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Biggest Summer Movies Of The 2000s

As the calendar flipped from the 20th to the 21st Century, Hollywood entered a brave new world. No longer were the lessons learned from blockbusters of summer past, unless those sure things meant just more of the same: bigger, louder, longer (including the movie titles themselves).

The VCR was once thought of as the great threat keeping cinephiles at home, but at the start of this new century, the rise of the DVD posed an even greater one. And while the demise of the theatergoing experience was always a growing concern, summer movies kept opening in larger numbers of theaters and screens, at higher prices in ticketing, and kids, teens, parents and everyone else kept flocking to their local cineplex, enjoying the latest and greatest in the comfort of their air-conditioned environs. With the rise of the internet, piracy through file sharing became an even bigger threat — but the ability of fanboys to shout excitement about the latest news, rumors, and online trailers often ended up acting as a free promotional tool.

Sometimes, the movies that were released between May and Labor Day didn't quite live up to the hype; other times, they went beyond the hype, bashing old box office records and setting up new ones that have only recently been surpassed. Let's examine the very first decade of the 21st Century and see which ones ended up driving fanboys and girls to United States and Canadian theaters the most during those ten summers, much to the delight of the Hollywood studios.

[Note: Summer box office totals listed are from Box Office Mojo. They only reflect domestic grosses, and have not been adjusted for inflation.]

15. Star Wars: Episode Il - Attack of the Clones (2002): $300,769,143

The first "Star Wars" prequel from George Lucas was a cash-making menace at the box office, yet left many fans disappointed; the second, "Attack of the Clones," featured far more action, Padmé and Anakin's romance, and a jaw-dropping scene with Yoda at the end. Like the other prequels, it made a lot of money, but wasn't particularly beloved.

Despite a rash of poor reviews, fans didn't require any Jedi mind tricks to get them to return to theaters in droves for another round of lightsaber duels. "Clones" took in an impressive $116.3 million in four days, but cracks in the franchise's "force" began to show, as "Spider-Man" made almost just as much over in only three days. 

"'Star Wars' is impervious to that sort of thing," a Fox executive told the New York Times. "Really, what this film and this whole franchise is, is the ultimate social event. It's like a rock concert, this shared experience.”

14. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007): $308,737,547

Director Gore Verbinski had quite the tall task when setting sail for the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film. It had a due date only ten months after the release of the second one,  and Verbinski called the race to complete it "insane," but added "fortunately the cast and crew found their stride enabling us to work intuitively throughout the madness." That included Depp's Jack Sparrow inspiration — Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and his cameo as Jack's dad, Captain Teague. For Richards, it wasn't a stretch to play a pirate, saying at the film's premiere, "I've been looting and pillaging all my life; the costume was just heavier."

Despite running at a whopping 2 hours and 48 minutes long, limiting how many times it could be screened, "At World's End" still lodged the fifth-best opening of all time, and sat on the throne with the crown of best 4-day Memorial Day opening weekend ever for 15 years until "Top Gun: Maverick" toppled it in the summer of 2022. However, it lagged behind that summer's other threequels, "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek the Third," and couldn't even match the pace and total of "Dead Man's Chest." 2007 in general saw a dip in attendance, but Disney's head of distribution Chuck Viane told the AP: "When we start snubbing our noses at $300 million, that's a problem."

13. Transformers (2007): $310,776,218

The Japanese toy Transformers became a hit stateside in the mid-'80s, turned into a popular kids cartoon, and then tried a go with an animated feature film, which featured Orson Welles' final performance. 1986's "The Transformers: The Movie" apparently was less than meets the eye, pocketing only $5.8 million in its entire month run in theaters. When producer Spielberg and director Michael Bay resurrected the property 21 years later, they decided to go really big, incorporating cutting-edge effects to bring the Autobots battle versus the Decepticons to life. "The first one was scary," he said in 2022. "It was technology we didn't know would work, and then it became very successful. It was the first time digital effects were that highly reflective, so it broke a lot of new ground."

