We decided to do our first series of posts, one entry during each month of the summer. As kids, the summer crop of movies, mostly all hoping to turn into blockbusters, was a highly anticipated summer event. Studios always put the offerings with the biggest budgets in the summer, when all the kids were out of school and looking for something to beat the heat and the boredom. We all know about how Jaws and then Star Wars ushered in the blockbuster era in the late seventies, which also happened to coincide with the rise of the air-conditioned multiplex across the country. What better way to escape a humid, 95-degree day than to bask in the dark, coolness of the theater and let Hollywood whisk you away to another world. Here is our first in the series – looking at our favorite action/adventure blockbusters (to be followed by comedy/musical and science fiction/fantasy next).
Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Released: June 12, 1981
- Budget: $18 million
- First weekend: $26 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $248 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $683 million
There is no doubt that Stephen Spielberg is the king of the summer blockbuster. As previously mentioned, Jaws helped give birth to the phenomenon, then he followed up with this film, ET, Indiana Jones sequels, Jurassic Park, and even Saving Private Ryan, not to mention the tons of summer films he executively produced. For me, Raiders is the best of these, maybe his best of all time (and yes, I’m including Schindler’s List). One of the things that make a summer blockbuster is the anticipation and the pre-release buzz. I used to pore over Premiere magazine’s annual articles about upcoming summer films, as I still do now with Entertainment Weekly. The original teaser trailer just showed title cards about Jaws and Star Wars, and a few quick scenes, but it told me all I needed to know – that Spielberg and George Lucas were working on a film together. I can’t overstate how big this was at the time, as they were the hottest directors of the moment responsible for the two biggest films of all time. There’s not really a modern equivalent – maybe if James Cameron and Ridley Scott or David Fincher were teaming up on a film. All I knew was that if Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford were involved, I wanted to see this film. And boy did it deliver.
Raiders is simply a perfect film in all regards – Lawrence Kasdan’s script, Spielberg’s direction, the lush cinematography of beautiful locations, great casting, and the best soundtrack of John William’s illustrious career. Most importantly, Harrison Ford created an iconic character that was handsome, likable, a little edgy, and capable – but not overly so. That’s what made Indy so endearing – he “made it up as he went along”, and sometimes didn’t have all the answers or lost a fight. He was a real person the audience could relate to, and this made all the difference. He was also paired with the equally accessible Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, who was edgy in her own way, with a natural beauty in a time when every actress didn’t also have to have model looks enough to grace Glamour and Cosmo. I enjoyed the sequels Temple Of Doom, and The Last Crusade, even if my high anticipation of those summer films wasn’t quite as well met. Raiders will always hold a special spot for me in my memories of summer movie-going.
DJ: I love Raiders too, it’s at the top of my all time favorites. Borrowing from the golden age action adventure film it’s about as fun as a movie can get. This gets paired with Empire Strikes Back as the summer films of my youth, nothing going forward will ever make me feel the way these films do. Note to Spielberg: stop making Indiana Jones movies. I don’t want any more.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
- Released: July 3, 1991
- Budget: $102 million
- First weekend: $67 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $205 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $430 million
James Cameron’s sequel to his own film was a milestone in summer blockbusters for a variety of reasons. First off, T2 was one of a series of action sequels where the first film was a modest, but unremarkable success, but found a much larger audience during the proliferation of VCRs and VHS rentals in the 80’s: other examples being Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Lethal Weapon 2, and Aliens. Other than Spielberg with the Indiana Jones series, it wasn’t all that common for a high-profile director to come back and direct sequels. Historically, sequels were lower budgeted affairs that Hollywood hoped to make a few additional bucks off of name recognition alone. But if Rambo and Lethal Weapon were proving bigger budgeted action sequels could pay off, T2 solidified the power of a well-made (and marketed) sequel. And Hollywood hasn’t turned back since.
