The 32 greatest summer blockbusters

The Dark Knight
(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

There’s just something about the long, dog days of summer that makes it the perfect time to go see a movie. While great movies come out any time of the year, the summertime has long been coveted by Hollywood studios to release all of their biggest and most expensive crowd-pleasers of the year. It makes sense, anyway. The summer is when kids and teenagers are out of school with little to do, and even adults try to cut loose with vacation time. With so many good vibes in the air, who wouldn’t want to kick back in the cool confines of a movie theater?

Starting with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, the concept of the "summer blockbuster" has made the months between May and August (and sometimes, maybe September) as the months for Hollywood to unleash the biggest movies of the year. Because it’s always summer in our hearts, here are 32 of the greatest summer blockbusters of all time.

32. The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford, wasn’t the first movie about an innocent man accused of a heinous crime in a desperate race to clear his name. But in August 1993, the Andrew Davis-directed action thriller (itself based on a popular 1960s television series) ran wild with that premise all the way to the finish line, grossing an epic $370 million worldwide. Propulsive and exciting in the ways the best old school action movies used to be, The Fugitive is easily one of Ford’s best single movies and still compulsively rewatchable to this day.

31. Hot Fuzz (2007)

Hot Fuzz

(Image credit: Rogue Pictures)

With Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright didn’t quite satirize the action movie genre. Rather, the English filmmaker affectionately mimicked its many tropes and cliches while showing off his own impressive craftsmanship. In his sophomore feature after his popular 2003 indie hit Shaun of the Dead, Wright tells of a sharp London cop (played by Simon Pegg) who is transferred to a small town with a homely police precinct where he unearths a dark conspiracy. With explicit influences from Michael Bay and Jackie Chan, Wright blows up a cozy and pleasant English village with the extreme firepower of a true Hollywood blockbuster. 

30. It (2017)


(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

It’s not just one of the most successful Stephen King movie adaptations of all time, but maybe one of the best, up there with The Green Mile and The Mist. It, the first in a duology by director Andy Muschietti, is a handsome rendition of King’s epic tome about a group of outcast Maine children stalked by a terrifying alien entity who mirrors their own worst fears. While It has the full might of a major studio supporting it, the movie’s hair-raising scares still pinpoints our innermost demons. While the 2019 sequel It: Chapter Two regrettably fumbled the ball, It still conjures up real screams, proving horror is just as mighty as superheroes at the box office.

29. Fast Five (2011)

Fast Five

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

What appeared on paper to be the last in the Fast & Furious series wound up its new beginning, shifting into a higher gear of Hollywood prestige. A continuation after 2009’s fourth installment, Fast Five sees Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) on the run in Brazil, where they hatch a scheme to rob a criminal overlord with the help of some carefully chosen friends - sorry, we mean family. Fast Five also marks the franchise debut for Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs, his meaty presence alone elevating the franchise into being something more than just racing cars. 

28. Independence Day (1996)

Independence Day

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Arguably one of the most consequential hits of the 1990s, Roland Emmerich firmly established his brand as the king of popcorn disaster movies with his box office juggernaut Independence Day. While basically a classic alien invasion flick, it’s through Emmerich’s superpowered execution - and his personal belief that no alien invasion would be subtle, as seen in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers - that makes Independence Day explode like 4th of July fireworks. Among its all-star cast is Will Smith, in the midst of his transformation from TV sitcom darling to bankable Hollywood hero. 

27. Spider-Man (2002)


(Image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Thanks to X-Men, superheroes were finally a viable genre for Hollywood. But after the black-clad features that were Blade and X-Men, horror director Sam Raimi injected much-needed comic book color with his groundbreaking summer hit of 2002, Spider-Man. With Tobey Maguire in the lead role, Spider-Man’s origin story is modernized for the 21st century, his battle with his arch-villain Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) serving an elaborate metaphor for growing up and finding out your enemies are closer to you than you think. Spider-Man changed the superhero movie genre forever, proving it was more than possible to more authentically bring the source material to the screen. The rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe a few years later is owed in large part to Spider-Man.

26. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Doug Liman’s riotous send-up of domestic dramedies and spy thrillers famously starred Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who's on screen pairing in this film led them to prominence as a real Hollywood power couple for a time. With a box office gross of over $478 million worldwide, Mr. and Mrs. Smith - about a suburban married couple who discover they are both employed at rival agencies after they’re assigned with killing each other - was both Pitt and Jolie’s highest grossing movies until the later release of films like World War Z and Maleficent. The cultural impact of Mr. and Mrs. Smith lingers as a recurring staple on cable TV, not to mention wedding invites with couples recreating Pitt and Jolie on the poster.

25. Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

There was a time when Star Trek seemed like a dead franchise. But when J.J. Abrams kicked off the 2009 summer movie season with his cinematic reboot, Star Trek again boldly went where few had gone before: number one at the box office. Depicting an alternate timeline diverting from the classic series continuity, Star Trek sees the assembly of the USS Enterprise in its confrontation with Nero (Eric Bana), an evil Romulan from the future. Packed with Easter eggs to entertain hardcore fans but still accessible to welcome new recruits, Abrams’ Star Trek blasts off with pure adrenaline.

24. The Hangover (2009)

The Hangover

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

R-rated comedies enjoyed a significant level of prominence throughout the new millennium, with its climax being 2009’s The Hangover. From director Todd Phillips, The Hangover was and still is the ultimate guys’ movie, in which three men (and a baby) search for their missing pal in Las Vegas after an uncontrollable bachelor party. The movie made huge stars out of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Ken Jeong, plus reintroducing Mike Tyson as a pop culture figure. Though its sequels failed to keep the party going, The Hangover still rages. 

23. Ghostbusters (1984)


(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

While it is now a Halloween season staple, Ivan Reitman’s groundbreaking comedy sci-fi Ghostbusters opened in theaters in June 1984. A clever genre hybrid featuring action, comedy, horror, and science fiction contained in a single unit, Ghostbusters redefined the look and feel for summer movies for generations to come. Though it was made for adults, being an adult-oriented comedy about starting a business in Reagan-era New York City, many kids latched onto Ghostbusters drawn in by its cartoonish ghouls and eye-popping lasers, creating a massive franchise in the process. 

22. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The first in the Harry Potter series to release in the summer months (in late May and early June 2004), Prisoner of Azkaban saw Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón’s helm this sequel to the hit fantasy franchise. It was also the first time the grounds of Hogwarts felt darker and more treacherous than anyone believed. In his third year at the wizarding school, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) seeks the truth about his past with the help of an escaped prisoner (Gary Oldman) who knew his parents. Still revered as one of the best movies in the entire Wizarding World, Prisoner of Azkaban illuminated to all just how fast the Harry Potter generation was growing up.

21. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan

(Image credit: DreamWorks Pictures)

The late 1990s saw summer blockbusters evolve, with more action-oriented hits that don’t exactly generate awards prestige. But in July 1998, Steven Spielberg challenged that divide with Saving Private Ryan, his moving World War II with Tom Hanks playing a U.S. Army captain tasked with leading a group of men to locate and rescue Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) somewhere in Normandy. Even in a very crowded summer movie season with more bombastic films like Deep Impact, Godzilla, Armageddon, and The Mask of Zorro, Saving Private Ryan stood out with its tender portrait of valor and sacrifice, reasserting that box office dominance and critical acclaim don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

20. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Even when the Marvel Cinematic Universe felt like an unstoppable force, there were still times that its invincibility was in question. Enter: Guardians of the Galaxy, a mighty obscure science fiction-oriented popcorn movie about characters no one had ever heard of. (A talking tree named Groot? What?) But under the careful direction of Troma alum James Gunn and a chemical mixture of the right stars - including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Dave Bautista and Bradley Cooper - Guardians of the Galaxy showed that Marvel could make a movie without any of the Avengers and still deliver something superheroic.

19. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Mission: Impossible -- Fallout

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

There’s no Hollywood franchise that lives up the spirit of the summer more than Mission: Impossible. After the game-changing original movie broke records in 1996, Tom Cruise has taken the series to bigger death-defying heights through multiple sequels. The highest-grossing entry in the entire saga was and still is the 2018 installment, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, in which Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and the IMF race to stop a nuclear attack. While you can make a case for every one of the M:I movies to enjoy recognition as an all-time summer blockbuster, the numbers for Fallout don’t lie.

18. Aliens (1986)


(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

It’s a truly rare feat for a sequel to outdo the original. It’s even rarer that a sequel can outdo the original and feel like a totally different movie. That’s the case with Aliens, James Cameron’s sequel to the 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien by Ridley Scott. In cranking up the volume as an action movie instead of a creepy space horror, Cameron demonstrates his prowess as a hit tentpole maker; Aliens is the story of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakening from stasis to find a human colony is at the mercy of the same acid-spewing species she’s seen before. Though Scott’s original is an untouchable horror classic, Cameron’s sequel proves you can blow it all up and still come out the other side with an equally revered piece of mainstream art. 

17. Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo

(Image credit: Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios)

Not all of the greatest summer movies involve nuclear weapons and superheroes. In 2003, Disney claimed second place at that year’s box office with the Pixar smash Finding Nemo, about an overprotective clown fish father (Albert Brooks) who teams up with forgetful Dory (Ellen Degeneres) to find his only son lost somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean. With its mesmerizing immersion into our vivid blue seas - all gorgeously rendered in sophisticated CG animation - Finding Nemo swam its way into our hearts, with its equal balance of moving tenderness and laugh-out-loud humor. 

16. Apollo 13 (1995) 

Apollo 13

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

"Houston, we have a problem." Anchored by Tom Hanks and co-starring Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, and Gary Sinise, Ron Howard’s realistic period drama Apollo 13 details the harrowing rescue of astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft, who were on their way to mark mankind’s third landing on the Moon before fate intervened. A beautiful picture about bravery and trying to chase dreams even as they begin to fade away, Apollo 13 lit up the box office in its June 1995 release, grossing over $355 million worldwide.

15. Inception (2010)


(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

After his reboot Batman movies made him a household name, Christopher Nolan defied all reason as a commercially successful director known for cerebral storytelling. With his original sci-fi Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays the leader of specialists who attempt to carry out a heist within the dreams of an affluent heir, Nolan cemented his status as one of the few major Hollywood directors in the modern era to draw in audiences just by their name alone. Since Inception, Nolan has further defined the culture with movies like Interstellar, Tenet, Oppenheimer, and more. Inception may be a real mind maze, but watching it unfold, it’s not hard to get willingly lost in its winding and spinning corridors. 

14. Bridesmaids (2011)


(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Arriving just in time for wedding season in May 2011, Bridesmaids from director Paul Feig redefined the vibe of R-rated comedies for at least the next decade. Set in the contemporary post-recession, single thirty-something underachiever Annie (Kirsten Wiig) struggles in her role as maid of honor for lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). A genuine laugh-riot with some of the best women comedians working at the time, Bridesmaids quickly became more than just a hit comedy. It became a touchstone for messy millennials trying to fit into the clothing of proper adulthood. Although Bridesmaids opened second to Marvel’s Thor at the box office, it still grossed a mighty $306 million worldwide, allowing it as much cultural staying power as the Avengers thanks to its quotable lines and endless GIFs.

13. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

(Image credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution)

No one, not even studio executives at Disney, had faith in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Though Gore Verbinski’s horror remake The Ring was a major hit the year prior, the first film in the eventually successful series had low expectations, being wildly expensive (costing a then-astonishing $140 million) and being rooted in an outdated Disney theme park attraction. This was also before Johnny Depp was considered a bankable movie star. While other movies in the series drew more money, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is altogether the most consequential, creating a new franchise for Disney, creating a star out of Depp, and being simply a perfect movie in its own right.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

A stylish and textured throwback to swashbuckler epics of yesteryear, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark is a true Hollywood masterpiece that still glows like a priceless artifact. Serving as the introduction of Harrison Ford in one of the greatest roles of his career, Raiders of the Lost Ark follows the brave adventuring archaeologist - and the beautiful, equally resourceful Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) - on a dangerous mission to stop Nazis from obtaining the mystical Ark of the Covenant. Raiders of the Lost Ark is more than just a great and important movie that set a new standard for summertime tentpoles. It keeps a towering influence over the whole action-adventure genre, shadowing everything from The Mummy to Jumanji, and even video game franchises like Tomb Raider and Uncharted.

11. Speed (1994)


(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Speed was not the first action hit of Keanu Reeves’ career. That honor belongs to Point Break. But Speed took Reeves, and co-star Sandra Bullock, to a whole new level of Hollywood movie stardom. In its deceptively simple premise of a terrorist rigging an L.A. bus to explode if it drives too slowly, Speed masterfully delivers suspense, thrills, and even a few laughs through Reeves and Bullock’s made-for-each-other chemistry. With a worldwide gross of over $350 million, Speed earns recognition as a true action classic of the 1990s, and proved Reeves’ stardom to later appear in other mega-hits like The Matrix and John Wick.

10. Wall-E (2008)


(Image credit: Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios)

A heartwarming if also foreboding piece of science fiction, Pixar’s Wall-E flings audiences far into the future to follow a humble robot left behind to clean up a desolate, climate-ravaged Earth full of waste. As mankind has softened into a lazy species, it’s up to Wall-E and his new crush, the cutting-edge robot EVE, to bring mankind back home. Featuring minimal dialogue but maximum feelings, Wall-E was a major theatrical show-stopper in summer 2008, holding its own against even bigger hits like Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Wall-E proves that just because a movie doesn’t have actual human characters doesn’t mean it has to be absent of heart and soul.

9. Barbie (2023)


(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

It’s frankly impossible to remember the miracle that Barbie really was. Beyond its zeitgeist-defining "Barbenheimer" moment in the summer of 2023, Greta Gergwig’s billion-dollar hit is a Trojan horse about inner turmoil and despair, all wrapped in a pretty box of hot pinks and Dua Lipa bops. Margot Robbie stars as the world-famous Mattel doll whose perfect world is shattered when she finds out what’s happening in the real world. In direct defiance of what audiences expect a Barbie (and Ken) movie should be, Gerwig’s movie instead delivers what audiences actually needed: A reminder of how incredible it is to be human.

8. The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Four years after Robert Downey Jr. shook the world as Iron Man, the upstart Marvel Studios enjoyed its biggest payoff up to that point with The Avengers from writer/director Joss Whedon. A synthesis of four other loosely connected feature films before it, The Avengers proved that moviegoers had it in them to follow a single story told across several movies on the big screen. Whether you still vibe with superhero movies or not, there’s no denying its seismic impact over Hollywood and mainstream culture, making the name "Marvel" synonymous with must-see event cinema. Never mind that Marvel later made even bigger movies afterward; in a lot of ways, The Avengers was and still is the high that Marvel and its rivals chase after.

7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures)

The original Terminator was a hit. But James Cameron’s epic follow-up Terminator 2: Judgment Day changed everything. Set in the then-near future of 1995, a reprogrammed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives to protect misfit John Connor (Edward Furlong) from assassination - by the liquid monstrosity T-1000, played by Robert Patrick - to ensure his destiny as mankind’s hero against the machines. Between all the explosions, highway chases, and endless gunfire, T2 is a surprisingly sophisticated story about hope, legacy, and faith in each other. It’s the rare sequel that, ahem, terminates its predecessor with aggression. With an estimated $102 million production budget, T2 more than earned it back with a worldwide gross of $520 million.

6. Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

What happens if you zip back in time and accidentally catch the eye of your own mother? Thanks to Robert Zemeckis, we (mercifully) don’t have to wonder about that ourselves. A sci-fi comedy classic that defines the 1980s like nothing else, Zemeckis’ Back to the Future is the ultimate time travel adventure in which suburban teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) hops on a tricked-out DeLorean to wind up in the 1950s, where he meets his own parents in high school. Long before the age of the cinematic universe and endless franchising, Back to the Future lit up theaters in July 1985, eventually grossing $388 million on a surprisingly lean budget of $19 million.

5. Jurassic Park (1995)

Jurassic Park

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

It cost a whopping $63 million in 1993, and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park spared no expense. Besides the simple fact it spawned a major media franchise, Spielberg’s original film is a towering artistic achievement that warns of mankind’s careless quest to conquer nature. (Never mind that Jurassic Park was made possible thanks to the most cutting-edge filmmaking technology at the time.) A rousing survival thriller in which lost scientists - and some unlucky, curious kids - find themselves lost in a yet-to-open theme park overrun by scientifically resurrected dinosaurs, Jurassic Park is just scary enough to spook scaredy cats but triumphant enough to please the whole family. It is just one of those movies that, after it came out, nothing was the same ever again. 

4. Jaws (1975)


(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

It’s eerily perfect just how much Steven Spielberg’s Jaws lives up to the term, "summer blockbuster." A masterful monster movie about a man-eating shark terrorizing a small beach town, Jaws is also about the foolishness and impatience of man, and its refusal to admit when something is amiss in our very ecosystem. Jaws is without question one of the most successful and iconic summer movies of all time - it’s grossed a colossal $476 million over a humble $9 million budget - that still reveals the darkness lurking beneath sun-bathed waters.

3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

(Image credit: Lucasfilm)

When Star Wars (now titled Star Wars: A New Hope) opened in summer 1977, it took the world by surprise. But when May 1980 rolled around with the sequel The Empire Strikes Back, the world was still unprepared for what was coming to them - and how it would shape fandoms for years to come. A continuation of Star Wars, the Empire Strikes Back sees Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) briefly part ways with the Rebellion to train under the elusive, reclusive Yoda in the ways of the Jedi. Bigger and arguably better than Star Wars in almost every regard, The Empire Strikes Back laid the foundation for what all sequels should do: expand, not imitate, the original.

2. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

A crime epic masked as a politically charged detective thriller, Christopher Nolan changed the 21st century film industry with The Dark Knight, one of the first superhero movies to gross over a billion dollars at the box office. Picking up from Batman Begins (released in 2005), Christian Bale returns as the Caped Crusader who comes face to face with the deranged mastermind known as the Joker (Heath Ledger, in an iconic performance that posthumously won him an Oscar). The Dark Knight opened in the dead heat of the 2008 summer season, which was kicked off by the more colorful Iron Man - the first in Marvel’s big shared universe experiment. But The Dark Knight easily outmuscles Marvel’s freshman effort. Underscored by post-9/11 paranoia, and unintentional echoes of the timely economic recession, The Dark Knight casts a long, dark shadow that all superhero movies still try to escape from.

1. Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

When the air is hot, we seek shelter in the cool embrace of a dark theater. And that’s when we flock to movies like Top Gun. Released in May 1986, Tony Scott’s summer action epic electrified cinema forever with a riveting story about heroism and bravery that never once surrenders its sense of style. A hotshot pilot (played by Tom Cruise) stands at odds with the authorities, and his gorgeous instructor (Kelly McGillis), at the elite Top Gun Naval Fighter Weapons School. A perfect summer movie if there ever was one, Top Gun takes all our breaths away as it charges in, and around, and high above, the danger zone. 

Eric Francisco

Eric Francisco is a freelance entertainment journalist and graduate of Rutgers University. If a movie or TV show has superheroes, spaceships, kung fu, or John Cena, he's your guy to make sense of it. A former senior writer at Inverse, his byline has also appeared at Vulture, The Daily Beast, Observer, and The Mary Sue. You can find him screaming at Devils hockey games or dodging enemy fire in Call of Duty: Warzone.