Some time ago, we took a moment to highlight the highest-grossing films since Jaws turned summertime into the blockbuster season. Things have changed radically in the past 20 years, with franchises taking front and center as Hollywood strayed away from original ideas and started to rely more and more on the safety of established IPs. Most of the time, it’s proven to be a winning formula, especially after the Avengers hit the big screen in 2012.
While it’s difficult to predict the future, 2023 may be an early sign that the tide is turning again as major summer tentpoles are flopping hard left and right. Our ranking reflects the safety net represented by established studios such as Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm (all subsidiaries of Disney). However, the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing number of streaming services, and the elevated cost of going to the movies are finally catching on with the industry.
The top three films in the list are a reflection of these changes, and the utter flop of films with brand recognition it’s a call to action, as movies have grown too expensive and the search for significant revenues telling a safe story might not be the favored cup of tea for audiences anymore.
20 Iron Man 3 (2013)
Hot on the heels of The Avengers, Marvel Studios got to work to release the final installment of the Iron Man trilogy. Taking a cue from the comics, Iron Man 3 adapted the Extremis storyline combined with a few elements still missing in the lore. The film was written and directed by Shane Black, who was taking over from Jon Favreau. While the movie was made on a budget and managed to score $1.2 billion back, it had some issues.
The incredible casting was out of this world. Robert Downey Jr. returns alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, and Ben Kingsley as The villainous Mandarin, the leader of the Ten Rings. However, the film failed to deliver a great payoff as The Mandarin was revealed to be a made-up character by the creator of Extremis. It’s still entertaining, but it was critically panned for this mishap.
19 Frozen (2013)
In 2013 it was Pixar’s turn to shine as an animated feature took the top spot of the year. Frozen was a wildly successful new IP created by the studio. The original story is written by Jennifer Lee, who co-directed the movie with Chris Buck. The voice acting is in charge of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, and Jonathan Groff. The enchanting story of two royal sisters, Elsa and Anna, in the kingdom of Arendelle, caught the world’s imagination and took it for a spin.
The film was made on a budget of $150 million, and it broke every record of the year with a $1.2 billion box office return. The caring story about Elsa losing control of her powers and her sister’s journey to save her and help restore harmony to the kingdom was the cultural phenomenon of the year. The soundtrack for this movie topped the charts as the best-selling album of the year, with 13 million units sold.
18 Maleficent (2014)
It’s safe to say that Maleficent was the film that made Disney see green when it came to live-action projects based on their animated features. the film is based on the main villain of Sleeping Beauty, turning her into a somewhat sympathetic character. the film is directed by Robert Stromberg from a screenplay by Linda Woolverton. The cast includes Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, and Sam Riley.
In the story, Maleficent is revealed o be a powerful fairy living in the Moors, a land bordering with a human kingdom. The story would set a precedent by turning villains into tragic figures, which didn’t sit well with many audiences. Still, the film managed to make bank as it was made on a budget of $180 million and managed to score $760 million in box office gross worldwide.
17 Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
Transformers: Age of Extinction has the dubious distinction of being the reboot nobody asked for. The story was finished with Dark of the Moon, but Paramount couldn’t pass up the opportunity to keep milking this franchise dry. Michael Bay was more than willing to return and direct another settlement, so why not go for it? The screenplay by Ehren Kruger places our heroes in a rough spot after being disowned as government assets and hunted by humanity.
Since Shia LaBeouf was done with the franchise, so the human leads were replaced with Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, and a few young leads. The exorbitant budget increased to $210 million, so the VXF was on point as usual. This time, the robots in disguise are being hunted by the CIA and the KSI, a corporation using Transformer technology to make combat drones. Despite the mixed reception by critics, the film ranked $1.1 billion worldwide, giving Michael Bay the excuse to make one more film.
16 Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm to the tune of $4 billion, the fandom was more than eager to get more Star Wars stories. The possibilities were endless, especially since George Lucas had allowed for an expanded universe to build off the lore with unique stories and intricate characters set in the past and future of the original story. Kathleen Kennedy crushed all those hopes with a single blow by immediately disregarding previous works to create something new.
