For many movie-lovers, summer is the most wonderful time of the year. A time for action, spectacle, larger-than-life stories, and even bigger budgets. These aren’t just films; they’re events. It’s become a long-standing tradition in Hollywood and one that we look forward to each and every year — a sort of playful lead-in to the serious, prestige films of awards season. As with any genre, however, not all blockbusters are created equal, and some have been more beloved, influential and iconic than others. With summer in full swing, we’ve decided to take a look back at the 25 best summer movie blockbusters of all time.

You’ll likely notice that there are no animated movies on this list. It’s not that several weren’t worthy, but when we started talking about big summer blockbusters, the things that defined them most clearly for us were A-list actors, crazy effects, and crazier stunts — you know, the live-action stuff. Without further delay, here are our picks for the 25 best summer movie blockbusters of all time:

25. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

There’s a reason The Sixth Sense turned M. Night Shyamalan from unknown into one of the most famous directors in Hollywood, and had him receiving plaudits like “The Next Spielberg.” Cleverly conceived and impeccably crafted, the film gave audiences two richly-drawn characters — a troubled psychologist (Bruce Willis) and his latest patient (Haley Joel Osment), who believes he sees ghosts —and one of the all-time great twist endings. – Matt Singer

24. Poltergeist (1982)

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Eight years after he shocked audiences with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper gave us another iconic horror film: Poltergeist. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the ghastly supernatural story centered on an average suburban family tormented by an antagonistic specter. What made Poltergeist so effective was the idea that something so horrible could happen to such a normal family; what made it memorable was the frightening imagery that hit on a wide range of fears (ghosts, clowns) and transformed banal, harmless elements of suburban life into objects of terror. – Britt Hayes

23. Wonder Woman (2017)

Directed by Patty Jenkins

Leave it to Wonder Woman to save not just the world, but the entire DCEU single-handedly. Things were (and still are) looking grim for DC’s cinematic superheroes, but Patty Jenkins’ film arrived like the first day of spring after a long, grueling winter. It’s a fantastic mixture of action, eye-popping visuals, and playful humor — the latter largely thanks to the delightful chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. From the Themyscira battle scene (with Robin Wright as the true MVP) to that stunning No Man’s Land sequence, Jenkins proved that, yes, women can indeed lead awesome superhero movies, and direct them well, too.  – E. Oliver Whitney

22. Bridesmaids (2011)

Directed by Paul Feig

For decades, raunchy comedies were dominated by men, while women were relegated to sappy drama and rom-coms. But then came Bridesmaids, an outlandish comedy featuring a predominantly female cast that used humor to heighten relatable concerns (friendships, dating struggles, trying to grow the hell up) while remaining every bit as raunchy — and then some — as its male-centric counterparts. Melissa McCarthy earned an Oscar nom with her scene-stealing performance and became a comedy mega-star overnight. With over $169 million at the box office and serious awards attention, Bridesmaids proved that movies about women could be great, and that audiences actually want to see them. – BH

21. Spider-Man (2002)

Directed by Sam Raimi

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was the first film to make more than $100 million in a single weekend. 16 years and five Spider-Man movies later, the character is just as beloved, but arguably not as special — when Raimi’s Spider-Man debuted in theaters, it was a true event. It was far from the first superhero movie, or even the first Marvel movie, but its scale, incredible special effects, intense fidelity to its source material, and its beautiful themes about power and responsibility set it apart. – MS

20. The Avengers (2012)

Directed by Joss Whedon

Before The Avengers, it was difficult to imagine a superhero franchise could ever build to an epic crossover — the kind of stuff comic book fans’ dreams are made of. Not even Marvel Studios could envision bringing all these superheroes together in one film, but the groundwork they began laying with Iron Man paid off in a major way. Despite a few hiccups (ahem, Incredible Hulk), Marvel figured out early on that the only way to make a crossover of this scale happen was to create desire for one by developing individual characters and stories that fans actually cared about. The Avengers completely changed the world of superhero movies, and inspired numerous studios to attempt to replicate their model ... with little success. – BH

19. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Say what you will about the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (I’ll defend ‘em till my death), but few could deny that The Curse of the Black Pearl is a solid summer blockbuster. Gore Verbinski’s film has everything you’d want from a big studio adventure: Thrilling set pieces, romance, suspense, humor, a great Hans Zimmer score, and, as a bonus, there’s even ghost pirates! It managed to turn the animatronics of a 40-year-old theme park ride into some of the most memorable characters in movies — you can dislike Johnny Depp and still appreciate his Jack Sparrow (at least in the first film). Even 15 years later, Jack’s final showdown against Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa holds up as one killer sword-fight. – EOW

18. Independence Day (1996)

Directed by Roland Emmerich

When I think about the Fourth of July of my childhood, I think about hot dogs and fireworks. I also think about Will Smith beating the crap out of aliens. Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, the best of his many doomsday efforts, is practically synonymous with summer movie season. It’s got aliens and explosions, classic Smith one-liners, a quippy and charming-as-ever Jeff Goldblum, a beloved Bill Pullman POTUS, and most importantly, a surfeit of totally dumb, insanely fun action sequences. It’s exactly the type of entertainment you want when escaping the sweltering summer heat for an air-conditioned movie theater. – EOW

17. RoboCop (1987)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

The more summer movies become soulless cogs in an endless machine of franchises, the more profound RoboCop becomes as a movie about its own making; about the desperate quest to maintain humanity and individuality when you’re part of that big corporate apparatus. In the film, a cop (Peter Weller) in a futuristic Detroit is murdered, but his remains are fused with cybernetic parts and reanimated as RoboCop. He’s supposed to be a walking machine, but some small spark of his humanity remains buried within, and despite his bosses’ efforts to extinguish it, he manages to reclaim his identity. The comparisons to an iconoclastic artist like Paul Verhoeven working in a place like Hollywood are obvious. And when Sony tried to remake RoboCop in 2014 with disastrous results, they showed once again that no matter how sleek the surface, what really counts is the thing’s brain and heart. – MS

16. Back to the Future (1985)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis’ first Back to the Future presented us with one of the coolest movie premises ever: What would it be like to go back in time and meet your parents? But that time-traveling plot opens up a few quandaries for Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly, like accidentally altering the course of future events, erasing his own birth, and getting stuck in some awkward incestuous flirtation with his own mom. Though the majority of blockbusters on our list are full of explosive action or superheroes, the first in Zemeckis’ trilogy is great for being a purely enjoyable adventure comedy. It’s endlessly rewatchable and hits the spot every time. – EOW

15. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Directed by Irvin Kershner

At least once a year someone pitches the latest superhero or sci-fi sequel as “The Empire Strikes Back of our franchise.” In a sense, Empire inspired its own sub-genre: The darker sequel with huge stakes and a downer ending. It’s worth noting that before Empire there really was nothing like it, and certainly no one had ever taken such a bubblegum crowd-pleaser and dared to make a follow-up that would shock and disturb its target audience. That was a risk. Now when people make “their” Empire, they’re following a trail that simply didn’t exist before George Lucas and director Irvin Kershner blazed it. – MS

14. Alien (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Thanks to early preview screenings and a marketing campaign that featured scrappy teasers and the ominous tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” the second film from director Ridley Scott was a hit before it was even released. People lined up for blocks to attend the Hollywood premiere — which was fairly unusual for a sci-fi film in 1979, let alone an R-rated feature starring a relatively unknown actress in a leading role. Alien went on to make over $80.9 million at the box office (that would be over $279 million today), and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley became an icon, reprising the role in three sequels — though none of them came close to recapturing the thrilling terror and cunning creativity of Scott’s first film. – BH

13. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Directed by James Gunn

The Avengers changed the world of superhero movies forever, but Marvel’s tried-and-true model was inarguably growing a little redundant — even if that formula was beloved by most. Enter James Gunn: A filmmaker known for cult genre comedies, Gunn shook up the MCU with a band of scrappy, foul-mouthed outsiders, giving audiences something wildly different from the superhero movies they were used to. It was bold, risky and wildly irreverent, and was only somewhat related to the rest of the cinematic universe, freeing Gunn to take some liberties that ultimately gave Marvel the creative push it needed. We have Guardians of the Galaxy’s success to thank, in part, for Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther — and Chris Pratt’s abs. – BH