While many, including myself, still consider the first Terminator to be a better film, Cameron set out to raise the production values by a mile and craft a much bigger spectacle and epic action film for the ages. People may forget that the news of T2’s budget exceeding $100 million was a shocker to the industry, and there was widespread doubt as to whether the film could recoup its investment (James Cameron has a knack for that storyline with his films). Additionally, the really big summer blockbusters, a.k.a “tentpoles”, were usually PG/PG-13 so as to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Terminator 2 was coming with an “R” rating, which is somewhat odd since in retrospect it’s one of the tamer R-rated films and could have easily been trimmed to make PG-13. Regardless, the anticipation for this was massive – fueled by the rise in Arnold’s stardom and a killer teaser trailer (see below). I remember seeing the teaser trailer in the theaters in 1990, getting chills, and putting this film at the top of my 1991 summer must-see list. By the way, all of the footage for the teaser was shot only for the trailer, none was in the theatrical release – just another of Cameron’s brilliant tricks that had not been used yet. There were also whispers of ground-breaking special effects, which proved to be true and fueled the positive word of mouth for the film. So T2 ended up being not only the biggest summer release, but the biggest of 1991, and the first R-rated sequel to crack $200 million in ticket sales. Additionally, with its July 3rd release, it helped highlight the July 4th weekend as a target release date for the biggest films (a weekend Will Smith films would later exploit), and lastly, with its international box office exceeding domestic, it opened Hollywood’s eyes to the riches of the foreign market, which now regularly accounts for 50-70% of the major summer blockbuster money. Oh, and let’s not forget the “T2” catchphrase – copied and played off of even now, over 25 years later.
DJ: At the time I enjoyed this film, still enjoy the first one more. To flip Arnold from the villain to the good guy I think was a bit cheap but the technology on this film was awesome. I can remember when this film came out Subway had a great T2 meal that was a turkey sub with bacon and it was delicious – I always equate the two. And note to anyone involved, do not make any more of these films please. They keep getting worse.
- Released: June 2, 2017
- Budget: $149 million
- First weekend: $103 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $221 million (to date)
So before I get going, “no” we did not get sponsored by Warner Bros. and this is not a shameless plug for their latest (although we would welcome the sponsoring – and I personally would have no problem doing shameless plugs). If one wanted to take a jaded view of the evolution of summer blockbusters, you could say we went from original fare (Star Wars, Raiders, E.T., etc.) to sequels and now to reboots & recycling. Studios always prefer to hedge their big-budget bets on known commodities, and comic book characters have been the ideal ones to bet on since Iron Man opened to nearly $100 million in its first weekend in May 2008. Indeed, if you look at the top grossing summer movies of the last 10 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find a non-animated film that isn’t based on an existing property (movie, TV show, comic book, novel). In 2010 there was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and then a few comedies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids that did well. Otherwise, it’s been all Marvel, Harry Potter, Transformers, sequels, and reboots.
So if that’s the case, why am I choosing Wonder Woman? Simply because it’s a great movie. Believe me, I’ve experienced plenty of comic book movie fatigue in the past few years, but every once in a while, one of them breaks new ground and rises above the pack. It’s awesome that the film had a woman director, but it’s really her insight and skill at the craft of directing that makes this great, not her gender. The story is full of the action set-pieces you expect from the genre, but it also has a strong focus on character development and a sense of humanity and introspection that is devoid from the average comic book film as they typically rush through “that’s cool” action sequences to the predictable CGI-enhanced villain showdown. Gal Gadot was once maligned by internet trolls as not being buxom enough for Wonder Woman, but after this film, you’ll have a hard time imagining anyone else in the role. She really embraces everything the character stands for – justice, compassion, courage, wisdom – while believably taking down bad guys with a sword, magic rope, and shield. Chris Pine deserves credit for crafting a co-starring role that probably has more dialogue than Gadot, but he wisely keeps the focus on her. Most importantly, Wonder Woman is an entertaining film that does what summer films do best: it convinces you to buy into its story, makes you care about the characters, moves you emotionally, thrills you with action scenes, and lets you escape the real world for a few hours while eating popcorn in the nice cool confines of the darkened theater.
