It looks like Wonder Woman is well on its way to eclipsing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for the highest grossing summer release of 2017. Either way, it seems, and not unsurprisingly, superheroes are 100% in vogue right now, and we haven’t even reached the opening of Spider-Man: Homecoming, opening in July. Other regular contenders are opening or have recently opened as well, including the always competitive animated films released by Pixar, with Cars 3 as their entrant this summer, the consistently top performing franchise Transformers, who will release The Last Knight on June 21, and the popular Despicable Me series, opening #3 at the end of the month.
Your job, should you choose to accept it, will be to pick from each of the four top domestic box office grossing movies of the summer of each year, selecting the one film that was more popular than any other. Be careful, many of our photos will highlight a single movie, but while it may be memorable, it might not be aligned with the correct choice.
One thing we definitely learned from this? America sure loves its sequels. The last year that a sequel (or prequel) was not amongst the top films? 1998. And that year included a remake of a movie in Doctor Dolittle!
Good luck in testing your memory and we hope this brings back great memories of your summers at the multiplexes…
**Beware** DON'T RELY ON THE IMAGES!!!
Captain America: Civil War gave the first Avenger not named Iron Man a top-four summer finish, though perhaps the presence of Robert Downey, Jr. in the film had a lot to do with it as the super-team turned inward and fought amongst themselves. Finding Dory was a sequel 13 years in the making, fueled by Ellen Degeneres’ forgetful fish. The Secret Life of Pets rode to success on excellent comedic voice talents of its own in Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. and more (and even Albert Brooks, twice as lucky, as he also voices “Marlin” in the “Finding” franchise.) And Suicide Squad defied terrible reviews, by putting a different type of super-team, this one of villains, into the DC canon to fight with Marvel for box office supremacy.
It's perhaps not a surprise that this grouping contains the highest grossing summer film of all time. Avengers: Age of Ultron featured Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, all characters with impressive individual franchises of their own. Inside Out was perhaps the best reviewed Pixar movie of all time, and that’s saying a lot for the consistently great output of the studio. Jurassic World “reincarnated” a box office dominant (fictional) theme park, fronted by perhaps cinema’s hottest star on the rise, Chris Pratt. And Minions spun off the most popular children’s characters currently around from the Despicable Me movies.
Marvel proved it could do no wrong when it spun a tale of misfit minor superheroes into comedic box office gold with Guardians of the Galaxy. Maleficent reminded Angelina Jolie was still perhaps the greatest female box office star of the 21st century, as her not-so-evil queen was her first role in four years. Transformers showed staying power, in a rare fourth offering of a series of films, all directed by action superstar Michael Bay, with Mark Wahlberg stepping in as the lead role. X-Men: Days of Future Past reunited new cast with old, in a trippy time-travel themed story that allowed James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender to act opposite their older selves in the form of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
Steve Carell’s Gru battled parenting in the clever follow-up to the super-villain animated hit, Despicable Me. Robert Downey Jr. donned the armor one last time (so we thought, until he has already appeared in two movies since, with a third this summer) in Iron Man 3. Man of Steel gave DC its first step to rebuilding a cinematic universe of its own as a new Superman in Henry Cavill began the build to its 2017 release of Justice League. Monsters University successfully banked that its original audience would be in college 12 years later, and developed a plot around just that for its characters Sully and Mike.
2012 was a summer driven by movies out to defy expectations. There were grumbles that you couldn’t reboot a franchise in just four years, but when Andrew Garfield’s new web-slinger in The Amazing Spider-Man got great reviews, box office love followed. A pre-cursor to hits Frozen, Inside Out and Moana, Disney/Pixar’s Brave proved that a strong female lead could sell an animated film. The Dark Knight Rises showed the franchise could flourish even without Heath Ledger’s brave performance as The Joker, albeit to less critical acclaim. Finally, Marvel’s The Avengers gave legs to a new model of combining individual franchises from the same universe into a blockbuster unto itself.
