The Best Blockbuster Summers Of the Century So Far

It’s the last full week in August, but just before Summer Madness segues into Fall Folly, we thought we’d have a go investigating a claim we’ve been hearing asserted with some frequency: that Summer 2017 is one of the best blockbuster seasons in recent memory. We decided to pit it against the 17 other summer seasons this century (yes, pedants, we count the year 2000) to see how it stacks up.

Of course, the several-billion dollar questions are: how do we define “Summer Season” and how to we define the kind of films we want to focus on? The latter question is relatively easy: we’re talking mostly about tentpoles, blockbusters and franchise films, those with big budgets and wide releases, with the occasional smaller title (often in the comedy, horror or thriller genres) that punches through nonetheless. But needless to say, under “best film” below we’re not taking into account the many arthouse, indie and foreign titles counterprogrammed through these months.

Defining which exact months are covered by the terms is more complex. It’s a widely covered fact that for quite a while now, studios have been pushing back the summer window to include earlier spring months, in the hopes of getting ahead of the crowd and avoiding the yearly “blockbuster fatigue” that tends to set in by the end of July. April had been chipped away at, but some commentators date the inclusion of March as part of this “season” back to 2007, when “300” launched on March 9th and everyone went nuts for it.

We’re taking a slightly more conservative approach and treating the summer season as the standard late April/May – August definition for most of the century, but extending it to include March for this decade. It might seem arbitrary now, but we hope that decision will make sense to you as you read on: there were some films it just did not feel right to exclude from the discussion. Anyway, onward to the movable feast that is our rankings, worst to best of the Blockbuster “Summers” of the Century.

Chicken Run (2000)
18. Summer 2000
Best Movie: With apologies to Ridley Scott’s still-terrific “Gladiator,” it was probably Aardman’s glorious stop-motion animation “Chicken Run.” A WW2 escape movie, but with chickens, and featuring the voice of a pre-disgrace Mel Gibson, it had all the charms and very British humor of the same studio’s “Wallace & Gromit” movies, but with some real suspense and a few cracking action scenes. It remains the company’s best movie.

Worst Movie: Even given the usual late-summer dregs, it has to be “Battlefield Earth.” John Travolta’s passion project adapts the sci-fi novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but is so ineptly made and acted that it couldn’t even function as effective propaganda. It comes close to so-bad-its-good territory in places, but ultimately can’t even get that far, partly because the whole film is shot on dutch angles so severe that you eventually get a crick in your neck.

And The Rest: Maybe it was post-millennium anxiety, maybe it was that all the good movies came out in 1999, but the blockbuster summer of 2000 was easily the worst in recent memory. Things got off to a great start with Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” but aside from that and “Chicken Run,” there’s barely anything else good there. A couple of decent-ish teen comedies in “Road Trip” and “Bring It On,” maybe, one of Jackie Chan’s better U.S. vehicles with “Shanghai Noon,” and the generous might give some credit for the ok original “X-Men” movie, the visual inventiveness of “The Cell” (which is otherwise awful) and the deeply stupid but at least stylishly made “What Lies Beneath.” But beyond those, there was just a relentless parade of disappointments: one of Disney’s worst with “Dinosaur,” John Woo’s shot-almost-entirely-in-slo-mo franchise-low “Mission Impossible 2,” the incredibly dreadful “Big Momma’s House,” the end of the Cage/Bruckheimer era with “Gone In 60 Seconds,” the drab “Shaft” remake, underwhelming Carrey/Farrelly reteam “My Myself & Irene,” Roland Emmerich’s tone-deaf “The Patriot,” “The Perfect Storm,” which is a great poster and not a very good movie, and Paul Verhoeven’s worst movie with “Hollow Man.” If this was the state of studio movies at the start of the 21st century, we’re surprised everyone didn’t just pack it in and read a good book for the next seventeen years.

Captain America: Civil War
17. Summer 2016
Best Film: 2016, aka The Year The World Went Wrong, certainly had a Blockbuster Summer to match the general “wait, WTF just happened?” zeitgeist. Amid its cavalcade of disappointing-to-putrid titles, however, “Captain America: Civil War” was a bright spot. Increasing the fun quotient by lowering the obvious stakes (no universe-ending threat) and focusing on the internal dynamics of Team Avengers, featuring a great multi-stranded punch-up at an airport (yeah, locations are still pretty dull) plus introducing new favorite Tom Holland as Spider-Man in a nice cameo, the Russo brothers actually delivered pure popcorn entertainment in a way no other big-budget movie that year managed. And on the leaner end of things, Jaume Collet-Serra‘s “The Shallows” is pretty much B-movie perfection.

