Just like that, another summer has come and gone. In the latest victory for superhero domination, "Wonder Woman" handily ruled the dog days' box office, grossing north of $400 million in North America alone.
Blockbusters have always been big ― that's what makes them blockbusters. But before "Jaws" and "Star Wars" in the late 1970s, summer wasn't anything special to the moviegoing world. Ever since Steven Spielberg's and George Lucas' work changed that, the releases that flood theaters between May and August have grown progressively louder and flashier. Ballooning budgets and an increasing reliance on sequels have altered the Hollywood landscape at large, especially during the summer; nowadays, a blockbuster opens nearly every week.
Sometimes that bigger-is-better mentality pays off. Other times, it's a fitting source of nostalgia. (Compared to Marvel's catalog, "Jaws" is practically a silent film.) Where would we be without the classics that have driven masses to the comfort of air-conditioned multiplexes? And how would we find the gems if there aren't duds along the way? Popcorn fare is an annual tradition worth celebrating, for better and worse.
For one last dip in the pool, I've taken the highest-grossing summer movie from each year since 1975 and ranked the collective roster. The scoring rubric involves a simple blend of quality and cultural stature. You'll find many of your childhood favorites here, plus a handful worth forgetting.
See you next time, summer. We're gonna need a bigger blockbuster.
By the grace of God, the first "Transformers" sequel wasn't the demise of movies as we know them. Cacophonous, interminable, dizzying and distressingly devoid of actual characters, "Revenge of the Fallen" treats Megan Fox as Michael Bay's walking wet dream and Shia LaBeouf as an over-tanned bore. It's an embarrassment not only to moviemaking, but to all the kids who ever staged Autobot/Decepticon showdowns in their bedrooms. They deserve more than a pageant of violence that fetishizes guns and assaults them with product placement.
Grossed $479.2 million
Ever the stunt fetishist, Tom Cruise tore his shoulder filming the rock-climbing sequence that reintroduces federal agent Ethan Hunt. It wasn't worth it. The most "Mission: Impossible II" can claim is a cliffside car chase that nearly kills Thandie Newton's jewel thief but somehow convinces her she loves Ethan. That encapsulates the imagination of this movie in a nutshell: There isn't much. Director John Woo, foregoing most of "Mission: Impossible" director Brian De Palma's humor and heart, knows how to stage an action scene, but he can't overcome the silly plot about a biological supervirus and a hodgepodge of dull villains.
Grossed $355.3 million
Emo Spidey! The case of two Peter Parkers -- one good, one evil -- was a snooze, further dampened by too many villains, too many subplots, too much movie. "Spider-Man 3" hints at some of the darker themes that comic book stories explore, but it comes up overstuffed, long-winded and hollow, proving that Tobey Maguire's star power isn't great enough to send him strutting down New York streets like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever."
Grossed $434.8 million
"Iron Man 3" resisted the sins of its predecessor, opting for humor that zips and action that zags. Of course, this is still an early-2010s Marvel joint, which means long and overloaded with characters, with energy that's impossible to sustain. It's a video game in movie form. Still, the threequel is worth it for Adam Pally's breathless cameo and the introduction of Harley Keener, Tony Stark's precocious 10-year-old sidekick.
Grossed $433.9 million
Nothing can survive the hype that befell "The Phantom Menace." People snatched up tickets just to see the trailer, which premiered ahead of "Meet Joe Black" in 1998. George Lucas is among history's most ingenious conceptual storytellers, but the digital technology that persuaded him to reignite the long-gestating "Star Wars" prequels wasn't enough to overcome this movie's bloated narrative, frustrating characters and midi-chlorian mumbo jumbo. Of course, "Menace" is not without its merits, imagery-wise. In particular, Darth Maul's devilish appearance makes him one of the saga's defining villains.
Grossed $802.9 million
The second "Pirates of the Caribbean" flick features some of the series' most hair-raising sequences, as when buccaneers swing between two cliffs in orbs made of human bones. From start to (lengthy) finish, the creature design is spectacular. It's a shame that Johnny Depp gets in the way. His slurring Jack Sparrow isn't enough to sustain an ever-expanding franchise.
Grossed $574.5 million
Owing its lively charms to Eddie Murphy, "Beverly Hills Cop" is the definition of a star vehicle. By that standard, "Beverly Hills Cop II" can't be a total waste -- Murphy is just as committed to clever renegade detective Axel Foley the second time around. Alas, this sequel becomes a needless retreading of the original, minus the playfulness and shrewd fish-out-of-water racial commentary. It's the proverbial banana in the tailpipe.