After the original surprised everyone by earning over $275 million with just a $30 million budget, Warner Brothers invested $80 million in a sequel to The Hangover and was not disappointed. Of course, it was an easy risk to take when they also produced the eighth and final installment in one of the greatest movie franchises in history that summer, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Disney also rode a sustained box office horse into success that summer with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a fourth in a series, and Transformers did the same for Universal with its third, Dark of the Moon.
In a summer environment dominated by sequels, Inception was an innovative masterpiece directed by The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan about a thief who steals knowledge in people’s dreams. As for the rest, Iron Man 2 followed up six months after the original, with Tony Stark and his titular alter-ego now revealed to the world. Toy Story 3 began the new trend of Pixar returning to characters over a decade later, with a heart tugging story of out-growing your childhood imagination. And The Twilight Saga: Eclipse became the first of the teen vampire flicks released in IMAX and set a record for widest distribution ever, playing in over 4, 416 theaters.
As previously mentioned, the small r-rated comedy about one wild night that even included Mike Tyson and a live tiger, The Hangover, rose to shocking success in the summer of 2009. Meanwhile, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the series’ sixth installment, dove into a darker side of the boy-wizard, including a (spoiler alert) death of a major character at the end of the film. The sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, followed up a lukewarm critical response by a complete pan but still killed at the box office. Finally, Up drifted into the Pixar canon warming our hearts with a story of an old man taking a balloon adventure after the death of his wife.
Heath Ledger won Oscar gold for his posthumous portrayal of The Joker in the Dark Knight, just months after taking his own life. Hancock was a rare live action superhero movie not in the DC or Marvel canon to do great the box office, with Will Smith as a man with powers who doesn’t want to help anyone. The Indiana Jones reboot Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was met with mixed reviews, but still got people out to the box office, resulting in accusations from some as being a cheap stunt to sell tickets. Finally, Iron Man ushered in the new age of Marvel as a break-out summer hit about a billionaire building a suit to protect others from the very destructive weapons he previously unleashed on the world.
A summer for trilogies, saw third installments of Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, and Spider-Man, and the beginning of the Transformers franchise, which has yet to glimpse an end as of yet, five films in. Director Gore Verbinski left the franchise as did stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly after “At World’s End”, though both actors will return this summer. Shrek the Third introduced new fairy tale characters like Artie (as in King Arthur) and Captain Hook and his pirates, but was badly reviewed compared to its predecessors. Spider-Man 3 wowed fans with the introduction of “Dark Spider-Man” (Peter Parker’s bad side) and fan favorite villain, Venom. While the robots drove Transformers, Megan Fox earned star points for her sultry performance in a lead role.
Another year, another Pixar movie, as the Owen Wilson-fronted Cars gave voice to what our vehicles would say if they could talk. Global best-seller The Da Vinci Code was made into a film about an art historian turned detective with the can’t miss duo of star Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest introduced the popular character Davy Jones, played by Bill Nighy, and upped the budget by 150% to give a special effects boost to its newest franchise in the making. Finally, X-Men: The Last Stand brought an appropriately large end to the trilogy with two factions of mutants fighting over a supposed mutant gene cure, and Wolverine and Jean Gray’s forbidden love story meeting a tragic ending.
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, a frequent director/star combination, were seen as the perfect duo to reboot Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka character, and they didn’t disappoint with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith paid off two major disappointments by being an above average film and providing a satisfying origin story for what turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. War of the Worlds was Stephen Spielberg’s reboot of a late-19th century novel, that details an alien invasion of earth from the personal perspective of one father. Finally, Wedding Crashers was a comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson about two guys who try to take advantage of available bridesmaids at nuptials they weren’t even invited to before finally meeting their match.
