Summer blockbusters may be on hold this year, but that doesn’t mean that your movie-watching summer is ruined. Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start to the season and while we’re all staying indoors, it’s a great time to revisit some of the summer blockbusters of yesteryear.
First, some history: Steven Spielberg is credited with inventing the summer blockbuster with Jaws. Audiences used to measuring their summers in release dates for big franchise movies may be surprised to learn that the summer was considered a box-office dead zone until the mid-1970s. Studios assumed that families would rather head to the pool than the multiplex, but lines around the block to get into Jaws proved them wrong. Then two years later, a little film called Star Wars was released, confirming the summer blockbuster hypothesis and changing the movie industry forever.
From megahit franchises to family comedies, summer is the time for flashy, crowd-pleasing, (usually) expensive cinema. We’ve rounded up some of the best summer blockbusters of the last four decades that you can stream right now, from the OGs like Jaws and Star Wars, to modern classics like Bridesmaids and Inception. And yes, plenty of superhero movies.
(Side note: Mr. July himself, Will Smith, is sadly not represented here, as neither Men In Black nor Independence Day is available to stream right now. Don’t @ me about this.)
To be fair, almost every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty much the definition of a summer blockbuster. There are flashy set pieces, beautiful movie stars punching each other, and, of course, they make a lot of money. But The Avengers was the culmination of the MCU’s phase one, the first superhero team-up movie in the franchise, and established a format and tone for the next seven years of Marvel movies.
The Avengers is streaming on Disney Plus.
Back to the Future
Robert Zemeckis’ time travel caper is the perfect summer blend of broad comedy and sci-fi action. Marty McFly’s attempts to make his parents fall in love in order to prevent erasing himself and his siblings from existence is a zany premise, especially once his teenage mom starts flirting with him instead.
Back to the Future is streaming on Netflix (and so are the sequels).
Plenty of raunchy comedies have found summer success (Anchorman, Animal House,) but Bridesmaids blows them all out of the water. Not only nominated for two Academy Awards, the movie was also the most successful Judd Apatow-produced comedy, earning nearly $300 million. It include performances from some of the funniest women in Hollywood (Kristen Wiig, Ellie Kemper, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey) and is responsible for the Melissa McCarthy boom of the 2010s, for which we owe it a debt of gratitude.
Bridesmaids is streaming on Hulu.
The Dark Knight
Obviously superhero movies are classic summer blockbuster fodder (see: The Avengers above) but The Dark Knight was perhaps the single biggest — or at least most influential — of them all. Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins established the “dark and gritty” tone for superhero movies and introduced Heath Ledger’s legendary interpretation of the Joker, for which he won a posthumous Oscar.
The Dark Knight is streaming on Hulu.
All of the debates about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie (I don’t care) tend to forget that it was a sleeper summer hit. Die Hard cemented Bruce Willis, who was just known as the cheesy guy from Moonlighting, as an action hero. It also established an enduring action movie formula.
Die Hard is streaming on HBO (also available as Hulu and Amazon Prime add-ons.)
Certainly the headiest summer blockbusters on this list, Inception is hard sci-fi that stays at least a little grounded thanks to mind-bending action scenes and Leonardo DiCaprio’s handsome scowl.
Inception is streaming on Netflix.
The OG summer blockbuster, Jaws completely changed the way studios think about releasing movies. To the surprise of major studios, audiences lined up to see Quint, Hooper, and Brody face off against a killer great white shark. The tense atmosphere that makes the movie so scary, though, was actually an accident — the animatronic shark kept malfunctioning, so Spielberg decided to keep it hidden for as long as possible. That terrifying “duh duh” score is more terrifying than any shark puppet. (Or so I’m told — I’m too scared of sharks to watch it.)
Jaws is streaming on HBO (also available as Hulu and Amazon Prime add-ons.)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
More than 20 years later, Tom Cruise’s TV-rebooted spy franchise is still alive, kicking, and perhaps most surprising, besting itself. The movie stacks up to the masterpieces on this list, and this snippet from our 2018 review sums it up:
Mission: Impossible - Fallout shatters every bone in the body, crashes aircraft in blazes of glory, smashes pristine porcelain sinks to jagged bits, singes Henry Cavill’s mustache hairs, rips French infrastructure in two and defies the laws of physics with the glee of the Jackass crew.
What the sixth installment of Tom Cruise’s stunt-heavy spy franchise doesn’t break are the rules: Executed by Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, Fallout uses film conventions, page-turner dialogue and precision action to write an IMAX-sized textbook on how to have a hell of a good time at the movies. Past Mission: Impossible sequels have looked to aspects of the TV show and modern spy thrillers to find ways to subvert expectations. McQuarrie adapts the series’ lit-fuse title treatment into a two-hour movie, and every second thrills.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout is streaming on Amazon Prime
Pirates of the Caribbean
Everyone loves pirates!
Pirates of the Caribbean is streaming on Disney Plus.
Before there was Star Wars, there was Star Wars, a weird little space movie from a weird little indie filmmaker named George Lucas. George originally set out to adapt Flash Gordon, but when he couldn’t get the rights to the character, he created his own space hero, Luke Skywalker. The iconic crawl at the beginning of every Star Wars movie was originally meant as a to replicate those old adventure serials that recapped what happened in the last episode in case you missed it. The rest, as you know, is movie history.
Star Wars is streaming on Disney Plus.