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’re going decade by decade—we started with the ‘80s, then moved into the ‘90s, and now it’s time for the 2000s. Before we get to the list, a few things to remember. First, we’re io9; we cover sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies. So Gladiator? Anchorman? Wedding Crashers? Not eligible. Second, we qualified “summer” as any film with a release date between May 1 and August 31. Third, we’re ranking these rather loosely, taking into account not just their quality, but their immediate cultural impact as well as long-term staying power. Films that were regarded highly then and still stand the test of time rank higher than a film that bombed upon release and enjoyed later success.
To start, here are a few other films released during that time that we considered but ultimately did not make this list: Sunshine, Chicken Run, What Lies Beneath, A Knight’s Tale, Tomb Raider, A.I., The Others, Shrek, Minority Report, 28 Days Later, Terminator 3, The Village, Alien vs. Predator, Mission: Impossible 3, Cars, Superman Returns, Snakes on a Plane, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, The Descent, Speed Racer, Kung Fu Panda, Wanted, Hancock, Up, Moon, and many more. That’s ridiculous, right? So many good (or at least memorable) movies. Check out what did make the cut below.
Coming off The Sixth Sense, every M. Night Shyamalan film became an event. The biggest of those was Signs, the creepy sci-fi movie about a family whose farm gets covered in crop circles. Sure, many people joked about the film’s big “twists” (water! Swing away!), but they joked because everyone saw it and it was a massive hit. (Opened August 2, 2002)
Even before it was a movie, The Da Vinci Code was such a popular title that it came with backlash. The movie suffered some of the same but that didn’t stop it from being a solid adaptation of a fun, propulsive story, with a cast (Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Jean Reno, and Ian McKellen) and filmmaker (Ron Howard) that had blockbuster written all over them. (Opened May 19, 2016)
Pixar crushed this decade. Hit after hit. Masterpiece after masterpiece. Hell, Up is arguably the best of the bunch and it didn’t even make this list. Ratatouille is here because, obviously, it’s amazing. But it also wasn’t the typical hyped up Disney movie, simply because rats and Happy Meals don’t really mix. (Opened June 29, 2007)
Every few years a smaller movie comes out of nowhere, blows everyone away, and becomes a runaway hit. In the 2000s, one of the prime examples of that was District 9, which took audiences by storm and became a must-see sci-fi spectacle with a big moral twist. (Opened August 14, 2009)
Steven Spielberg had three huge summer sci-fi movies during the 2000s but this is the only one that made the list. A.I. and Minority Report are great, no doubt, but each fails to match the pure spectacle and name recognition this Tom Cruise vehicle brought with it. It just feels like a summer blockbuster and it also outgrossed each of those about three times over. (Opened June 29, 2005)
Somehow it took almost 20 years for The Simpsons characters to star in their own feature. That alone made the excitement for this one pretty contagious. Though the film didn’t quite deliver like many fans may have hoped, everyone turned out for it anyway, creating a massive crossover hit. (Opened July 27, 2007)
If you were ranking Bourne movies you probably wouldn’t put the first movie at the top of the list. And yet, that list wouldn’t exist without it. In 2002, Matt Damon played a book-based spy many of us hadn’t heard of in a taut, sharp spy-fi film and turned it into a mega-franchise. What’s more summer than that? (June 14, 2002)
If Scream had been released in the summer, it would have been very high on our ‘90s list. However, the Wes Craven franchise did get spoofed a few summers later in the first of a very successful comedy series. Scary Movie is beyond crude and offensive but this first film was everywhere when it came out. You had to see it and everyone was quoting it, a true pop culture landmark. (Opened July 7, 2000)
We here at io9 think Wall-E is the best movie Pixar’s ever done. Which is why, despite grossing less than Ratatouille, we slotted it at 17. It’s just an incredible movie, filled with emotion, that crossed over for audiences of all ages. There’s something for everyone in the film and it works maybe better today than it did when it opened. (Opened June 28, 2008)
Of the eight Harry Potter movies, four came out in winter and four came out in summer. Of the summer ones released in the 2000s, Half-Blood Prince feels like the blockbuster standout. Fans knew what to expect and were ultra hyped, and it delivered the big surprise ending everyone was waiting to see that set the table for the final story. It also grossed more than Azkaban and Phoenix. (Opened July 15, 2009)
When the first X-Men came out in 2000, it was almost shocking to see multiple comic book heroes on the big screen. You just weren’t used to it. The film wasn’t the uber-success one might have expected, but its superior sequel was. Now that audiences were primed, X2 took things to a whole new level. In the decade that restarted the superhero film, the X-Men movies were important, excellent, and slightly understated entries. (Opened July 14, 2000, and May 2, 2003.)