DJ: Looking to see this soon, just haven’t had the time. I am super excited about this as DC superheroes were always my favorites and outside of earlier Batman and Superman movies there just hasn’t been a credible DC film. I thought Man of Steel was going to be it, but it just wasn’t. To your point, Warner Brothers if you are listening we will take any sponsoring you got.
UPDATE: I saw it and it was very good.
Some of my favorite films have been summer action blockbusters and I keep going back to watch these whether it was originally in a theater or now on demand. And don’t get me wrong there has been a lot of crap too. It’s hard to make a fun, exciting well-made summer film, just see any Michael Bay production. My selections are a couple of older films and one newer one. It’s not surprising to me that all are still producing sequels or updated versions since these films are great and still commercially viable.
- Released: July 15, 1988
- Budget: $28 million
- First weekend: $7 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $83 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $178 million
Die Hard is the action summer blockbuster that started it all for me and for the one man against a lot of bad dudes genre. It’s probably my all-time favorite film in this genre. After this film, every action film wanted to be Die Hard. We had Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard in the White House, Die Hard at the circus(ok I made this one up but great idea, right?). Die Hard even tried to clone itself with 4 sequels, most being sub-par with five being a complete piece of cinematic garbage. I could quote most of the dialogue from Die Hard, getting it right maybe 75% of the time. It’s timeless, it’s cheesy and it’s awesome. Outside of the main actors, it has some great characters: late great Breakfast Club principal, Paul Gleason as tough police chief Dwayne T. Robinson, FBI agents Johnson & Johnson, Reginald VelJohnson as Sgt. Al “Bag it Big Time” Powell, sleazeball Harry Ellis, Alexander Godunov’s bad-ass henchman Karl and Al Leong, the Asian henchman known for his love of candy bars especially the Zagnut bar. The awesome gone too soon Alan Rickman as the main villain Hans Gruber is one of cinema’s all-time bad guys. My favorite parts are when Rickman is on screen, Gruber is unapologetic, brutal, and only in it for the money. Bruce Willis in his first real starring movie role is awesome as the wise-cracking hero John McClane. Originally, I went back a second time to see this film at the Cineplex and when it’s on TV I always stop to watch. The action is tight and constant. It’s the type of film that just doesn’t get made today. It blew me away in 1988, it was nothing that we had seen before. It was based on a couple of books and the character Joe Leland which became John McClane was actually first played by Frank Sinatra in a sixties movie The Defective. Over the years Die Hard has evolved into a Christmas favorite because it takes place at Christmas and every year it makes lists of best all-time Christmas movies. I really wish the sequels were better. I recently heard Die Hard: Season 1 is being made, it’s an origin story, which is so very wrong, hopefully, technology is not used to make Bruce Willis younger or god forbid they link him with a young Hans Gruber.
MG: Jesus, Die Hard: Season 1? Ugh. This is definitely in my top 5 all-time summer blockbusters. It was big, but not colossal, on theatrical release, but built up a huge following on video. In my screenwriting class in college, my professor said in a script something should happen on every page, or it’s just filler. This film is a textbook example of a script that has no filler – and perfectly ups the ante in a believable and suspenseful way.
- Released: June 12, 1987
- Budget: $15 million
- First weekend: $12 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $59 million
- Earnings Adjusted for Inflation: $135 million
In the eighties I was a huge Arnold fan, I loved all his action films, including the lesser ones, such as Red Heat and Raw Deal. My father and I watched them all. I remember the first one being Conan the Barbarian and I had never seen an action star like him, he was huge and charismatic. His films were event films. When I re-watch these films today most are cheesy, implausible, and poorly acted. Its hard for me to watch most, Commando and The Running Man still give me some chuckles, the early Terminator films and Total Recall are still pretty good but the one that holds up best is Predator. Like Die Hard, anytime I see this is on TV I will put it on, even if it’s the censored version. Why do I like this one the best? Despite the one-liners and fun moments, it’s still a very serious film with tense action. The characters, although at times stereotypical, are memorable and distinct. Set in the jungle, Arnold’s character Dutch leads a crew of vets to rescue a team only to find out later they have been tricked and they are battling something out of this world. There is no doubt about it – this a testosterone filled movie with no romantic entanglements, just pure action. It’s a smart thriller as well, as Dutch, while his unit is getting taken out one by one, has to figure out how to survive finally determining “If it bleeds we can kill it”. There is also some great supporting work by Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and Carl Weathers. It also goes without saying the Predator creature is a work of art, just such a terrifying and formidable foe, such a great creation. Along with Alien, two of the most iconic alien creatures ever created. Also like Alien, it has produced many sequels, comic books, video games etc…most of the movies not being very good including Predator and Alien sharing worlds in a couple of films. Shane Black who played Hawkins and is an accomplished screenwriter and director, is working on another Predator movie and unlike the Die Hard franchise, I am hopeful for this one.