Towards the end of an about ten year period where end-of-the-world summer disaster films reigned, The Day After Tomorrow took on the biggest of all earth destruction events, a global ice age. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban handed the franchise reigns to innovative director Alfonso Cuarón, resulting on the best reviews yet for the third in the series (and introducing Gary Oldman’s beloved character Sirius Black.) Shrek 2 also introduced a new favorite on-screen hero, in the form of a cat voiced by Antonio Banderas, Puss in Boots. And finally Spider-Man 2 brought to screen a beloved villain named Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina.
Jim Carrey meets God, and not surprisingly, it's Morgan Freeman, in Bruce Almighty, but unfortunately he just happens to want a break from being a deity. Finding Nemo swam into our hearts as a father fish tries desperately to find his son, aided by another fish, Dory, who happens to suffer from short term memory loss. The Matrix Reloaded more than doubled the Wachowski Brothers budget, giving some high octane action to their martial arts fueled future robotic dystopia vision in the sequel to the original. Finally, Pirates of the Caribbean gave Johnny Depp the role of his lifetime, as an eccentric scoundrel happily drifting between good and evil.
The third installment of Mike Myers’ James Bond spoof didn’t thrill critics but the time travel gimmick and the sexy side-kick casting of none other than Beyoncé was more than enough to bring in audiences. M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs cemented his reputation as Hollywood’s new Hitchcock with Mel Gibson as a small farmer protecting his family from an alien invasion. Spider-Man introduced Marvel’s universe to the big screen with a well reviewed film for the first time, with Tobey Maguire and Kristin Dunst’s upside down kiss to boot. Finally, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones drew raves for barely having the character of Jar Jar Binks in it.
The mainstream world was introduced to wrestler turned actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the movie that inspired his first starring role in The Scorpion King, a prequel to The Mummy Returns. Before Transformers made Michael Bay one of the most bankable summer movie directors ever, his historic war drama with Ben Affleck, Pearl Harbor saw him shoot up in the 2001 charts. The tradition of oddball pairings for cop buddy comedies was perhaps never more extreme or more appealing than when Chris Tucker’s motormouth comedy and Jackie Chan’s amazing and hilarious stunts were crammed together in the Rush Hour films. Finally, Shrek won the first Academy Award for Animated Film and officially put Dreamworks on the map as the primary competitor to Pixar for the new digital format.
Gladiator would go on to win Best Picture in the Oscars after its summer release, with Russell Crowe taking Best Actor for his portrayal of a slave forced to fight in ancient Rome. Director John Woo took over the critically acclaimed Mission Impossible film for the sequel, and while he lost adoration in terms of his Rotten Tomatoes score, he gained it at the box office for his brilliance at crafting action sequences. The Perfect Storm filled the summer’s disaster quota with a special effects laden dramatic star vehicle for George Clooney. Finally, X-Men became the first Marvel summer blockbuster, establishing Hugh Jackman in a role he would play for nearly two decades as Wolverine.
The sequel to the cult classic, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was a break-out hit for Mike Myers in a five year period where this franchise and Shrek would make him box office royalty. The Sixth Sense put director M. Night Shyamalan on the map, revived Bruce Willis as a respected actor, and made a household name of child actor Haley Joel Osment, all with reminding Hollywood of the value of a twist ending. Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace was highly anticipated and highly disappointing. And Disney’s Tarzan brought a dramatic end to the era of the box office reign of the hand drawn cartoon musical.
Combining space, disaster films, and Michael Bay made for the perfect summer blockbuster recipe n Armageddon. R rated 1980s star Eddie Murphy continued his 1990s family friendly revival with Doctor Dolittle, speaking to talking animals. World War II saga Saving Private Ryan proved that director Steven Spielberg could continue his pursue of more artistic and serious work and still be a box office success (though Tom Hanks, in the can’t-miss-a-hit portion of his career, may have had something to do with that.) Finally, Cameron Diaz famously had… er, a substance… in her hair in the raunchy comedy There’s Something About Mary.