Grossed $349.4 million
How did the dull, clichéd "Amityville Horror" ever become a classic? It opened one year before "The Shining" and three years before "Poltergeist," yet it's a poor man's imitation of both. Its score is a derivative blend of "Psycho" and "Rosemary's Baby," but "Amityville" can't sustain half of either's tension. It's a haunted house thriller that doesn't spend enough time haunting the house. Instead, we get sidetracked by the priest's breakdown, because it was the '70s and every horror movie wanted to be "The Exorcist." At least Margot Kidder was on hand to liven things up. She'd learned a thing or two about the genre from "Sisters" and "Black Christmas."
Grossed $291.4 million
Three movies in, Gotham got garish. Joel Schumacher took Tim Burton's spot, exchanging the latter director's grungy surrealism for cartoonish grins. That would be fine if "Batman Forever" didn't feel like a two-hour Happy Meal tie-in. Schumacher did, however, get charismatic villains out of Jim Carrey's Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face, and he brilliantly cast Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar as actual Sugar and Spice.
Grossed $376.1 million
"Toy Story" excepted, Pixar isn't very good at sequels. Thirteen years after its fantastic predecessor, "Finding Dory" found a lot of fans, becoming the studio's highest-grossing release to date. But aside from a well-conceived Sigourney Weaver joke and a testy octopus that can drive a truck, "Dory" coasts on charm and a positive message instead of ingenuity. That's not the worst thing, if you can stomach the repetitive slapstick gags that make the movie feel eternal.
Grossed $499.2 million
Walt Disney Studios
Joss Whedon deftly weaves the Avengers' backstories into one mega-squad, but this spectacle relies on the least interesting superhero narrative: reducing a metropolis to rubble in the face of a vague alien threat and an all-powerful energy source. The characters' repartee works in spades, but the action pulverizes its audience. By 2012, that was the template for these popcorn comic-book conversions. "The Avengers" did nothing to freshen that.
Grossed $683.5 million
For a case study in blockbusters' evolution, watch "Jurassic Park" and its noisier redux, "Jurassic World," back to back. The latter is fine: thrilling and fast-paced, with impressive CGI and Bryce Dallas Howard running in high heels to stoke internet controversy. But the movie invented a dinosaur and was still desperate for the awe of the original. The kids are interchangeable, the plot lacks wit, and the action sequences are designed to blow your ADHD mind instead of tingle your terrified senses.
Grossed $702.7 million
Is "Shrek 2 " a kids' cartoon or a winking satire for the grown-ups who trucked their offspring to the theater? After all, it features a fairy godmother belting out Bonnie Tyler's "I Need a Hero" and a slew of fairy-tale characters with no conventional fairy tale in sight. When the townsfolk gasp at the sight of a newly ogred Princess Fiona, a sharp comedy of manners follows. In fact, the entire sequel brims with culture shock, coupled with physical farce that does sometimes wear thin (see: Puss in Boots).
Grossed $631.6 million
20th Century Fox
Maybe we didn't need to know how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader after all. It's a thrilling proposition, bringing to life this origin story that George Lucas cooked up to aid him while developing "The Empire Strikes Back." Then came the results. "Revenge of the Sith" actually isn't a bad movie -- it's a feat of digital wizardry, punctuated by John Williams' expectedly grand score and thoughtful political commentary -- but it can't overcome its silly dialogue and wooden performances. Vader, newly suited up after his lava battle with Obi Wan, raises his helmeted visage to the gods and bellows, "Nooooo!" You might, too.
Grossed $527.4 million
Here's a romance shoved into a fantasy shoved into a thriller, with some pottery eroticism for good measure. "Ghost" built its DNA on the something-for-everyone model, a crowd-pleaser for any soul seeking an air-conditioned theater. It succeeds on two fronts: as the ultimate human-smooching-apparition fever dream, and as the vehicle that relaunched Whoopi Goldberg's stardom. Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore are ciphers in these roles, but Goldberg's funky medium, Oda Mae Brown, keeps the melodrama in check.
Grossed $457.5 million
20th Century Fox
"Made in America" and "Bad Boys" got him started, but "Independence Day" gave Will Smith his Movie Star™ certification. There aren't any real characters on hand -- just Smith cheering and charming his way through a counterattack meant to take down the alien race that's invaded Earth. Looking back, it's hard to believe Fox was worried about this movie. "Must a brainless sci-fi spectacle blow up the White House on a patriotic holiday weekend?" marketers queried. Of course, that imagery was pivotal to the movie's success, and "Independence Day" became the epitome of '90s summer staples: corny, frivolous and ruthlessly rewatchable.