This was a tough one. It’s Star Wars. What’s bigger than Star Wars? And in 2002 and 2005, fans were amped for these films. Each was a massive hit too. But it was with Attack of the Clones that the collective despair began to permeate the fandom: “Oh, maybe these movies aren’t great.” So when Sith came out, while we were all excited, we were fine with the saga being “over.” The films had all the hype but little of the payoff. (Opened May 16, 2002 and May 18, 2005)
Trek over Wars? Well, in the 2000s... absolutely. J.J. Abrams reinvented the Star Trek franchise by basically ripping off Star Wars, but it worked, becoming the best Star-titled movie of the decade. The new cast became instant stars and though it wasn’t a Wars-sized success, we did get sequels. (Opened May 8, 2009)
Reloaded was the only summer Matrix release, which is why it’s the only one you’ll see on any of these lists. It was also, by far, the most hyped of the bunch. The first film came out of nowhere and changed the world. So by the time part two came out, the world was vibrating with excitement to see the next chapter. It was a film that was everywhere, was hugely successful, and would’ve been higher on this list... if it was better. (Opened May 15, 2003)
It’s the little film that can, can, can! Moulin Rouge brought the Hollywood musical to a whole new audience by using pop music to tell a flashy period love story. Though it wasn’t a huge box office hit, especially in the U.S., filmmaker Baz Luhrmann made an entire genre cool again. The film still lives on today thanks to crossover hits like “Lady Marmalade” and stars like Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. (Opened May 28, 2001)
The film that started it all, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at least. For historical significance alone, Iron Man belongs on this list. It was also a huge hit that everyone was talking about and a really good movie—all the blockbuster ingredients. When you look back at it though, both in the context of 2008 and what the MCU would become, it’s the start of something much bigger. (Opened May 2, 2008)
When Transformers was big in the ‘80s, it was very big. A few decades later, director Michael Bay brought it back like only Michael Bay could, in mega-blockbuster fashion. Some $700 million later, suddenly the Transformers were back and they haven’t left since. (Opened July 3, 2007)
In the overall scheme of things, Batman Begins wasn’t the mega-hit you may remember. Worldwide it did a respectable, but not unfathomable, $373 million. Fans were still a little weary of Bat-films after the last few goofy entries but the ones who did show up were rewarded with a whole new approach to superheroes from Christopher Nolan: a gritty, grounded origin story (starring Christian Bale) that would set the table for decades to come. Plus the movie was incredibly good. And still is. (Opened June 15, 2005)
The decade of Pixar, right? Of that decade, the biggest, most influential film the studio had was this seemingly simple story about a missing fish. Finding Nemo was a critical and financial juggernaut becoming one of the highest-grossing animated films of all-time. Adults loved it, kids loved it, and the fact it took over a decade for a sequel to come out and it was still relevant, is a testament to its legacy. (Opened May 30, 2003)
“A movie? About a theme park ride? Johnny Depp looks like what? Oh god, there’s no way this movie will be good.” That was sort of the mindset going into this seemingly innocuous blockbuster. Once people saw it, though, that all went away. The movie was exciting. It was funny. The spectacle was massive. Suddenly pirates became kind of cool. Depp’s already huge fame took another leap and a tried and true franchise was born. (Opened July 9, 2003)
I struggled here. There’s no denying the huge importance that the success the first Spider-Man had on the film industry. Spider-Man 2 took things to a whole new level in terms of quality and then came Spider-Man 3 (which actually out-grossed the previous two due to huge anticipation). That film sullied the incredible franchise. So, while Tobey Maguire’s first two Spider-Man films were almost the best blockbusters of the 2000s, they fall just short of the title. (Opened May 3, 2002, and June 30, 2004)
Every other franchise with multiple entries on this list got lumped together. But not The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was a blockbuster on a level Hollywood didn’t think was possible. Its financial success? Unprecedented. Its quality? Award-worthy. Its cultural reach? Infinite. There’s not a superhero filmmaker, or fan, who makes movies now that doesn’t think about all the choices Christopher Nolan made with the Dark Knight, and despite coming out the same summer as the birth of Marvel, it really was the dawn of a whole new era. (Opened July 16, 2008)
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