With the help of J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, the studio crafted Star Wars: The Force Awakens, an underwhelming rehash of A New Hope that played things safe while erasing legacy characters and replacing them with the hollow shells of new creations that can’t hold a candle to their counterparts. The overblown production had a budget of $245 million and smashed box office records, grossing over $2 billion worldwide.
15 Jurassic World (2015)
Nobody had Jurassic Park making a big comeback in their bingo cards for 2015, but return it did in full form with a brand new story, a new park, and a new cast of characters. Jurassic World is directed by Colin Trevorrow, with a screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. The casting featured new Hollywood darling of the era Chris Pratt alongside Bryce Dallas Howard and Vincent D’Onofrio. The story takes place 22 years after the events of the first film.
Universal took a big gamble, but they weren’t short on legacy IPs as they took two of the top three spots in the year with this film and Furious 7. The movie was made on a budget of $150 million, and it made a massive impact with a box office return of $1.6 billion worldwide, overtaking Avengers: Age of Ultron by $100 million, which is no easy feat considering we were at the peak of the Superhero age back then.
14 Captain America: Civil War (2016)
After having its most reliable brand underperform in 2015, Marvel went all out with Captain America: Civil War. The media dubbed the project Avengers 2.5 after the large ensemble cast of Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, and many others were announced. The film was also set to debut the MCU version of Spider-Man and the Black Panther. Anthony and Joe Russo handled the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
The film follows the similar beat of the comic storyline. After Sokovia and a covert operation went wrong, resulting in the death of multiple civilians, the world is asking for accountability. The heroes must abide by the Sokovia accords. Cap disagrees while Iron Man does. Conflict ensues. The story’s large cast and massive scope demanded a budget of $250 million, and the film grossed $1.15 billion worldwide, making Marvel Studios the year’s top earner.
13 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
The Disney machinery didn’t stop this year, and their plan to release one Star Wars movie a year was going full ahead after the wild success of The Force Awakens. We got Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in December, written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and directed by Gareth Edwards. The movie tells the story of the rebels who got the plans for the Empire’s new secret weapon, the Death Star.
Featuring the talents of Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ronny Yu, and Ben Mendelsohn, the film was plagued with issues and multiple reshoots. Still, they all seemed to pay off as audiences met the film with critical acclaim. The troubled production had a budget of $200 million and grossed $1 billion worldwide after its theatrical run. The film is still regarded as one of the darkest and grittiest entries in Star Wars lore, with plenty of fan service and a compelling story.
12 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
No one can take the credit for breaking a fandom like Rian Johnson. It’s impossible to shift blame on someone else because he’s The Last Jedi‘s sole writer and director. This movie rode the wave of success of the safe bet laid by The Force Awakens and went for the proverbial jugular with a complete deconstruction of Star Wars lore. The story features the talents of Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, and Adam Driver, but it makes almost every character an unrecognizable shell of their previous personas.
The film was budgeted at $200 million, but bad word of mouth impacted its earnings, as it ranked $1.3 billion worldwide. It was the year’s top earner but dropped $700 million from the last entry. The Last Jediremains the most divisive entry in this ranking and one that grows weary on the ongoing discourse about Star Wars. Its existence is fueled by controversy to this day, which apparently makes Ryan Johnson proud of what he achieved.
11 The Fate of the Furious (2017)
While Disney reigned supreme in 2017 by taking the two top spots with The Last Jedi and The Beauty & The Beast, The Fate of the Furious managed to nab the third spot, which served as a reminder to House of Mickey that they are not the only ones with money making properties. The film is directed by F. Gary Gray, with a screenplay by Chris Morgan, and we get the whole gang back with Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, and Charlize Theron leading the way.