Grossed $615.8 million
No modern classic has generated fiercer debates than "Forrest Gump." Rewatchable, quotable and seemingly big-hearted, this comedy-drama-fantasy hybrid suffers from its own cynicism: Imagine, for 2.5 hours, a dim-witted man happening upon the 20th century's most defining moments. In "Forrest Gump," American exceptionalism is not the product of hard work -- it's happenstance. The exposure of Watergate. The success of Apple. The invention of the smiley face. All accidents. Yet, despite that wonky messaging, Tom Hanks sells this movie with aplomb, convincing you that Forrest is indeed brave and ambitious. Through all the hammy sentimentalism, you can't help but fall in love. Sort of.
Grossed $698.9 million
"Top Gun" is a dogfight of a movie, fabulous during its intense moments and mind-numbing during its attempts at human emotion. It's obviously a cultural touchstone, though, sealing Tom Cruise's A-list stature and giving us one of the most deliciously homoerotic sports scenes.
Grossed $426.9 million
In 2000 and 2002, respectively, "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" slung the template for the 21st-century superhero. It was the latter that crystallized the genre as a whole, becoming the first movie to earn $100 million during its opening weekend. There's still a certain quaintness to Sam Raimi's colorful treatment. Maybe it's the pay phones and newspapers; maybe it's the mere fact that Marvel hadn't yet monopolized the big screen. Whatever it is, there's never been a kiss as tangled as that of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst's rain-soaked embrace.
Grossed $617.7 million
In the second half of the '90s, Batman became a parody of himself. Then, in the 2000s, Christopher Nolan made him oppressively joyless. Tim Burton was the only director who found Bruce Wayne's sweet spot. This movie went ham with its showboating villain, creating a dynamic quid pro quo between Jack Nicholson's maniacal Joker and Michael Keaton's sympathetic hero. Burton employed his signature surrealism -- inspired by German expressionism -- to the "Batman" flicks; they remain some of his best work.
Grossed $559.7 million
Even by today's standards, the live-action/animation hybrid in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is a feat of visual comedy. Its meta premise -- famous cartoon characters are studio hands who commune with less-interesting humans -- unfolds at breakneck pace, leaning into its goofiest tricks. The entertainment you grew up watching is treated as unbridled commercialism, with Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop one step removed from a film-noir murder mystery. As an adult, the humor doesn't land quite as succinctly; instead, you get to marvel at the many innuendoes that these sexy 'toons slipped past you.
Grossed $338.4 million
"Wonder Woman" arrived at the right time, in the right place, as a feminist anthem during a presidency that is anything but. Yet its selling point doesn't end with politics. "Wonder Woman," the first major comic-book movie directed by and starring a woman, is a fish-out-of-water comedy about an Amazonian warrior thrust into global combat. It didn't skip the glut of kineticism that dampens every superhero story's third act, but "Woman" still managed to promote world peace -- or at least good-heartedness -- amid all that frenzy. In other words, it captures the very thing that most of the genre misses: emotion.
Grossed $404.1 million (and counting)
The most charismatic Marvel movie to date, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is ideal summer fare. This high-spirited, irreverent spin on the merry band of saviors hunting for a universe-threatening orb -- always the damn orbs! -- winks at genre conventions, becoming a pop-art confection. It boasts one of the decade's coolest soundtracks and one of history's cutest talking trees.
Grossed $366.1 million
Warner Bros. thought Tim Burton went too dark in "Batman Returns." In fact, this sequel didn't get the admiration it deserved until people had "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin" to mock. What a shame. Odd and brooding, "Returns" confirmed that villains were the hallmarks of the Bruce Wayne template. We got Danny DeVito's squiggly Penguin and, especially, Michelle Pfeiffer's all-time-great Catwoman. Pfeiffer, going toe-to-toe with the best Batman who ever lived, Michael Keaton, makes Catwoman a combustible vixen -- she is dangerous and electrifying, just like the movie.
Grossed $348.8 million
If "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" commodified the Antichrist in popular culture, "The Omen" made it a sensation. Evil little Damien wasn't a hero gone bad; he was an all-out menace, the living embodiment of the demonic forces that we'd rather assume don't exist. Fox marketed the hell out of this movie, capitalizing on a fantastic decade for horror that has yet to be matched. The studio's efforts paid off, and rightfully so. Eerie without succumbing to stylistic overindulgence, "The Omen" turns child rearing into the gnarliest nightmare.