"Transformers" transformed the box office, earning the biggest 7-day opening for a non-sequel ever, and setting one-day records for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and the 4th of July. To this day, it ranks in the top ten domestically for best Independence Day 3-day weekend haul, and has made the third most money of all the "Transformers" films. "It has an ability to surprise audiences in ways sequels can't," Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura explained. "It is fun, has a lot of heart, and we have 32-foot beings."

12. Iron Man (2008): $314,380,036

The folks over at Marvel were tired of licensing out their super properties to studios and letting them reap the financial rewards, finally getting into the game themselves with whatever heroes they hadn't sold off. 

As Marvel Studios' first film, and thus the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was a lot of risk in "Iron Man": a superhero not universally known, a director whose last feature ("Zathura") didn't do so hot, and a troubled lead actor most of Hollywood was afraid to hire. Director Jon Favreau was worried his "Iron Man" would turn into "a poor man's 'Spider-Man' (via AP), and Robert Downey Jr told EW that it was his "25th year in the industry, and I've seen everybody else have their [big] summer," but him.

Well, 2008 turned out to be Downey Jr's turn at owning a summer, big time (bookended with his Oscar nominated turn in "Tropic Thunder"), as "Iron Man" soared to box office heights, rocketing to the second (behind "Spider-Man") biggest 3-day release for a non-sequel ever. A surprised Paramount insider confided their delight to Deadline by exclaiming, "It beat Will Smith ["I Am Legend"] and Jesus ["The Passion of the Christ]!" Favreau took the financial news more gracefully, at least publicly, telling EW, "Robert and I are just very, very appreciative and humbled by the whole thing. It's been a really wonderful, wonderful experience."

The future seemed limitless for Marvel, with production boss Kevin Feige already dreaming big, plotting more films with other super heroes, and crossovers featuring them all, including a possible "The Avengers" picture. Feige told EW "If we got two of Cap, Thor, Tony, and Hulk together — or three of the four, much less four of the Four — it could be pretty spectacular."

11. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008): $315,923,170

1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" seemed like a fitting end to the film franchise, as star Harrison Ford, writer/producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg literally rode off into the sunset. The title even had the word "last" in it.

But the urge to dig up the archeologist for one more adventure just proved too good to pass up, even if it took a few decades to succumb. Lucas warned potential viewers that there wouldn't be any "bells and whistles" in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," and that the film would be "like sitting down on a cozy old sofa that you've had for 20 years and having the same experience."

Anticipation at Indiana Jones cracking the whip on the big screen hit a fever pitch, with its trailer being seen over 200 million times in the first week alone, a gigantic marketing push to the tune of $150 million, and endless tie-ins with the likes of Burger King, Dr. Pepper and even Expedia. The New York Times noted that "the hard sell worked," and while it didn't break any records, it still made a lot of money, starting with a five day take of $151.1 million, running neck-and-neck with "Iron Man" all summer long.

In many ways, the film felt like a Star Wars prequel in that everyone saw it, but few would ever admit to liking it. 

"I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished," LaBeouf admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 2010Spielberg told Empire, "I never liked the MacGuffin" of the aliens that Lucas came up with," but he admitted the much-derided nuking of the fridge was all his idea, and was "glad I was able to bring that into popular culture."

10. Shrek the Third (2007): $322,719,944

When it came time to name the third "Shrek" movie, the filmmakers "didn't want to title it like it was just a sequel," like the rejected option "Shrek 3: King of the Swamp." Co-director Chris Miller opened up to Animated Views that the final choice, "Shrek The Third," worked as "something to make it stand on its own, give it its own personality and really try to treat it as a chapter in Shrek's life." This chapter found the lovable green ogre and friends searching for an heir to the land of Far, Far Away.

Released just two weeks after "Spider-Man 3" smashed box office records, "Shrek The Third" proved its own worth, fittingly notching the third highest debut ever, behind the third "Spider-Man" and the second "Pirates of the Caribbean," setting a record for the biggest animated film opening of all time with $121.6 million. To this day, it remains one of the biggest openers for Paramount Pictures ever, although "Top Gun: Maverick" just flew right by it, pushing it down to the third spot.

