Which summer delivered the best blockbusters?

We sift the stats to find ten vintage years for properly good multiplex movies

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If you think about it, the summer blockbuster is a bit of a backward concept. When it’s warm and sunny – when you should be outside ‘getting some fresh air’, who wants to sit in a dark room and subject themselves to two hours of over-produced, shamelessly commercial cinema?

Loads of people, apparently: last year, August alone saw UK and Irish cinemas take a whopping £111 million, despite the ‘Olympic effect’. Naturally, it’s all down to the line-up, and before awards season brings complex plots and challenging characters, May to September is when Hollywood is at its brash, brilliant best.

Still, for every ‘Dark Knight’ there’s a ‘Batman & Robin’ and while Hollywood can average a fat wallet year in, year out, some summer movies aren’t always fully deserving of the cash they rake in. Using our unique formula*, we’ve ranked the ten best years since 1980 for summer blockbusters. Be prepared for some surprises.

  • 2008

    The big five
    'The Dark Knight' (82), 'Iron Man' (79), 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' (65), 'Hancock' (49), 'Wall-E' (94)

    Average review score
    73.8

    Hit of the summer
    It bagged two Academy Awards, but despite ‘The Dark Knight’s artistic merit, Christopher Nolan’s gritty, growly ‘Batman Begins’ follow-up was everything a summer blockbuster should be: tense, pacey and packed full of infinitely quotable one-liners.

    Flop of the summer
    Harrison Ford hiding in a fridge. Shia LaBoeuf swinging through the forest like a teenage Tarzan. A spaceship. Really? After a 19-year wait, the fourth and (hopefully) final Indiana Jones film did just about all it could to defile childhood memories of the previous three.

    2008
  • 2004

    The big five
    'Shrek 2' (75), 'Spider-Man 2' (83), 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' (82), 'The Day after Tomorrow' (47), 'The Bourne Supremacy' (73)

    Average review score
    72

    Hit of the summer
    In a year dominated by surprisingly solid sequels, third Potter flick ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ was the standout, with a more mature tone to match the now fully pubescent cast.

    Flop of the summer
    With the disaster movie genre still recovering from its late ’90s flogging, scientifically iffy global warming picture ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ was always going to feel past its sell-by date. The endless, dull footage of people trudging through snow didn’t do the film any favours either.

    2004
  • 2005

    The big five
    'Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith' (68), 'War of the Worlds' (73), 'Wedding Crashers' (64), 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' (72), 'Batman Begins' (70)

    Average review score
    69.4

    Hit of the summer
    ‘Batman Begins’ may have reinvented the superhero movie, but if we’re going on pure crowd-pleasing charisma, there’s no denying the perfectly-pitched charm of ‘Wedding Crashers’, the likes of which has been rarely replicated in subsequent buddy movies.

    Flop of the summer
    It was the film that gave us the brand ‘Brangelina’, but cringey portmanteaus are among the smaller sins of ‘Mr & Mrs Smith’. A sorry, shallow exercise wasted on a strong and blameless cast.

    2005
  • 2012

    The big five
    'Avengers Assemble' (69), 'The Dark Knight Rises' (78), 'The Amazing Spider-Man' (66), 'Brave' (69), 'Ted' (62)

    Average review score
    68.8

    Hit of the summer
    The critics were always going to go nuts for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, but for us the surprise highlight was ‘Avengers Assemble’: a smart, stylish superhero ensemble that mercifully didn’t feel like having an entire special effects studio crowbarred into your imagination.

    Flop of the summer
    After establishing itself as one of the best action franchises of the previous decade, a change of personnel for ‘Legacy’ left the Bourne franchise in a sorry state. If there’s a more awkward Hollywood scenario than Jeremy Renner pitching up at the urinal next to Matt Damon, we can’t think of it.

    2012
  • 2010

    The big five
    'Toy Story 3' (92), 'Iron Man 2' (57), 'Twilight: Eclipse' (58), 'Inception' (74), 'Shrek Forever After' (58)

    Average review score
    67.8

    Hit of the summer
    Striking a timely blow for cinematic innovation, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending ‘Inception’ proved to be that rarest of treats – a blockbuster with brains. That Nolan wrote and directed this along with two thirds of his Dark Knight trilogy inside of five years is nothing short of astonishing.

    Flop of the summer
    Despite a budget almost three times that of the original, the wry brilliance of its predecessors was all but lost from the feeble franchise-closer ‘Shrek Forever After’, which pulled in a paltry $239 million at the US box office.

    2010
  • 2009

    The big five
    'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' (35), 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' (78), 'The Hangover' (73), 'Star Trek' (83), 'Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs' (50)

    Average review score
    63.8

    Hit of the summer
    With ‘Lost’ yet to reach its anti-climax, all-conquering writer/producer/director JJ Abrams was at the height of his powers when he rebooted ‘Star Trek’, and sure enough, the consensus among critics and nerds alike was that he absolutely nailed it. This summer’s follow-up, 'Star Trek Into Darkness', isn’t bad, either.

    Flop of the summer
    Were it not for Michael Bay’s CGI-saturated second Transformers movie dragging down the average, the summer of 2009 could very well have topped this list. Sadly, an otherwise stellar year can’t escape the tarnish of a film whose last hour consisted almost entirely of Megan Fox running away from explosions in a tight top.