Grossed $262 million
"Shrek" has a Prince Charming and his sidekick, but they're nothing like their Disney counterparts. The princess locked in a castle tower is a Disney transplant, however, and that's where this jolly caper gets its wings. It's a comedy about social conventions set apart from even the savviest kids' movies: wry, self-aware, naughty. After spending a decade in development under Steven Spielberg's guardianship, "Shrek" became the inaugural Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature. It's just as delightful today.
Grossed $420.4 million
Aliens are better when they're funny. Barry Sonnenfeld leaned into that idea while directing "Men in Black," a highlight of the illustrious era in which blockbusters came with theme songs and corresponding music videos. The result gave us one of the decade's brightest comedies, anchored by the tit-for-tat charisma of Will Smith's quirky Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones' staid Agent K. "Men in Black" isn't silly in spite of itself -- it's silly because the best human-extraterrestrial dynamics are surreal and irreverent.
Grossed $485.5 million
Dammit, Pixar. Wasn't it enough to jerk our tears in the opening scenes of "Finding Nemo" and "Up"? Did you really need to rip our hearts into more pieces than it takes to put Mr. Potato Head together? When Andy let little Bonnie take Woody and the gang before heading off to college, it felt like we were giving them away, too. These were, after all, the toys that reimagined playtime for a generation. Saying goodbye -- at least until an unneeded fourth installment was announced -- offered more catharsis than any '90s kid could have imagined.
Grossed $464.1 million
In movie land, there's Before "The Dark Knight" and After "The Dark Knight." Christopher Nolan's Batman sequel hails from a distant era, before superheroes governed three-fourths of Hollywood. We still had the bandwidth -- the adoration, even -- for a relentlessly grim and somber DC Comics adaptation about corruption. People loved "Dark Knight" so much, in fact, that its Best Picture snub gave Oscar voters an existential crisis; they quickly extended the category to 10 nominees. No matter the brilliance of his unhinged performance, some of the affection surrounding this movie was the product of Heath Ledger's untimely death. Regardless, any comic-book film today risks drawing comparisons -- favorable or not -- to Nolan's austerity.
Grossed $662 million
Back when James Cameron still made cool movies, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" ingeniously twisted common notions of villainy and heroism. Suddenly, Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg went from one of the most iconic big-screen baddies to a guardian with a gun. Buried in the brilliant adrenaline, a story about the value of humanity emerged. It's one of cinema's greatest action flicks.
Grossed $432.6 million
Despite a revolving door of directors and the books' increasingly dense mythology, the "Harry Potter" movies are a wonder. "Deathly Hallows -- Part 2" isn't even the best of them, yet it's still one of the finest summer tentpoles. Uncompromisingly dark, the series' denouement turns Hogwarts into a totalitarian battlefield that's still thrilling no matter your familiarity with the story. Like the best parts of these movies, "Hallows" knows how to use sobering silence to establish mood, and it knows to lean into characters' hallmarks as we bid farewell. There is no greater story about mortality than "Harry Potter," but its finale went out full of life.
Grossed $426.6 million
The 30-minute sequence at Jabba's palace that opens "Return of the Jedi" is among the best the "Star Wars" universe has to offer. Better yet, it's some of the best in Hollywood history. It's almost too good, as the rest of "Jedi" can't quite capture its creeping brilliance. Except, of course, for the ultimate showdown between light (Luke Skywalker) and dark (Darth Vader), which reminds us why sequels exist in the first place.
Grossed $836.2 million
Film's greatest scoundrels would cower at the towering marshmallow that bulldozes through Manhattan at the end of "Ghostbusters," one of the best comedies ever to blend outsize special effects with droll character banter. It's Bill Murray's show, but everyone else squeezes into it with relaxed enthusiasm. Today, the movie's lingo is part of our vernacular, from proton packs to Zuul to the Ectomobile. You might say it slimed us.
Grossed $632.7 million
Hey, Mr. Grumpy Gills. What movie solidified Pixar as a box-office powerhouse and Ellen DeGeneres as a comeback queen? That would be "Finding Nemo," one of the wittiest frolics ever to tread water. Even among the few Pixar titles that were bigger hits, nothing the studio produced has captured the zeitgeist like this. "Nemo" is an adventure, but it's the enchanting characters that make it memorable -- stoned turtles, relapsing Sharks Anonymous members, tank fish terrified of the dentist's office, Dory's whale-speak and the titular little guy's amnemonemomne.