The totals were a surprise for DreamWorks, as COO Ann Daly had their projections lower, telling Box Office Mojo, "What happened, happily, is that we had a good mix of both family and general audiences that really popped the number up." Dergarabedian concurred, telling the Los Angeles Daily News, "When you have a marketplace that's devoid of new family fare, every kid in the country got worked up into a frenzy and their families went along with them. It culminated in this huge, record-breaking gross."

9. Finding Nemo (2003): $333,039,240

By the time "Finding Nemo" found its way into theaters, the Pixar-produced film distributed by Disney was well positioned to stay afloat all summer long, based on the success of the previous four films they had teamed up to release. When it did bow, it beat its own studiomate "Monsters Inc." for the biggest debut ever for an animated film. Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations called "Nemo" as "much of a sure-thing at the box office as you can get," telling the AP how impressive the opening total was since "the $70 million represents a lot more tickets for that G-rated film than for an R-rated film, where all the tickets reflect an adult admission price."

"Brad Pitt beaten out by a clown fish?" questioned the New York Times as the box office hit "Finding Nemo" continued to reinforce the upward trend of digital animation, and helped to signal the end of hand-drawn animation, as DreamWorks' summer offering "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" sunk on arrival. While computer animation may take less time than the older traditional way of doing it, Pixar put a lot of effort into their aquatic effort, even having their filmmakers get scuba certified. The hit banked $339.7 million, rescued Ellen DeGeneres from a low point in her career, had director Andrew Stanton having second thoughts about ever wanting to go fishing again, and ripped open a rift between Pixar and Disney (and the bruised egos of their bosses Steve Jobs and Michael Eisner) that ultimately was patched up when the latter bought the former in 2006 for $7.4 billion dollars.

8. Spider-Man 3 (2007): $336,530,303

The summer of 2007 was all about the threequel, with "Shrek," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Spider-Man" lined up to swashbuckle for moviegoers' bucks. The third Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire installment got a jump on them all, opening the first weekend in May, just like the original. With a budget of $258 million, and two new super villains (Sandman and Venom), this was to be the biggest and busiest Spidey yet.

In its opening weekend, "Spider-Man 3" broke two records held by the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" film: biggest single day intake at $59.3 million on Friday, and biggest opening weekend with $151.1 million. Paul Dergarabedian of Media By Numbers told the New York Times, "That's why they call him the amazing Spider-Man. Just five years ago, these are numbers we thought we'd never see." Sony head Amy Pascal was equally relishing the numbers, saying "I could have never envisioned this. What I was hoping was we would just break the 'Spider-Man 1' record. This is beyond my wildest dream." (via Cape Cod Times)

While a "majority of audiences we polled liked this one better than the first two," according to Sony's president of distribution Rory Bruer, it didn't age well. In 2014, Raimi told the Nerdist podcast, "I messed up plenty with the third Spider-Man. It's a movie that just didn't work," adding: "If the director doesn't love something, it's wrong of them to make it when so many other people love it."

Raimi and Maguire were locked in for two more "Spider-Man" films, but they never came to be, as both left the franchise. Maguire famously returned to the role 14 years later for 2021's "Spider-Man: No Way Home," alongside the two men that followed in his swinging ways, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland.

7. Spider-Man 2 (2004): $370,078,207

Even though superheroes have super powers (and super responsibility), sometimes their human nature shines through all the hoopla, showing they're just as vulnerable, both emotionally and physically, as their audiences. Due to a nagging back issue (or perhaps financial issues), Tobey Maguire proved to be quite human and almost didn't suit up for the Spidey sequel, with Jake Gyllenhaal waiting in the wings. Maguire was able to plow through, with his director Sam Raimi throwing him through the ringer, telling SuperHeroHype, "I wanted to show that to be this hero had a great cost to Tobey. It wasn't gonna be easy. So I wanted him to suffer to be that hero. So I beat him up as much as I could in the story."