In this action-packed installment, Dominic Toretto turns against his family and teams up with Cipher to attack a convoy of the Diplomatic Security Service led by Luke Hobbs to steal an EMP device he’s been tasked to transport. The film was made on a budget of $250 million, and it certainly shows in each of the high-octane stunts and thrilling car chases. Fans of the franchise flocked to theaters rewarding Universal’s effort with a box office gross of $1.2 billion worldwide.
10 Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
After proving themselves as reliable filmmakers and big earners in the franchise system of the MCU, the Russo Brothers were given the chance to handle the closing chapters of the Infinity Saga. Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame were filmed back to back, but their cost of production was handled separately. As the big payoff of the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this project required the presence of every major character in the franchise to face Thanos, the ultimate villain seeking to gather the Infinity Stones to wipe out life in half the universe.
The big ensemble cast juggled every actor in the franchise in a runtime of 2 hours and 30 minutes. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely gave everyone their time to shine. The film is a tense, overbearing experience as the heroes fail to stop Thanos, played by Josh Brolin. The movie was made on a budget of $316 million and went on to gross $2 billion worldwide. It was an epic unlike anything seen to date with plenty of emotional stakes, which helped the next chapter in its earnings.
9 Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Avengers: Endgame was meant to be the top earner from 2019, regardless of the efforts made by any studio. The follow-up to Infinity War was the closing chapter of the Infinity Saga and the resolution of the blip used by Thanos. The story reunites the six original Avengers with Rocket Racoon, Groot, Nebula, and Ant-Man, who must travel in time to bring back the stones and wish everyone back to life.
The Russo Brothers return to the director chair with a new script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The film’s budget was increased to $356 million. The movie became the cultural phenomenon of the year, with a box office gross of $2.7 billion worldwide. No film has come close to these numbers since the original Avatar by James Cameron, who was very gracious in a public statement after the movie broke the record. Still, he would re-release the film before the second chapter of Avatar made it to the big screen and positioned the first entry at #1 again.
8 The Lion King (2019)
Disney competed with itself for all of 2019; they took the five top spots in the yearly ranking with The Lion King at #2, Frozen 2, Spider-Man: Far from Home, and Captain Marvel. The live-action remake of the beloved animated classic was directed by Jon Favreau, with a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson. Disney sought to increase the cultural relevance of the movie by featuring a primarily all-black cast of actors with Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead.
The photorealistic CGI movie tells the now-familiar story of Simba, a young lion prince exiled from his land by his deceitful uncle Scar who plotted with the hyenas to become the king of the Pride Lands. After being found by his childhood friend Nala, Mufasa must return and reclaim his rightful place as king. The film was made on a budget of $260 million, and even though it hardly deviates from the original story still managed to score a box office gross of $1.6 billion worldwide.
7 Demon Slayer – The Movie: Mugen Train (2020)
In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theaters shut down worldwide. While some countries had heavy restrictions regarding social distance, others were more relaxed in their approach. The USA took a hit, with all big studios releasing their blockbuster tentpoles directly on streaming services with mixed results. Anime studios in Japan were undeterred by the pandemic and went on to release their works as scheduled.
Demon Slayer was the most popular anime of the year, and the animation house Ufotable was planning to adapt the Mugen Train arc to release it as a feature film. The movie was directed by Haruo Sotozaki and featured the talents of the TV show, with Natsuki Hanae, Akari Kito, and Hiro Shimono reprising their roles. The film was made on a budget of $16.6 million and became the box office hit of the year as it went ahead with its theatrical run as planned, collecting a grand total of $500 million worldwide.
6 The Eight Hundred (2020)
As the pandemic raged on across the world, most theaters kept closed, but that didn’t stop the Chinese industry from releasing its own slate of films. The Eight Hundred is a historical film recounting the events related to the defense of the Sihang Warehouse during the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, a crucial moment in the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Guan Hu wrote and directed the movie with the assistance of Ge Rui. The ensemble cast features the talents of Asian stars such as Huang Zhizhong, Zhang Junyi, and Li Chen. The chaotic nature of the story follows a linear narrative with no main character. The film was made on a budget of $80 million and grossed over $461 million worldwide, with nearly 80% of the revenue coming from mainland China.