Grossed $547.5 million
Easily the merriest movie ever to marry time travel and incest, "Back to the Future" was influential enough for President Ronald Reagan to quote it in a State of the Union speech. In the '80s, movies were all about spirit, and this one has it in spades, thanks to Michael J. Fox's boyish lure, Christopher Lloyd's shaggy wacko and a sense of discovery that can only light up when you experience a magical story for the first time.
Grossed $525 million
"Grease" is two things: It's the word that you heard, and it's the best movie that cast a 30-year-old as a high school student (that would be Olivia Newton-John, parlaying her pop fame into a screen career). This bonbon popularized at least half a dozen earworms, many of which coat naughty adolescent romps in PG innuendos. That's what makes "Grease" fun -- it's a story about gender polarity, burgeoning sexuality, teen pregnancy and misplaced '50s nostalgia, dressed up in pastel poodle skirts. It's electrifying.
Grossed $684.3 million
Can you believe "Saving Private Ryan" was not only a summer blockbuster, but the highest-grossing movie of its year? That's the Spielbergien touch: A nearly three-hour war drama whose title character doesn't appear until the third act filled more theaters than guaranteed crowd-pleasers like "Armageddon," "Godzilla" and "A Bug's Life." It still holds up today. From the stunning 20-minute Normandy Invasion sequence that begins the movie to the closing graveside scene, "Saving Private Ryan" remains expertly paced, slyly humorous, appropriately schmaltzy and utterly devastating.
Grossed $406.7 million
When "Jaws" opened, summer wasn't anything special for the moviegoing business. Then Robert Shaw scratched his nails across that chalkboard and everyone had to listen. The beast that proverbially started it all, this was the first film to earn $100 million. "Jaws" is a glacier compared to today's kinetic blockbusters, which makes it all the more singular: We don't see the shark until more than an hour into the movie, partly because the mechanical props often malfunctioned and partly because it was the Hitchcockian thing to do. In the end, we made off with more than just a cinematic staple -- we also got this timeless video
of Steven Spielberg reacting to his Best Director Oscar snub.Grossed $1.14 billion
Remember that time a rousing adventure movie took down a troop of treasure-hunting Nazis? Of course you do, because Harrison Ford led the charge, and there's no hero like a Harrison Ford hero. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a delirious experience, at once exhilarating and exhausting, twisting the best Bond traits into an adroit comedy full of fortune and glory.
Grossed $787 million
It hardly gets better than this -- the movie that changed movies. No matter its gargantuan grosses, it's easy to take "Star Wars" for granted as American popular culture's trademark property. Make no mistake: This is the franchise you're looking for. Somewhere along the way, blockbusters forgot the formula that "Star Wars" invented, which melded a heavy dose of spectacle with character-based soap opera. Put this 40-year-old paragon next to almost any big-budget movie that's opened since, and it'll win every time.
Grossed $1.58 billion
The wonders of childhood can be distilled in any person's first viewing of "E.T." It's a story of friendship, domestic instability and innocent discovery, filtered through the lens of science fiction. Lurking beneath the iconic imagery is Steven Spielberg's hopeful disillusionment, in which the melancholy of suburbia gets a fantastical happy ending. There's never been a pal as fetching as E.T. It's great enough not to warrant a sequel.
Grossed $1.26 billion
"Jurassic Park" is an impeccable movie, still thrilling and amusing after a dozen-some viewings and 24 years of technological advances. Computer-generated visual effects were relatively unprecedented when Steven Spielberg's adventure opened in 1993, meaning almost every summer blockbuster since has an IOU to the Dilophosaurus that upchucked in Wayne Knight's face. From Laura Dern digging through dino droppings to Jeff Goldblum demonstrating chaos theory to the water shaking as the velociraptors case the kitchen, "Jurassic Park" is the stuff movie dreams are made of.
Grossed $817.2 million
"Star Wars" struck back with the best sequel of all time, the best blockbuster of all time, the best twist of all time, the best lost limb of all time. Upon its release, critics approached the inconclusive resolution with reluctance. What fools they were. "The Empire Strikes Back" is a tour de force of mythology building, from Yoda's training sessions on Dagobah to the unlikely Skywalker family tree. Even now that you know what's to come, the movie chugs along on hyperdrive, perfect from frame to frame.
Grossed $872.8 million