In "Spider-Man 2," Parker battles Doc Ock onscreen, and the film took on "White Chicks" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" in theaters. Released on a Wednesday before the 4th of July holiday, it surpassed its forerunner's record for best opening day take with $40.5 million (but settled for second overall best to "Shrek 2"s $44.8 million). It also set the mark for biggest six-day opening ever, and while its $373.5 million total haul was nothing to yawn at, it couldn't match the original's $403.7. Sony Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal told the New York Times, ”I can't remember a movie at our studio that was this well reviewed. When you add to it the way people talk about this movie, it was spectacular.”

6. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005): $379,853,511

By the time the third and final "Star Wars" prequel rolled into theaters, apathy had set in for creators, critics and fans alike. George Lucas wasn't worried about any criticisms, however, telling "60 Minutes" that "they especially haven't liked the last two [films], so hey, you know, it can't get any worse." 

Despite all that was working against it, "Revenge of the Sith" got its revenge on the naysayers — or at least, showed how much power the "Star Wars" name still carried at the box office. Fox's distribution president Bruce Snyder proclaimed to the New York Times that "we set records domestically, internationally and intergalactically. A big part of the success, and the continuing amazing grosses, is that people are coming out of the auditorium and are getting back on line to buy more tickets for future shows." 

The film that saw Anakin Skywalker fall to the dark side and become Darth Vader opened and broke the "Shrek 2" one-day record with $50 million in receipts, setting a benchmark in its total four-day take at $158.5 million. It currently is still the title holder of biggest Thursday at the domestic box office ever.

As the final piece in his second "Star Wars" trilogy, Lucas even made his one and only cameo in the galaxy, which would prove to be his own swan song. He told Leslie Stahl in 2005, "there is no Episode VII," but he forgot to add the qualifier: "with me involved."

5. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): $400,757,235

Most summer blockbusters necessitate the creation of action figures, but not most action figure lines of toys warrant a summer blockbuster. 

Producer Spielberg and director Michael Bay proved the latter was true with their first live-action "Transformers" flick from 2007, and two years later were ready to "transform" the box office once again in the sequel "Revenge of the Fallen." Bay helped defray costs (and in turn put more money into his own wallet) on his follow-up by partnering with General Motors and the U.S. military to use their own heavy machinery onscreen, and according to Fortune in 2009, got himself "an estimated 8% on Transformers toys tied to movies."

Despite rancid reviews (Roger Ebert lambasted it as "a horrible experience of unbearable length") the sequel paid off for all parties involved as "Fallen" rose quite heavily in theaters. Playing on almost 10,000 screens, it outpaced the original film on opening weekend to become the biggest June opener ever, only trailing "The Dark Knight" for the best five-day start for a release. When all was said and done, it collected over $402.1 million, making Shia LaBeouf the first actor to star in three films to gross over $300 million in consecutive years.

Time hasn't been kind to the film itself, with even Bay fessing up two years later to the L.A. Times, "it was kind of a mess, wasn't it?" While gearing up for the third film, he added: "Look, the movie had some good things in it and it was entertaining and it did very well, but it also failed in some key ways. I learned from it."

4. Spider-Man (2002): $403,706,375

While superhero movies had proved themselves in the '70s and '80s to be potentially profitable, Peter Parker as the amazing Spider-Man had never suited up for a big screen adventure (but not for a lack of trying). Opening in the first weekend of May, it was an unknown risk in theaters, especially with a director who "never made a hit movie" (his own words), and the second "Star Wars" prequel coming for it two weekends later. Director Sam Raimi added: "I had to survive by telling myself box office doesn't matter."

When Sony Pictures liked what they saw in advance, the studio ordered a sequel with Raimi and Tobey Maguire in red and blue spandex even before "Spider-Man" spun its first webs in theaters. Their faith was rewarded as "Spider-Man" became the first movie ever to cross the $100 million mark in its opening weekend, with three out of every four ticket buyers that weekend helping the gross to hit $114.8 million, and ultimately tallying $403.7 million domestically.

