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The 10 most popular summer movies of all time, ranked by box office gross

It’s been almost 50 years since Jaws first hit theaters, essentially inventing the summer blockbuster with its release. In the years since summer blockbusters like the Mission: Impossible movies and the latest MCU film have become an annual tradition and an ideal way to escape from the heat of the summer season. Blockbusters are, in their very nature, meant to be popular, but some of these movies are far more popular than others.

In determining which blockbusters are the most popular in history, though, you can go a couple of different ways. Ultimately, this movie ranks movies that came out in the summer movie season (very late April through the end of August) by their overall gross adjusted for inflation. These are the summer movies that sold the most tickets, ranked from tenth to first.

10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

10. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Genre Adventure, Action
Stars Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman
Directed by Steven Spielberg
This is not the last time Steven Spielberg will show up on this list. The Hollywood mogul has made a number of incredible summer successes, and Raiders of the Lost Ark may be among the most iconic. The film introduces audiences to Indiana Jones, and takes him on a rip-roaring adventure to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis can get their hands on it. The movie is wildly entertaining, features a number of ingenious action set pieces, and proved once and for all that Harrison Ford was going to be a major star. There’s a reason this became a franchise, and it’s because the first installment was so incredible.
INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK | Official Trailer | Paramount Movies

9. The Lion King (1994)

9. The Lion King
Genre Family, Animation, Drama
Stars Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons
Directed by Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Combining a story based on Hamlet with some cute lions and a stellar score from Elton John proved to be a slam dunk for Disney, which scored one of the biggest hits of its entire history in June of 1994. The Lion King was such a phenomenon that even the live-action remake performed well in spite of the fact that no one actually liked it. The Lion King, which came five years into the Disney Renaissance, remains one of the defining works of Disney’s entire history.
The Lion King | Original Trailer | Disney+

8. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

8. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman
Directed by George Lucas

The anticipation for The Phantom Menace was impossible to quantify ahead of the movie’s release in 1999. And, while the movie’s reputation hasn’t exactly lived up to all that hype, it’s easy to understand why it became a genuine phenomenon upon its release.

Even if everything in the movie (which launched the divisive Prequel Trilogy) doesn’t work, it’s hard to deny the final confrontation between Obi-Wan, Qui Gon and Darth Maul, as well as the genuinely riveting score that accompanies it. The Phantom Menace may not have an unimpeachable reputation today, but people still love Star Wars decades after its release.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - Trailer

7. Jurassic Park (1993)

7. Jurassic Park
Genre Adventure, Science Fiction
Stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Steven Spielberg

One of the great blockbusters ever made, Jurassic Park should likely have remained a single film. Even though it became a franchise, though, those other movies do little to diminish the sheer power of this first installment.

Telling a story of hubris set on an island where dinosaurs have returned from extinction, the movie was credited at the time for being a watershed moment in the history of visual effects. Some major blockbusters released today, more than 30 years later, still don’t look as good as this movie did 30 years ago. And again, it has an astonishingly great score.

Jurassic Park (1993) Theatrical Trailer

6. Return of the Jedi (1983)

6. Return of the Jedi
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Directed by Richard Marquand

Return of the Jedi is probably the worst film in the original Star Warstrilogy, but that’s no knock on it when you consider how good the other two installments are. Even if you’re not an Ewok fan, though, Return of the Jedi still manages to bring this trilogy to an incredibly satisfying conclusion, so much so that people didn’t clamor for more than a decade.

The final confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor remains one of the great chamber-piece moments in any film, and Ewoks or not, Return of the Jedi has plenty that makes it worth a rewatch.

Return of the Jedi: Theatrical Trailer 1982

5. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

5. Avengers: Endgame
Genre Adventure, Science Fiction, Action
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

The culmination of more than a decade of superhero storytelling, Avengers: Endgame managed to more than live up to the hype around it. Picking up right where Infinity War left off, the movie is satisfying in basically every way that Marvel fans could have wanted it to be.

It’s emotional, hilarious, and manages to spotlight a couple of characters that you might have assumed would be left on the sidelines. Even as it fills its runtime with a truly shocking number of celebrity appearances, though, Endgame is also a movie that wraps up the stories of its two central characters in a highly satisfying fashion, and that’s what will help it endure.

Marvel Studios' Avengers - Official Trailer

4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

4. The Empire Strikes Back
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Directed by Irvin Kershner
A sequel that may have even surpassed its predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back was a major phenomenon upon its release, even though the movie was a bit controversial when it first hit theaters. Even so, the movie’s box office numbers prove that many people saw and adored this sequel, and its reputation has also continued to grow in the decades since it first hit theaters. Undoubtedly the darkest of the movies in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have the same happy ending that the original Star Wars did, but it certainly left fans hungry for more.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

3. Jaws (1975)

3. Jaws
Genre Horror, Thriller, Adventure
Stars Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Directed by Steven Spielberg

In retrospect, Jaws feels like a somewhat unlikely suspect for the movie that would redefine Hollywood. Although it was the first summer blockbuster, very few blockbusters today resemble Jaws in any way. The movie is essentially a horror film, and its scale is relatively small.

Set in a New England beach town that is beset by shark attacks, it follows a trio of men who eventually set out to sea to take on the shark terrorizing their town. The movie is terrifying, thrilling, and filled with riveting character moments. It’s the kind of blockbuster that more movies should emulate, even if they don’t.

Jaws | Trailer | Own it on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Genre Science Fiction, Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Stars Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg‘s crowning achievement, at least at the box office, E.T. tells the story of a young boy who discovers an alien who has landed near his home. The movie is really about the friendship between this alien and the young boy and the way that friendship helps him deal with the crumbling of his family.

It’s the kind of story that Spielberg has become so great at telling, and the template for decades of storytelling in the years since. A totally original premise, E.T. has remained a legendary movie for a reason.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial - Trailer

1. Star Wars (1977)

1. Star Wars
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Directed by George Lucas

The ultimate summer blockbuster, Star Wars invited us to a world that most of us had never thought possible before the movie’s release. In introducing a world filled with rich characters, totally distinct aliens, and a genuinely interesting story, Star Wars upended our notions of what movies could be.

There had been great sci-fi movies in the years before Star Wars to be sure, but none of them would ultimately redefine the genre the way that this film did. At the movies, and especially when you’re looking at summer movies, Star Wars stands in a class entirely on its own.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

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Movie images and data from:
Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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