The 50 Best Summer Blockbusters of the 21st Century, Ranked

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It’s summer blockbuster season…everywhere but our home base of Ontario that is! Many writers at That Shelf can only look on enviously as colleagues elsewhere return to theatres and enjoy the best summer blockbusters on the big screen. If we can’t have the summer movies of 2021, then we’ll look back at the best summer blockbusters that defined the 21st Century so far.

We’re kicking old school with an at-home summer blockbuster retrospective. Looking at the list of the 50 best summer blockbusters, it’s apparent how much Hollywood has shifted during the prime summer months. Superhero movies and sequels define the 2010s, while standalone summer dramas are a novelty the further one gets in the timeline.

The Poll

We determined the best of the best summer blockbusters using fairly simple criteria. A “summer blockbuster” was any film that opened theatrically between May and August and grossed $100 million domestically. Anything from Avengers: Endgame to Fahrenheit 9/11 was therefore eligible, which yielded an eclectic round of ballots. Some exceptions were made for April releases that had legs and dominated the summer box office, a strategy notably used by the Marvel movies, which began opening earlier year by year. (A protest vote for Battleship—a bomb domestically that had less of a b.o. problem overseas—was also accepted to negligible effect.)

Ten That Shelf contributors ranked their top 30 films with 30 points allotted to the top choice, 29 points to the second, etc. Over 100 films received votes in the survey with some franchises and directors scoring a generous amount of enthusiasm. Other series split the vote between entries. From surveying the list though, it’s clear that our contributors have a few favourite things: car chases, Christopher Nolan movies, and Tom Cruise. Animation is also well represented here alongside a recent array of genre films. The top film, however, won the poll by a considerable margin after a neck and neck race in the first few ballots.

So without further ado, let’s pass the popcorn and celebrate the best summer blockbusters! Did any of your favourites make the list?

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

Often considered the best entry in the eight-film series, the third Potter adventure could really be titled The One Where Harry Grew Up. With darker themes of loss and betrayal, and a general sense of impending doom and unease (cue those unsettling Dementors), it’s no wonder Warner Bros. turned to genre-defying auteur Alfonso Cuarón to helm Azkaban. He deftly manages the different elements of Rowling’s magical world while grounding the fantasy elements with real emotional stakes. Cuarón also manages to pull more studied, mature performances from our core trio—an absolute necessity for both the success of this film and the franchise as a whole. Azkaban also saw some excellent additions to the Potterverse’s already superlative cast with Michael Gambon (replacing Richard Harris, who passed in 2002), David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall and Gary Oldman all joining the cast. In one fell swoop, Azkaban completely shifts the franchise into high gear and audiences were evidently eager to buckle in and enjoy the ride. – Emma Badame


49. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)


48. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

People go ape for this franchise, and I honestly have no idea why. Reigniting the adventures about damn dirty apes yet again after Tim Burton mucked it up in the 2001 intellectual property revival (né remake), Yawn of the Planet of the Apes and Bore for the Planet Apes offer more of the same, but with snazzier special effects. Go-to motion capture actor Andy Serkis once again awed audiences by endowing a non-human animal with human-like traits, while the innovative technology added impressive layers, textures, and clarity to Caesar’s eyes and fur— although one could argue that Serkis’s silent, more expressive turn as the titan of all apes in King Kong was actually far more nuanced a performance. However, one movie geek after another nevertheless cried “Hail, Caesar!” as the apes made audiences go bananas. Some people get way too excited over a monkey riding a horse. – Pat Mullen

47. Magic Mike (2012)

Anyone with access to the Google metrics for “Channing Tatum naked” would have been smart to throw dollar bills at Magic Mike. This film inspired by Tatum’s early career as a stripper is one of the few true indie hits on this list. Made for just $6.5 million with Tatum and director Steven Soderbergh putting up the bulk of the cash, Magic Mike grossed over $113 million domestically ($167 million worldwide). Featuring some sizzling numbers, the film satisfied thirsty audiences and showed them that Tatum was more than just a tasty snack, but actually a pretty good actor, a point he’d score further with Foxcatcher in 2014. The film puts a fresh spin on the backstage drama as Mike teaches a young recruit how to work the club and shake his moneymaker. Most notably, Magic Mike was a key film in the “McConaissance” as co-star Matthew McConaughey and his six-pack abs stole the show from Tatum. His rowdy cowboy was to the strip club what Joel Grey was to the titular cabaret. – PM

46. Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

“Having sex or boosting cars… Um, oo! Well, uh… How about having sex WHILE boosting cars?” Only a smooth operator like Nic Cage could sell such a silly line, and only an actor as equally zany as Angelina Jolie could convincingly react to it. Gone in 60 Seconds makes some sweet magic in the backseat as Nic and Angie lead a stacked cast of talented actors—Delroy Lindo, Robert Duvall, Vinnie Jones—on a ride-or-die night of boosting cars. As the crew endeavours to steal 50 luxury cars in three days, Gone in 60 Seconds delivers ludicrous fun. It’s the kind of film that Hollywood unfortunately doesn’t make much anymore: standalone escapism driven by fuel, rather than CGI. The film features one wild action sequence after another, upping the ante each time Cage puts the pedal to the medal. Dare one call it the fastest and most furious film on this list? – PM


45. Up (2009)

As Carl (Ed Asner) decides to make a fateful voyage and lifts his home through the air with the aid of some very durable balloons, he takes along a stowaway. The pair shows audiences what one generation can learn from the other. Even the most cynical viewer can’t help but shed a tear during Up. The film is especially touching for its sensitive portrait of the elderly, and of facing one’s mortality. The first ten minutes alone are enough to get the waterworks running. This beloved Oscar-winning Pixar adventure is pure schmaltz, but it owns its aged cheese in a way few movies do. – PM

44. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

For the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s game changing Dark Knight trilogy, we were given a high-octane, physical battle between Christian Bale’s Batman and Tom Hardy’s Bane with the caped crusader tested in a way we hadn’t yet seen. While it’s widely considered to be the weakest of the trilogy, don’t mistake it as a bad film — the bar set by Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is just that high. Nolan brings back Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman to reprise their roles from the first two films, and invites Inception alums Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard to join Hardy in the fun. And not to be left out, Anne Hathaway is tremendous taking up the Catwoman mantle. Dark Knight Rises wraps up the trilogy neatly with a trademark Nolan ending that people still debate nearly a decade later. Regardless of your feelings about Dark Knight Rises, it’s undeniable that Nolan gave us three of the best summer blockbuster experiences. – Rachel Ho

43. Star Trek (2009)

The term reboot has been bandied about a lot over the last few decades but there are few cinematic attempts that have worked quite as well as this return to the Starship Enterprise and its crew. But even with an incredibly strong, action-packed yet humourous script from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and a clear vision from director J.J. Abrams, the film’s success hinged on its cast and their chemistry. After all, where is a ship (in space or otherwise) without its crew? They hit pay dirt with Chris Pine (one of the best Chris’s), Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and the late Anton Yelchin. Each managed to capture a little something of the famous original performances while making the characters their own. They clicked as a team too, so much so that it’s hard to believe this was the first installment in the series. Add in a run of riveting visuals, a stellar score from Michael Giacchino and a pleasing number of nods to past moments in the franchise, and you’ve got a truly successful reboot that satisfied both old fans and new audiences alike. – EB