Not only did "Spider-Man" unmask a whole new potential for superhero movies in a new century, but for the industry as a whole. Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Co. told the L.A. Times that the film's accomplishment was "the Holy Grail of box office," adding "it creates a new paradigm in terms of what a movie can do. It puts a lot of pressure on all these films. Now 'Spider-Man' is the movie everybody is going to be judged against."

3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006): $414,596,572

In some countries, opening a movie during the World Cup may be a self-imposed walk on the plank, but for Disney's second high seas adventure take on their famous theme park ride (since updated to reflect the new found success), "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," it was more like an easy walk to the bank. 

The sequel, which found the series heroes delaying a wedding and facing off against Davy Jones and a Kraken, was "a juggernaut, and it just keeps going," said Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Co, as it opened to $135.6 million, almost a third of its ultimate total gross.

"Dead Man's Chest" was quite a treasure for Disney, achieving the following feats at the box office: highest single day gross, highest three-day opening in box-office history (swinging past "Spider-Man" with $135.6 million), the first film in box office history to pass $100 million in only two days, and the fastest film in box office history to pass $300 million (doing so in only 16 days, surpassing its predecessor, "Curse of the Black Pearl)."

For Jack Sparrow embodier Johnny Depp, he took the success in stride. While he told The Guardian in 2006 that Hollywood had long considered him "box-office poison," he was glad that this franchise came on his own terms.

"I was able to do every single film I wanted to do and with every filmmaker I wanted to work with," he said. "To me, whether I'm playing Ed Wood or 'Fear and Loathing,' all these movies have commercial potential. Pirates could have easily flopped. It's always a crap shoot."

2. Shrek 2 (2004): $438,477,864

When Jeffrey Katzenberg was edged out at Disney, the company whose animation division he saved, he wanted to prove he could do it on his own. So, with the help of partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, their DreamWorks Studios hit animation gold with the color green.

Featuring an ogre with a Scottish accent (Mike Myers), 2001's "Shrek" surpassed all expectations — including those of its director, Andrew Adamson, who told Nick Jardine: "I don't think I ever anticipated the level of success that we actually received."

Anticipation was riding high for the sequel, featuring Julie Andrews in her first true animated debut, and became one of 19 films vying for the Palme d'Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, but box office predictions were still conservative. Its opening weekend toppled the "Spider-Man" single day gross record with $44.8 million, then beat the first "Shrek" film's entire opening weekend take of $42.3 million.

By the end of its run, "Shrek 2" was the third-highest grossing movie of all time (behind "Titanic" and "Star Wars: A New Hope"), and it currently ranks as the 24th. Katzenberg was twice enriched by the sequel's success, telling Phase 9 Entertainment: "I'm very happy that the box office is good, but for me and my team the real reward is to stand in the back of movie theaters and hear the laughter."

1. The Dark Knight (2008): $506,482,539

When Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman with Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader in 2005, he took the franchise in a grittier, more humane direction. "Batman Begins" still kept pace with its predecessors, which had an average opening gross of $47 million. His 2008 sequel "The Dark Knight" made those previous Bruce Wayne jaunts look lightweight, in more ways than one.

In its opening weekend, "The Dark Knight" faced off against Meryl Streep singing ABBA songs, and in the process broke the "Spider-Man 3" all-time three-day record, raking in over $158 million. It went on to break another nine records (via Deadline), including biggest single day gross and biggest July opening ever. The grosses kept growing, with Paul Dergarabedian of Media By Numbers telling the AP: "We've really never seen anything like this. The death of a fine actor [Heath Ledger as The Joker] taken in his prime, a legendary performance, and a movie that lives up to all the hype. That all combined to create these record-breaking numbers.”

"The Dark Knight" was the summer movie of the '00s and remains one of the biggest superhero movies of all time. As Christopher Nolan told the LA Times in 2008, "For it to become such a phenomenon is extraordinarily gratifying."