Harrison Ford told them to “get off my plane” in a president as action star role only he could pull off in Air Force One. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones looked at home in a buddy cop comedy where aliens are the baddies in Men In Black. My Best Friend’s Wedding returned Julia Roberts to the top as queen of romantic comedies, with one of cinema’s most famous sing-along songs to Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” The Lost World: Jurassic Park was a predictably sub-par sequel to a great film with predictably stellar box office results.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” made as strong a leap to the silver screen as you can, bursting onto the scene headlining his first studio film in the world fights backs against aliens action movie, Independence Day. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise found a franchise to build a second career around in the twisting and turning spy thriller Mission: Impossible. Speaking of second acts, James Bond himself, Sean Connery, had a star turn as an ex-inmate and only escapee of Alcatraz Island forced to go back to rescue hostages in The Rock. And Twister drew raves for being a disaster film that highlighted the thrill of the chase over the carnage of destruction.
Apollo 13 brought NASA back into the mainstream, celebrating the achievements of American space travel and established former child star Ron Howard as a serious filmmaker. Batman Forever had Jim Carrey doing his unique comedic shtick as The Riddler and… not much else. Casper capitalized on teen Christina Ricci’s post-Addams Family star power to do another supernatural related comedy. And finally, Pocahontas showcased a new side of Disney, seeking to tell the stories of non-white princesses for the first time in nearly a century.
It was a good summer for boomer parents as The Flintstones brought a beloved prime time cartoon from their youth to a live action big screen family romp. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump was a serious film you could bring your older children to for a nostalgia filled look at the 60’s generation. The Lion King continued the return of the reign of the Disney animated musical, this time with songs from none other than 70’s rocker Elton John. Finally, True Lies was something for Mom and Dad to enjoy alone, with two of their favorite 80s stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis proving to have great chemistry.
The signature novel from one of America’s most popular writers, Michael Crichton, given an adaptation by its most popular director, Steven Spielberg, about every child’s most popular topic, dinosaurs, made Jurassic Park a surprise hit to… no-one. The same could be said when romantic comedy stalwarts Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan reunited under rom-com queen Nora Ephron in Sleepless in Seattle. Equally famed novelist John Grisham got his first widely recognized book, “The Firm”, to get an adaptation starring none other than Tom Cruise. Finally, summer box office royalty Harrison Ford got the lead role in the critically acclaimed “The Fugitive” about, well, a man on the run from the law trying to prove his innocence.
Women in baseball was the talk of the summer when A League of Their Own brought an ensemble cast including Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and yes, Madonna, to the multiplex. Batman Returns continued the near-perfect casting of the original with Michael Keaton’s quirky caped crusader facing off against silky sexy Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and crass and crude Danny Devito as The Penguin. Lethal Weapon 3 finished a dominant run of the buddy cops Riggs and Murtaugh and also closed out a ten-plus year reign of police duos at the box office. Finally, Sister Act saw Whoopi Goldberg play the quintessential role for her zany but heartfelt brand of comedy.
As hard as it is to believe today after a series of badly reviewed flops, Billy Crystal was once box office royalty and City Slickers was the comedic adventure pinnacle of that era. Speaking of comedic adventures, The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, rode parodying the over-used buddy cop genre to box office glory, with non other than OJ Simpson in the role of the straight man. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves drew audience but not critical raves for its serious and adult version of the classic children’s story. Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger went from bad guy to good in the rare sequel to be more acclaimed than the first installment in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Before Marvel and DC were fighting it out for comic book adaptation glory, Dick Tracy brought a favorite character to vivid color on screen with the acclaimed quirky adaptation by and starring Warren Beatty. Bruce Willis was in full action hero swing in Die Hard 2: Die Harder, yet another summer release for a series of movies that take place around Christmas. Clay never seemed so sexy until ghost Patrick Swayze and widow Demi Moore enjoyed a classic cinematic tryst in Ghost. Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger took his action hero status to the sci-fi realm in Total Recall.