12. Speed (1994)

Directed by Jan de Bont

Pop quiz, hot shot: It’s the ’90s, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves are in an action movie and the plot involves a bomb and a bus; do you buy a movie ticket? Correct answer: Yes, you buy two tickets. Speed is awesome precisely for how it takes its nutty premise — a bus that will explode if it drops below 50 miles-per-hour — and finds ways to keep turning up the volume and adding new twists. The bus has to jump a gap in the freeway! Keanu has to leap onto the speeding bus! But then he’s got to ride underneath it! They’ve got to sneak passengers off of it! And they have to outsmart an out-of-his-mind Dennis Hopper. City busses never were, and never will be, this exciting. – EOW

11. Die Hard (1988)

Directed by John McTiernan

Sure, sure, it’s set on Christmas Eve, but Die Hard is A-grade summer blockbuster moviemaking. It’s got an unstoppable Bruce Willis who finds a way shoot up bad guys while dropping iconic one-liners. It’s got Alan Rickman snarling as a German terrorist. It’s got one nerve-tingling (and iconic) action sequence after another, from the roof top jump to the ventilation shaft. And it’s proof that you can really do anything without socks or shoes. – EOW

10. Ghostbusters (1984)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

The toxic reaction to the recent all-female reboot may have soured you on the original film, but let’s not blame a movie for the worst of its fans. Ghostbusters remains one of the greatest achievements of special effects filmmaking; a near-perfect melding of eye-popping visuals and instantly lovable characters, like dweeby accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) and dweeby scientist Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). (Dweebs love ghosts.) The script, by Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, is one of the most quotable in all of film history. Off the top of my head, I could basically perform this entire movie — and every character — as a one-man show. No one would ever want that, nor should they, but I could do it. – MS

9. Inception (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

There are very few times I’ve exited a movie theater immediately wanting to turn around and watch something, but that’s pretty much what happened with Christopher Nolan’s Inception; two days after seeing it on opening night, I went back for a second viewing. Nolan’s film not only offered an original premise — nearly unheard of in today’s landscape of big budget reboots and cinematic universes — but one that was rich with complex layers and emotional storytelling. His dream-laden narrative, along with that final scene, gave audiences plenty to chew on and analyze for months on end. But he also matched those mind-boggling concepts with some of the most captivating and innovative action filmmaking the genre has seen since The Matrix. From the city-bending effect and the slow-mo cafe explosion to the rotating hallway fight scene, Nolan set a high bar for the summer spectacles that would follow. – EOW

8. Batman (1989)

Directed by Tim Burton

If the true measure of a great summer blockbuster is how many bad knockoffs Hollywood makes in its wake, then Batman is one of the best blockbusters of all time. After audiences around the world fell in love with Tim Burton’s Gotham City and its eccentric residents (including Jack Nicholson’s maniacal Joker and Michael Keaton’s nearly-as-unhinged Batman), the studios scrambled to set up their own comic book and pulp properties; in short order we got movies based on The PhantomThe Shadow, and Dick Tracy, along with all the various Batman sequels (including the underrated Batman Returns, and the properly rated Batman & Robin). Also, let us not overlook the absolute banging-ness of the Prince soundtrack. – MS

7. The Dark Knight (2008)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

You can thank (or blame) Christopher Nolan for introducing the words “gritty” and “grounded” into the superhero franchise lexicon. In Batman Begins, Nolan gave fans a properly dark and gorgeously cinematic version of one of our darkest comic book heroes; in The Dark Knight, he gave us a masterpiece, proving that superhero movies could be serious — and seriously great — films. Heath Ledger’s Joker isn’t just one of the greatest villain performances of all time; it remains one of the greatest performances of all time, period. And like all great blockbusters, this one inspired countless imitators. Even 10 years later, filmmakers still name-drop The Dark Knight in comparison to their own franchise sequels, but not a single one comes close to being nearly as great. – BH