MG: Wow, no credit or mention of John McTeirnan – director of BOTH Predator and Die Hard? Oddly enough, after these two great films the only thing decent he did afterward was The Hunt For Red October. I was watching the Blu-ray of Predator recently, and the “making of” story of this film is truly fascinating – all sorts of issues with script, budget, location problems, and particularly the original version of the creature. It was this insect-like thing played, by all people, Jean-Claude Van Damme. If they had gone to the theater with that version of the creature it would have bombed. If you don’t have the Blu-ray, check out this 3 minute clip on YouTube about it:
The Dark Knight Rises
- Released: July 20, 2012
- Budget: $250 million
- First weekend: $160 million
- Domestic Total Earned: $448 million
This is the one where I will get some crap for, I know everyone loves The Dark Knight especially the crew at Screen Junkies. The Dark Knight is my least favorite of the three. I am a huge fan of Batman Begins, it’s the only “Batman” movie that is about Batman. The Dark Knight is just okay. I hate the resolution and I am just okay with Heath Ledger, he is good, but I don’t know, it just wasn’t my favorite. Don’t mistake my comments, I do like The Dark Knight but I loved Dark Knight Rises. Of course, it’s not perfect, I’m not sure if I love the very end, and it was somewhat overlong, but I still love it. It’s an epic film that’s beautiful to watch. I love how Batman is broken and it aligns with the great comic Knightfall when Bane breaks the back of Batman both literal and figuratively. Batman has to find a way to get his groove back. Thomas Hardy is awesome as Bane, a great character that we really haven’t seen before. He makes Bane iconic. He’s not a major Batman villain so it’s a refreshing change. And yes I know there was a Bane in Batman & Robin, and it was a travesty. Hardy is menacing as he proclaims he is Gotham’s reckoning. He believes he is a necessary evil. The dialogue is this film is fantastic. I think Anne Hathaway does a nice job as well as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman and Christian Bale once again makes a great Batman. The film is exciting and tense and has some Batman-related Easter Eggs. I love that Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow character makes another appearance, one of the coolest villains. The fight scenes are done well and look believable amidst the chaos of Gotham. Marion Cotillard is great as Bruce Wayne’s love interest and I have always been a fan of her acting. The film and the villains look great, it’s a Batman film that is not campy and yet is still a comic book that feels realistic. Since this film, we have already seen a new Batman in Batman V Superman and we know another film is coming soon. I hope they continue Nolan’s work of creating epic Batman films with a strong Batman and strong villains.
MG: One of my favorite summer movie-going experiences of recent memory was seeing Batman Begins in the theater in 2005. It had been less than a decade since the previous incarnation of the comic book hero, and a lot of people were skeptical. Christopher Nolan nailed it, and followed up with two awesome sequels. To be honest, I think I like all 3 films equally. I love that Nolan truly committed to using practical effects and avoiding CGI whenever possible. It makes the film so much more grounded and realistic (unlike the CG-heavy battle scenes of Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman). This film still has a lot of social relevance too – the entire Nolan trilogy is far more thematic and meaningful than anything yet shown in the Marvel universe. That’s one of the main reasons I enjoy watching any of this trilogy when it comes on TV, whereas I have little interest in rewatching Marvel films.