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Comparing The World's Biggest Box Office Movies

There was a time when a film joining the ranks of the 10 highest-grossing films ever, or a film crossing a billion dollars worldwide, was huge news, because it just didn't happen that often. The ranks of the biggest movies ever were rather tight, limited to a few untouchable classics that would occasionally get a new member. There were blockbusters, plenty of them, but they didn't always climb into the ranks of the biggest movies ever.

That's changed in the last decade. The top 10 movies of all time now feel more like an ever-shifting roster of blockbusters duking it out for box office supremacy, so much so that even Avatar has finally been unseated as the king. Of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time (not adjusted for inflation), all but two of them — Avatar and Titanic — were released in the last decade, and four of the top 10 were released in 2015 alone. We live in an age of movies with massive budgets pulling in even more massive box office hauls, so let's try and make sense of it all. These are the top 10 movies of all time (for the moment) and how they got there.

Avengers: Age of Ultron - $1.402 billion

As Avengers: Age of Ultron was finishing up its box office run in 2015, a somewhat surprising chorus of skepticism and even doomsaying began to rise up across the internet. The second film in the Avengers franchise, and therefore one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's biggest efforts, had somehow underperformed, pulling in less than its predecessor and sparking cries of "superhero fatigue" and speculation that it was the beginning of the end for Marvel.

Yes, Age of Ultron did mark a bit of a decline for the Avengers franchise to the tune of about $116 million worldwide, but as we now know, Marvel was just fine in the aftermath. And all that speculation and worry aside, Age of Ultron did fantastically, particularly on the global stage. It took in 67.3% of its eventual worldwide total overseas, nearly 10% more than Avengers, and while that means it had a lower domestic total, it bested its predecessor in China by more than $150 million. That skews the audience a little bit further away from American superhero fans, but the money was still there, and Age of Ultron is still in the top 10 of all time...for now.

Furious 7 - $1.515 billion

The Fast and the Furious franchise is a fascinating study in the fluctuating fortunes of a film series. The first film did well, the sequels seemed to mark a decline, and then something wonderful happened: The franchise reinvented itself. By infusing more action and more star power beginning with Fast Five, the Furious films became more like globe-hopping spy adventures with muscle cars than street racing crime thrillers, and it paid off in a big way at the box office.

This culminated (so far, anyway) in Furious 7, a film that sadly had a leg up at the box office in part because it marked the final film in the franchise to feature the late Paul Walker, who died before it was released. The film's tribute to Walker, combined with the combined star power of the ensemble and the over-the-top action spectacle, helped propel it to a massive worldwide box office haul. Furious 7 took in 76.7% of its box office haul overseas, more than any other film in the current top 10. Even among other blockbusters, the Furious films do particularly well in China thanks to a diverse cast and an even more diverse lineup of stunts and set pieces. Furious 7 was the highest-grossing American film ever released in China for a while, until its sequel, Fate of the Furious, broke its record.

The Avengers - $1.518 billion

The Avengers is the third-oldest film on the all-time top 10 list at the moment, behind Titanic and Avatar, which each have their own reasons for box office glory. That's worth mentioning, because a great many films that have come after it have been trying to recapture the kind of lightning in a bottle that came with the first MCU team-up movie, and based on the number of Avengers sequels in the top 10, it's clear that this film opened a door.

The Avengers was the culmination of four years of solo movie adventures for various Marvel heroes, and in many ways was the first movie of its kind, a massive crossover showcasing several stars at once in a way that audiences couldn't wait to see. Though its achievements have since been dwarfed by other films, the speed with which it built up its box office is still notable. The film crossed half a billion dollars worldwide in less than two weeks thanks to an early opening in various foreign markets, and would on to earn a billion more. It looks small compared to Avengers: Endgame, but this film was a trendsetter in terms of more than just its crossover plot.

The Lion King - $1.656 billion

The Lion King was a phenomenon even by Disney standards when it was released in 1994 at the peak of a Disney animation renaissance. The film became the biggest animated movie ever at the time, and while it was later surpassed by the likes of Frozen, it still holds a very dear place in the hearts of a great many fans, many of whom are now all grown up with kids of their own they can buy movie tickets for.

Disney's string of live-action adaptations of its beloved animated properties have been lucrative for a while now, but The Lion King was especially well-positioned to be a mega-hit. Combining stunning photorealistic animation with the same beloved songs and an all-star voice cast led by Donald Glover and Beyonce, the film had all the ingredients for a hit, and it delivered. The Lion King swiftly became the ninth film in history to cross $1 billion at the international box office, and it picked up more than a half-billion domestically as well. The power of the Disney brand, the lure of stars like Beyonce, and the shot-for-shot nostalgia bait were enough to make this film a juggernaut.

Jurassic World - $1.67 billion

Jurassic Park was a blockbuster juggernaut in its day, so much saw that it spawned two sequels before the franchise seemed to die off in the early 2000s. Jurassic World was conceived as a big-budget, star-powered return to form for the franchise, one that would take it back to its "dinosaur theme park gone wrong" roots on the backs of a young director and a new cast. Some fans were skeptical, but it paid off in a big way.