Worst Film: Well, fire up up your “Critics are Marvel shills” t-shirt guns, because amid an absolute embarrassment of shitty 2016 riches, we’re once again going to opt for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” as the very worst of the year, with a dishonorable mention for “Suicide Squad.” Internally, we’re divided over which of these DC crapbusters deserves the wooden spoon. But while neither was as universally reviled as, say, “Mothers’ Day” — thanks to a coterie of diehard, death-threat-issuing fans — there were no other films that better marked mainstream pop culture’s descent into tribal factionalism, and that were such bloated, expensive, noisy exercises in cynicism and slipshod, “Martha’s my mom too!” storytelling.

And The Rest: Perhaps it’s because we were suddenly distracted by the Transatlantic one-two punch of Brexit and Rise of Trump, or because a couple of strong contenders, like “Deadpool” and “Zootopia” released in February, but the characterizing element of Summer 2016, apart from colons, may well be just how many terrible films played that everyone has already forgotten about: “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Warcraft,” along with the reboots-of-films-nobody-wanted-to-see-return, like “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Alice Through The Looking Glass” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.” Many of the highlights were marked by financial underperformance — “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” “The Nice Guys,” “Kubo and the Two Strings.” And still more we’d have a hard time picking out of a lineup, just one year later, like “Jason Bourne” and “Now You See Me 2” with even relative successes like “Star Trek Beyond” and “The Jungle Book” feeling pretty anonymous. Family films provided one source of hope, with “Finding Dory,” ‘Kubo’ and “Pete’s Dragon” standing out amid “Ice Age” sequels and pets with secret lives and certainly being more pleasant to look at than the execrable adult animation “Sausage Party.” But when we were really stuck between The Rock and a hard place, The Rock provided: “Central Intelligence” was a pretty good time, elevated to “awesome” status by the dreck that surrounded it.

Scarlett Johansson and Chris Hemsworth in The Avengers (2012)16. Summer 2012
Best Movie: It’s not as artfully made as the summer’s other billion-dollar superhero movie, but “The Avengers” is definitely the most fun. After a slightly awkward opening, Joss Whedon’s superhero mash-up has a blast uniting the various Marvel heroes introduced up to that point, as entertaining when it lets its characters spark off against each other as it is during its genuinely spectacular battle-royale finale. It remains a high watermark for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one that’ll be difficult to top.

Worst Movie: As utterly redundant as Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” remake was, this has to go to Peter Berg’s “Battleship.” Adapted from the board game with a “Transformers”-aping aesthetic and the men-in-uniform fetish that often blinds Berg (who can be very talented), it’s a crashingly cynical, entertainment-free piece of work with literally nothing to recommend it. In a rare example of cosmic justice, however, it tanked hard.

And The Rest: Studio bosses were likely pretty happy with the summer of 2012: “The Avengers” kicked things off by breaking records left and right, and winning rave reviews while it was at it, and later in the summer Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” also hit the billion dollar mark. That film’s diminished by some, but we remain defenders of it: it’s the silliest of the trilogy, but in some ways the most consistent, and feels oddly freed in the way it embraces the comic-book origins in a way that the earlier films didn’t (it’s also oddly prescient of the Trump era in a lot of ways). “John Carter,” “Mirror Mirror” and “Wrath of the Titans” all tried to pull off the March release trick and failed, but it did okay for “The Hunger Games.” Beyond that, it was pleasing that “Magic Mike,” Steven Soderbergh’s look at the American dream and recession-era America, turned into an unlikely smash hit and Channing Tatum was already in our good books because of the unexpectedly great “21 Jump Street.” Pixar’s “Brave” is underrated and Laika’s “Paranorman” was a lot of fun late in the summer. But away from the YA adaptation and the two big superhero smashes (and to a lesser extent “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which is sort of passable but only when compared to its utterly dreadful sequel), this was a pretty brutal year. Comedies from reliable names (“The Dictator,” “That’s My Boy,” “The Watch,” “The Campaign”) mostly underperformed, leaving only the sour, mean-spirited “Ted” as a success. Tentpoles seemed to reach a new height of cynicism, with some turning out ok (“Men In Black 3” is honestly not a bad movie, though it’s not really very funny either), but movies like “Dark Shadows,” “Prometheus,” “Snow White & The Huntsman,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “The Bourne Legacy” making a fist at originality but actually being lazy IP-fishing with underdeveloped screenplays. Sadly, it would take a few years before those habits started to prove truly unprofitable…