6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Directed by George Miller

Production on George Miller’s long-awaited Mad Max sequel was fraught with issues: Budget troubles, fights between Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, delays due to a harsh environment — but those hardships gave way to what is easily one of the most stunning blockbusters ever created. With gorgeous spectacle, insane stunts and practical effects-driven sequences and over $150 million at the box office, Fury Road most certainly qualifies as a blockbuster…but just barely. On a budget of $150 million, it was hardly the most profitable of the bunch. The fact that a film this original, and so fully-realized at the hands of one man with a singular vision even exists is nothing short of a miracle; that it was beloved by critics and audiences alike is icing on a blood-and-fire-soaked cake. – BH

5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Directed by James Cameron

When you get past the titans of the classic summer blockbuster — Spielberg and Lucas — you’re left with one name and one name only: Arnold freakin’ Schwarzenegger. Arnold is a lot of things, but most importantly, he’s the Terminator. And in James Cameron’s T2: Judgment Day, he’s finally the good guy. Sent back in time to protect young John Connor, he’s the epitome of the cool and collected killer — he swivels his shot gun around his hand with ease, he blows away cop cars with a machine gun like he’s watering the lawn, and he put out cigars on his bare chest. T2 is the type of action movie that, if you stumble across it playing on TV, you have no choice but to drop everything and rewatch it. – EOW

4. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Directed by George Lucas

It can be easy to forget in 2018, when every Star Wars movie must be litigated by various factions of fans, critics, and trolls, that there was a time not that long ago, in a galaxy that bears a striking resemblance to our own, when everyone loved Star Wars. The adventure, the thrills, the colorful characters, the mind-blowing special effects; there had never been anything like it. But of course there had; George Lucas simply refined the movie serials and pulp fantasies of his childhood, and turned B-movies into the biggest of the big. The number one movie on our list may have invented the blockbuster, but Star Wars defined it forever. – MS

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

The music. The idol. The giant ball. The snake. The monkey. The bad dates. The ark. The swordsman. The biplane. The truck chase. The melting Nazis. The stubble. The whip. The hat. The one and only Indiana Jones, in his first and greatest adventure. Accept no substitutes. – MS

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

It’s been 25 years since Jurassic Park ruled the box office. In that time, there’s been a major shift in special effects; in 2018, CGI rules the box office. And yet, the awe-inspiring practical effects and animatronics in Steven Spielberg’s film hold up exceptionally well, while the computerized creations of even just a few years ago have aged remarkably. Stan Winston’s creature work in Jurassic Park, which introduced audiences to a world in which extinct behemoths could be (stupidly) brought back to life for our amusement and corporate interest, gave Spielberg’s unbelievable fiction a tangible quality that the newer sequels have failed to replicate. The classic “Spielberg face” — that look of slack-jawed wonder when a character beholds something truly extraordinary — has been written about and discussed at length, but the fact that his films, and specifically Jurassic Park, evoke that same look of awe on an audience member’s face is what makes Spielberg’s worlds even more remarkable. When Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant sees a real, live dinosaur for the first time, we’re seeing it, too, and we’re every bit as stunned. – BH

1. Jaws (1975)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

When paired together, the words “summer” and “movies” conjure a single image: Jaws. There are a few reasons why we regard Spielberg’s 1975 classic as the king of summer blockbusters. For one, it was essentially the first. Jaws set the stage for the major summer release template that followed and defined the big studio release pattern we know today. The film’s massive (and, at the time, incredibly pricey) marketing campaign teased the ominous, now-iconic image of the shark’s mouth below a swimming woman and built up hype towards its July release. It was a colossal hit, and Star Wars followed suit soon after, thus proving that the hottest months of the year were prime real estate for studios to fill movie theater seats.

But Jaws isn’t just number one on our list because it revolutionized Hollywood; it’s here because it’s an impeccably made movie that still holds up as a thrilling piece of filmmaking. Spielberg took the very realistic terrors of an average summer beach day and turned them into an exhilarating, nerve-wracking adventure. After seeing Jaws, there’s no way you could visit a beach or swim in a pool without quoting the film or humming John Williams’ famous theme. Heck, Jaws is such a part of our collective consciousness that even people who haven’t seen it know the references. Spielberg, sharks, and summer: A foolproof recipe for Hollywood success. – EOW

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