Jurassic World managed to avoid the potential competition of both Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015 by releasing in June of that year. Boosted by the recent 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, the film soared to $204.6 million in its first domestic weekend, the second-best opening ever at the time. The star power of Chris Pratt, the family-friendly PG-13 rating, and a large percentage of 3D tickets sold all helped to pad the numbers out, and the film went on to do just as well internationally as it did in North America. By the time it finished its run, Jurassic World crossed the billion-dollar mark internationally.

Avengers: Infinity War - $2.048 billion

In 2012, The Avengers promised to be the culmination of a grand Marvel Studios experiment. After four years of building individual heroes up in a shared universe, it would finally smash them together. Avengers: Infinity War promised to do something similar, but this time heroes outside the Avengers umbrella would also join the fray, and they'd all be dealing with a Big Bad teased ever since Avengers' credits scene: Thanos.

Boasting a massive ensemble full of big names and with the weight of six years of teasers behind it, Infinity War stormed into theaters and broke The Force Awakens' opening weekend record with room to spare. Driven by Marvel's well-honed marketing machine — which relied heavily on a campaign to reduce spoilers, urging people to see the film as soon as possible so it wouldn't be ruined for them — the film went to a $678.8 million domestic total. The international box office eventually rose — driven in no small part by one of the biggest China openings of all time — to well north of $1 billion, and surpassed The Force Awakens with a foreign total of $1.3 billion. That's a breathtaking achievement, even if its sequel did top it just one year later.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - $2.068 billion

If you're going to become one of the all-time worldwide box office champions, it definitely helps to be part of one of the most popular and enduring franchises ever. It helps even more to be a sequel to the most famous film trilogy in history, the first film in a new era for a franchise, and the long-awaited return of a handful of cinematic icons.

So yeah, Star Wars: The Force Awakens had a lot going for it upon its initial release in December of 2015, and Disney's marketing machine exploited all of those assets to the absolute fullest extent. The film hit a whopping $245 million in its opening weekend, a record at the time, and then went on to set cumulative total records domestically for the next 10 consecutive days. Though it did very well overseas — topping $100 million in the U.K., Germany, and China — a big key to this film's overall success was the sheer speed with which it earned domestic dollars. The film finished with a whopping $936 million domestic total, and it remains the all-time domestic box office champion. American audiences just couldn't wait to go back to Star Wars.

Titanic - $2.187 billion

If you weren't paying attention to movies in 1997 and 1998 when Titanic was cruising through movie theaters like a behemoth, it's really hard to describe just how big of a deal the film was. More than 20 years after its release, "event" movies of the scale and scope of James Cameron's historical epic happen several times a year, and in the summer they happen several times a month, so much so that some of them get lost in all the noise.

That wasn't the case in '97, and as a result Titanic could just push through the rest of the competition like they were anything but icebergs. The film opened to a very solid $28 million late in 1997, and then kept picking up steam, driven in no small part by repeat viewings from fans who just couldn't get enough of Jack and Rose. The film ruled the box office for 15 straight weeks, with no other event films coming along to challenge it. That sense of isolation in terms of the scope of the film is something that couldn't be replicated now, and it played a key part in Titanic's success. The 11 Oscars and subsequent re-releases didn't hurt, either.

Avatar - $2.789 billion

James Cameron talked about Avatar as a cinema-reshaping movie event years before he ever got around to making it, and as the film neared its release there was doubt that the man behind Titanic could really pull off another all-time box office juggernaut. The lesson here: Never underestimate James Cameron.

Avatar stormed into theaters riding a wave of smart marketing that played up the visual splendor of the film and encouraged audiences to see it in IMAX and 3D, which raised the ticket price. The film's opening weekend made it a blockbuster, but what really put Avatar over the top was the kind of legs it displayed over the next few weeks. The second weekend dropoff for the film was just 1.5%, and over the weekends that followed moviegoers proved they just couldn't get enough of the gorgeously and immersive world of Pandora. Avatar set records for highest-grossing third weekend ever for a film, then highest-grossing fourth weekend, then fifth, and on and on. People just kept coming back, or coming to it for the first time because they didn't want to be left out.

The film also broke new ground internationally in a way that other American releases hadn't at that point. Avatar crossed the $200 million mark in China, boosting the country's overall box office by more than 60% from the year before and proving the country could be a massive boon to future American blockbusters.

Avengers: Endgame - $2.797 billion

It's a little hard to remember at this point in its history that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was once considered a gamble. Even after Marvel Studios got past the risky hire of Robert Downey Jr. to play Iron Man, the concept of a shared universe on such a grand scale was difficult for a lot of people to imagine. By the time Avengers: Endgame came around, the risk was gone, and Marvel's marketing machine billed the film as the culmination of a cinematic event the whole world had become obsessed with.

The simple power of the Marvel brand, along with a brilliant ad campaign that billed Endgame as the end even though the MCU will live on beyond it, was enough to make Endgame a guaranteed hit. What was staggering was just how quickly the film accumulated box office dollars. Endgame reached $1.2 billion worldwide in just five days, and quickly sped past Titanic to take the number two slot on the all-time worldwide charts. It took a few months, and one brief rerelease, but the film finally overtook Avatar in July of 2019 to become the highest-grossing film of all time, driven in no small part by a spectacular performance in China, where it earned $614 million. Ironically, though it's number one overall, it's still second place at the all-time domestic box office (behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and second place at the all-time international box office (behind Avatar).