    2009
  • 1996

    The big five
    'Independence Day' (59), 'Twister' (68), 'Mission: Impossible' (60), 'The Rock' (59), 'The Birdcage' (72)

    Average review score
    63.6

    Hit of the summer
    While football fans were busy weeping into their St George’s crosses and blubbing their way through another chorus of ‘Three Lions’, for moviegoers the summer of 1996 was all about Will Smith punching a tentacle-toting alien in its sort-of face then lighting up a fat stogie. Sadly, Smith is yet to sign up for the two recently-announced ‘Independence Day’ sequels, the first of which looks likely to come out in 2016.

    Flop of the summer
    As brilliantly playful as 1993’s fourth-wall-breaking ‘Last Action Hero’ was, it was a film that made it infinitely more difficult not to snigger at the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger reeling off dumb one-liners while holding a big gun. Enter ‘Eraser’, a film whose entire premise was exactly that.

    1996
  • 1984

    The big five
    'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' (72), 'The Karate Kid' (69), 'Police Academy' (45), 'Star Trek III: The Search for Spock' (55), 'Romancing the Stone' (71)

    Average review score
    62.4

    Hit of the summer
    Mine cart chases, monkey brain banquets, an only-slightly-annoying sidekick – the second Indiana Jones film was everything a blockbuster sequel should be (although, strictly speaking, the series’ chronology makes it a prequel), packing in some of Indy’s most iconic set-pieces and a deliciously dark voodoo villain.

    Flop of the summer
    Be honest now, aside from the awesome vocal chords of ‘man of 10,000 sound effects’ Michael Winslow, does anyone have any fond memories of the ‘Police Academy’ series? If we’d known in 1984 that six more were on the way we’d have intervened. Decisively.

    1984
  • 1993

    The big five
    'Jurassic Park' (68), 'Indecent Proposal' (35), 'In the Line of Fire' (74), 'Cliffhanger' (60), 'Groundhog Day' (72)

    Average review score
    61.8

    Hit of the summer
    Released at a time when CGI was something that propped up puppets and scarily life-like models rather than vice-versa, ‘Jurassic Park’ marked the end of an aesthetic era for big-budget blockbusters. Never before had a T-rex had such pant-peeing presence on film, and we doubt it will again.

    Flop of the summer
    It took more than $100 million at the box office, but critics and feminists alike were non-plussed by Adrian Lyne’s ‘Indecent Proposal’, in which high roller Robert Redford suggests Woody Harrelson’s struggling architect should revitalise the company accounts by leasing out his wife’s vagina.

    1993
  • 1991

    The big five
    'Terminator 2: Judgement Day' (68), 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' (54), 'The Silence of the Lambs' (84), 'The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear' (58), 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze' (45)

    Average review score
    61.8

    Hit of the summer
    Anthony Hopkins’ 16 minutes on screen as psychotic, chianti-quaffing killer Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ were enough for the Welshman to deliver the most terrifying turn of the year. The Academy agreed – the following year saw the film pick up five Oscars, including a Best Actor gong for Hopkins.

    Flop of the summer
    By far the shoddiest of the year’s lazy, rushed-out sequels was ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze’, where cheap costumes, irritating characters and overly whimsical tone weren’t enough to win over even the pre-teen target audience.

    1991

2008

The big five
'The Dark Knight' (82), 'Iron Man' (79), 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' (65), 'Hancock' (49), 'Wall-E' (94)

Average review score
73.8

Hit of the summer
It bagged two Academy Awards, but despite ‘The Dark Knight’s artistic merit, Christopher Nolan’s gritty, growly ‘Batman Begins’ follow-up was everything a summer blockbuster should be: tense, pacey and packed full of infinitely quotable one-liners.

Flop of the summer
Harrison Ford hiding in a fridge. Shia LaBoeuf swinging through the forest like a teenage Tarzan. A spaceship. Really? After a 19-year wait, the fourth and (hopefully) final Indiana Jones film did just about all it could to defile childhood memories of the previous three.

*Years are ranked by taking the average Metacritic Metascore (or, where unavailable, the Average Rating on Rotten Tomatoes) of each year’s five biggest-earning movies released in the UK between May 1 and August 31.

Will 2013 match up to these vintage years?

The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrman's multi-million dollar stab at F Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s epic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.

Man of Steel

A reboot of the Superman franchise from director Zack Snyder, who's decided to go back to the beginning with an orgin tale.

World War Z

Marc Forster tackles Max ‘son of Mel’ Brooks’s fine, journalistic account of a zombie uprising.

Monsters University

A prequel detailing the university days of Mike and Sulley – a time when they weren’t quite so chummy.


Users say

1 comments
Ian Mantgani
Ian Mantgani

Movies became popular during the summer because cinemas were family-friendly, cheap and air-conditioned. The trend of tentpole summer releases carrying on to this day became self-perpetuating once the trend of the "summer blockbuster" had been established - it's generally considered to be a phenomenon that really took off in the mid-70s, with movies like JAWS. A cursory bit of research would have shown up that fact, but then, I'm talking to a writer who thinks looking up a Metacritic score is historical research.

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