The Biggest & Best Summer Blockbusters From the 1980s

I have a confession to make about the movies. It was 1989 and I was in my mid 20s, working in New York City and starting my first full-time job in the magazine business. I had lucked into a nice corner office with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Broadway, right above a Tower Records store (remember those?!). There was constant movement outside, the hustle and bustle of the pedestrians and taxis and buses and all the noise that came with it, including the subway rumble from below ground. But there was one still, quiet, bright light, across the street and one block over: the red glow of an AMC movie theater sign.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, from left: Sean Connery, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, 1989.

Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

My boss was on the opposite end of the floor and not too concerned with the goings-on of the lower-level staff. When Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opened on Wednesday near the end of May, I had a choice: Wait till the weekend to see the newest installment of the Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise, or go now. Right now, during the work day. Just across the street. And so I went. I probably saw Last Crusade easily four times that summer. And not just Crusade. A month later, Tim Burton’s Batman with Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight opened in June. One week I’d see Batman, then the next Crusade, then Batman again, then Crusade again. I probably saw other movies that summer, but the rest is a blur compared to these two, the most exciting movies of the summer and, not coincidentally, the two biggest money makers of 1989. It was a glorious finale to an entire decade of movie blockbusters.

Birth Of The Modern Blockbuster

Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope rear: Darth Vader, foreground, from left: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, C-3PO, R2-D2, poster art, 1977

The best way to understand the awesomeness of the 1980s movie blockbuster is to start with the 1970s, when the modern blockbuster was born. And yes, I’m talking about Jaws and Star Wars (now referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), the two movies that birthed the trend of repeated viewings that help make a blockbuster a blockbuster. Jaws, in 1975, was the first movie to make $100 million in the U.S. alone and was the highest-grossing film of all time until Star Wars two years later. At $461 million, Star Wars is the 16th highest-grossing movie of all time, and every blockbuster since then is still hoping for those astronomical numbers. What the ’70s started, though, the ’80s perfected.

There are a few traits common to the big ’80s movies. One is the content: Most of the movies can be called action movies, and most are of a sci-fi or fantasy bent. And nine out of the Top 10 either started a franchise of sequels and reboots or were part of an existing one.

The “Star Wars” & “Raiders” Reign

The first ’80s blockbuster was from the first year of the decade — The Empire Strikes Back, the second in the original Star Wars trilogy. For my popcorn money, it’s still the best of the Star Wars franchise. Empire grossed $290 million and was the third-biggest film of the decade. It then spawned the third Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, released in 1983. Jedi did even better at $309 million and was the No. 2 highest money maker of the decade (even though it, regrettably, had little furry Ewoks in it).

The summer blockbusters kept coming. Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws, came back in 1981 with one of Empire’s costars in Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of the most indelible of all movie characters, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones has been searching for lost artifacts for over three decades now across five movies. His first adventure in Raiders, inspired by the action film serials of the 1930s and ’40s, grossed $248 million and is ranked as the No. 5 blockbuster of the ’80s. The next two movies in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), “only” made $180 million and $197 million, respectively, but all those movie tickets were enough to rank them at No. 10 and No. 9 for the decade’s top films.

What Made 1984 Movies Special?

1984 was the busiest year of the ’80s for blockbuster movies. In addition to Temple of Doom, that great summer witnessed the premieres of Ghostbusters ($242 million), Gremlins ($153 million), The Karate Kid ($91 million), Star Trek III ($76 million), Purple Rain ($70 million), Revenge of the Nerds ($41 million) and Red Dawn ($38 million) — just to rattle off a few. Beverly Hills Cop ($234 million) is the only movie in the 1980s Top 10 that wasn’t a summer premiere and had no sci-fi or fantasy elements. The success of Cop was a testament to Eddie Murphy’s dynamic popularity and instant stardom as a Saturday Night Live cast member. (And it’s still Murphy’s biggest live action movie to date.) And don’t forget the appeal of comedy. Ghostbusters rounded up more SNL alums like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd for what can be considered the funniest sci-fi paranormal movie ever.

GHOSTBUSTERS, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, 1984, (c)

Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

Michael J. Fox’s “Future”

Enduring popular appeal? You can put Michael J. Fox on that list. He helped propel the sci-fi time travel classic Back to the Future ($211 million) to the eighth highest-grossing movie of the decade. And you can thank Batman ($251 million, No. 4) for spawning all the comic-based movies that overpopulate the cineplexes today, like the Marvel and DC superheroes, particularly the Avengers. Superman with Christopher Reeve in 1978 grossed over $130 million, but Batman nearly doubled that gross and made comic book heroes a surer box office bet.

BACK TO THE FUTURE, from left, Christopher Lloyd, Michael J. Fox, 1985.

Universal Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

But E.T. Drove It Home!

And there’s one more movie to talk about that made the Top 10 list of ’80s summer blockbusters. It’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s different from the rest for a couple of reasons. One, it’s the highest grosser of the decade, at $435 million. Even after decades of blockbusters that came after E.T., it’s still No. 20 on the all-time money-making list. And two, it was neither part of an established franchise nor did it start one. Yes, it’s sci fi, it’s action, it’s family friendly, but it’s also a unique, one-film experience from the blockbuster king director Steven Spielberg. And to this day, it’s still Spielberg’s most popular movie. Some things about the ’80s just can’t be repeated.

1980s Top Summer Blockbusters
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1980s Top Summer Blockbusters

July 2019

Celebrate the biggest summer movies of the ’80s, when moviegoing morphed from mere entertainment to blockbuster events.

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