Tim Burton’s unique cinematic vision proved the perfect pairing for the first successful summer comic book adaptation of them all, Batman. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids leaved little to imagine for the ensuing plot in the summer Disney comedy starring Rick Moranis, but was still an unexpected hit. By comparison, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was highly anticipated, what with the addition of legend Sean Connery to the iconic series, as was Lethal Weapon 2 with the addition of 1980s icon Joe Pesci.
Before Philadelphia and Forrest Gump made him a darling of the critics, Big was perhaps Tom Hanks’ signature film, playing a kid stuck in an adult’s body in a broad comedy, which was his forte at the time. Coming to America was a more adult and biting take on American culture, with Eddie Murphy at the peak of his run as an A list Hollywood star. Crocodile Dundee II continued to delight audiences but bore critics in its action comedy take with Paul Hogan’s Australian outback shtick as its driver. Finally, Who Framed Roger Rabbit drew raves for its innovative mix between live action and animation, complete with the sexiest cartoon ever, Jessica Rabbit.
Beverly Hills Cop II was less successful than the original at the box office and with critics, but it nonetheless was a huge summer hit with Eddie Murphy proving his mainstream comedic chops. Buddy cops films were the rage as the Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez oddball pairing worked for audiences in Stakeout. The serious fare of the summer was Brian De Palma’s gangster film, The Untouchables, with an all-star cast of Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery. Finally, The Witches of Eastwick saw rare box office success in the era for female star power with Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon playing the titular characters in the comedic fantasy.
James Cameron brought some action sensibility to Ridley Scott’s horror universe and it worked perfectly for critics and audiences alike in Aliens. After his surprise comedic success in 1980’s Caddyshack in a supporting role, Rodney Dangerfield proved his unique style could hold up in a lead role in Back to School as a wealthy and uneducated father going to college to support his son. Speaking of learning, The Karate Kid Part II followed up a cult classic with a young student played by Ralph Macchio being mentored by Pat Morita. And Top Gun “took our breath away” with its high octane military jet action sequences and earnest love story between leads Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis.
Back to the Future made TV star Michael J. Fox a film star, and made Marty McFly as memorable a character name as their ever was in cinema history. Cocoon gave early respectability to Ron Howard as a director in a dramedy about a group of elderly people’s interactions with aliens. The Goonies, inspired, amongst others, Netflix’s Stranger Things when a group of pre-teens goes on an epic adventure to solve a mystery. Finally, perhaps the most confusingly named sequel ever, Rambo: First Blood Part II, picked up exactly where its predecessor left off, and despite negative reviews, was the highest viewed film in the series.
The world now knew the answer to “who you gonna call” if you wanted the perfect mix of comedy and action in Ghostbusters. Comedic takes on classic genres were in the air when Gremlins proved horror could be hilarious and draw a large audience too for the delightfully evil little monsters. In opposition, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Doom drew a decidedly darker picture than the original, which at first drew negative critical response (though it would be redeemed when revisited over the decades since.) Finally, The Karate Kid lept into our hearts even earning Miyagi himself, Pat Morita, an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
As surprising as this may be, you have to go back 34 years to the last time a James Bond movie, this one starring Roger Moore, was a top four selling summer film in the domestic box office, with Octopussy. The same can’t be said for the Star Wars series, though Return of the Jedi, while not as liked as its predecessors, was still way better received by critics than the ensuing prequels. Trading Places earned Eddie Murphy new respect as the social satire ran deep when his homeless man and Dan Aykroyd’s tycoon switched lives. And WarGames skewered the cold war era equally strongly but with a more dramatic lens when a young computer hacker played by Matthew Broderick unwittingly almost starts World War III.
An Officer and a Gentleman was a romantic drama but Louis Gossett, Jr.’s drill instructor stole the show and won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was a rare combination of overwhelming positive response by critics and audience alike, and a science fiction film the whole family could enjoy. Rocky III grossed more than its predecessors, perhaps due to the presence of none other than Hulk Hogan in the cast. Finally, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan kept the engine rolling for the cinematic adaptation of the popular TV series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.