Shockbuster Season: Why the Death of the Summer Movie Is a Good Thing

Forty-seven years ago today, everything changed. True believers might already know what it was: On May 25, 1977, Star Wars hit movie theaters and irrevocably altered nearly everything pertaining to the act of moviegoing. Lines around the block, overly excited nerds, an appetite for action figures. Star Wars taught Hollywood that certain genres—sci-fi, fantasy, anything that percolated in the offbeat TV shows, books, and comics of the 1950s and ’60s—had fans, and those fandoms would show up. Star Wars made a meager $1.6 million in the US in its opening weekend. But people kept coming back, and by the end of its initial run it had made more than $300 million. Hollywood’s Next Big Thing had arrived.

Common wisdom dictates that Jaws, which came out in 1975 and made some $260 million, was the first summer blockbuster. That’s true, but it was Star Wars that shifted the idea of what kind of film future popcorn flicks tried to be. In the years after its release, a trove of sci-fi and genre films landed in theaters: Blade Runner, Alien, E.T., the Mad Max sequel The Road Warrior. By the ’90s, the summer movie energy had shifted to action fare—Twister, Speed, Jurassic Park, Independence Day—but nerd stuff still ruled. For every Forrest Gump there was a Batman Returns or Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Then came a little juggernaut called Marvel. By the time Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies started clearing nine-figure opening weekends in the aughts, it was obvious that comic book heroes’ true superpowers involved making your money disappear. The Avengers opened in early May 2012 and nearly recouped its $200-million-plus production budget in three days. Suddenly, there were at least two superhero movies every year, if not every summer, and some new Star Wars flicks at the holidays.

The one-two punch of Covid-19 theater closures and streaming pretty much kneecapped this entire process. The summer of 2020 had virtually no blockbusters, and by the time moviegoers returned to multiplexes in 2021 and 2022, there had been a vibe shift. Movies like Black Widow and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness did well, but they weren’t events. Rushing to Fandango for tickets didn’t feel as urgent as it once did. Last summer, Barbenheimer was the buzziest thing in movies. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 made money, but they still got beat by Barbie’s might.

Overall, this year could be a wake-up call for studios that superhero fatigue has fully set in, says Chris Nashawaty, author of The Future Was Now, a new book out in July about how the movies of 1982—Blade Runner, E.T., Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, among others—ushered in the current blockbuster era. That epoch, he says, “was always going to be something that couldn’t last forever; I’m frankly surprised that it lasted as long as it did.”

Nashawaty says the success of Barbenheimer—both movies—indicates that audiences are hungry for smart films, but Hollywood’s risk aversion likely means studios will greenlight more projects based on toys and games like Monopoly rather than movies about physicists. “This is a real existential moment in Hollywood right now,” he adds, and studios need to be bold to stay relevant.