hadn’t grossed all summer. That huge impact, coupled with its unforgettable blend of music and attitude, feels just as fresh as it did six years ago. (Opened August 1, 2014)
After two decades of summer blockbuster superhero movies, it was hard to put into words what it meant to finally see Wonder Woman. And not just that, but the movie was awesome. So exciting, so funny, so smart. Everything anyone could want a movie to be, not just a superhero story. It went on to become the highest-grossing film of the summer and reinvigorate the DC universe with an excitement that’s still felt today. (Opened June 2, 2017)
Franchise finales always lead to big anticipation and even bigger box office returns, which is exactly what happened with the eighth and final Harry Potter movie. After a decade of films, fans finally got to see how the battle between Harry and Voldemort ended in a film that delivered on all levels. There may never be another franchise like it, with (mostly) the same cast over that many films made in such a short period of time. (Opened July 13, 2011)
Oh what a lovely day it was, when audiences sat down to see what they thought would be just another movie in the Mad Max franchise. What they got was a towering achievement of cinema that was both visceral action film and timely story about female empowerment. The film was both a financial and critical success (it won six Oscars!) and as time goes on, its impact and reverence will only rise. (Opened May 7, 2015)
In a decade dominated by Marvel, The Avengers is the blockbuster of its time. No, it didn’t gross as much as its later sequels, but The Avengers did something no modern film had ever done—not just in terms of its opening weekend (which shattered box-office records), but in the way it took stories and characters from multiple movies released over several years and brought them all together. It became the model for almost everything Hollywood was trying to release on this scale while also being a hugely entertaining and satisfying experience. (Opened May 4, 2012)
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