5 The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021)
COVID-19 provisions were still in place in early 2021, so not many movie theaters were open for business worldwide. China was still dominating box office numbers with their domestic releases. The Battle at Lake Changjin depicts the epic Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, where a small group of South Korean and United Nations forces fought to the end against overwhelming enemy forces.
The film is directed by Han-min Kim, with a screenplay by Han-min Kim and Jeong Tae-won. The film features the talents of multiple Asian stars such as Nam Joo-hyuk, Kim Byung-hun, and Kim Sung-cheol. It was made on a tiny budget of $17 million and grossed over $900 million worldwide, with most of the income coming from China and South Korea, where the film proved massively popular.
4 Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Social distancing was becoming a thing of the past in late 2021, which meant a return to form for the movie industry in the USA. Marvel Studios desperately needed a hit after the jarring flops of Black Widow, Eternals, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After a brief impasse between Sony and Disney and given the need for consumers to come back to theaters, they teamed up for Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third film in the Tom Holland era.
The story is directed by Jon Watts, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers; the cast reunites Tom Holland, Zendaya, and Benedict Cumberbatch in a wild story that brings back every enemy of Spider-Man across all cinematic eras of the character. This led to ongoing speculation about the potential return of Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield as their respective versions of Spider-Man. With an estimated budget of $250 million, the film was the outstanding box office hit of the year, with a total gross of $1.9 billion worldwide.
3 Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
2022 is when audiences started to show signs of change regarding the choices in their movie-going experience. Marvel Studios had three big tentpoles lined up for the year, and while none flopped, they underperformed compared to early efforts. The days of the billion-dollar streak for the studio were over. Universal managed to grab two spots with a new Jurassic Park entry and a new Minions film, but it was Top Gun: Maverick, the film that became the breakout hit of the year.
A legacy sequel to a film that was already 36 years old beat Marvel and DC, showing that audiences were willing to show up to the theaters as long as the film was great. The director’s chair is taken by Joseph Kosinski, with a screenplay by Ehren Kruger and Christopher McQuarrie. Tom Cruise returns to one of his best roles of the 80s with such ease that it is easy to forget so much time has passed since the last movie. The film was made on a budget of $150 million and scored $1.5 billion during its theatrical run worldwide.
2 Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
The return to Pandora took 14 years to materialize. Here is a funny anecdote about this: Eddie Falco, who had a minor role in the film, thought the movie had already come out and flopped since the film took so long to be finished. Ultimately, it was well worth it as James Cameron delivered the goods again. Avatar: The Way of Water continues the story of the Na’vi and their struggle against human exploitation of Pandora’s resources.
James Cameron managed to multitask again by writing, directing, and producing the film with some assistance from Josh Friedman to compress the story. The film’s massive budget is around $250-400 million, with Cameron stating the film needed to make at least $1.4 billion so he could finish the story as planned. The audience didn’t let him down, giving him another win with a box office gross of $2.3 billion for another movie that looks pretty but has a lackluster story.
1 The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)
2023 is not over yet, but we already have the year’s breakout hit as The Super Mario Bros. Movie has already managed to top every single release from all the major studios. The film is a carefully crafted project by Illumination Studios, a subsidiary of Universal. Years went on in the negotiation for the film rights to the treasured Nintendo IP, as the Japanese company was unwilling to commit to any American studio after the disaster of the first Super Mario Bros film made in 1993.
Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic direct the movie, and Matt Fogel writes the screenplay. The story takes multiple elements of every single Mario game in the franchise and binds them together to make a wholesome, faithful adaptation of the world’s favorite plumber. The acting talents of Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jack Black, and Charlie Day seal the deal. The film was made on a budget of $100 million and ended its theatrical run with a box office gross of $1.3 billion worldwide.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie it’s the film to beat in 2023, and the only contenders left in the arena are Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Oppenheimer, and Barbie, as Disney doesn’t have any bullets left in the chamber to compete.