The 2000s was a busy decade for American cinema. For one thing, you had the birth of numerous movie stars like Bradley Cooper and Seth Rogen. For another, you had the revival of genres thought to be long-dead, like the musical and the Western. And then there were the biggest movies of the decade. Like any other post-1975 era of American movies, the 2000s were home to countless blockbusters. But in this particular decade, some of the most iconic franchises of all-time were born. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, and more originated in this single ten-year span. It’s a confluence of impactful tentpole filmmaking that’s rarely been matched in the history of movies.
All of those iconic blockbusters led to a large number of towering box office performers arriving throughout this decade, including one that managed to dethrone Titanic as the biggest movie of all-time. The lasting influence of the various blockbusters of the 2000s is reflected in just how many record-breaking performers are found in the decades ten highest grossing movies of all-time.
Shrek 2 had a fairy-tale ending at the box office
Shrek 2 opens with a song harmonizing about how the film’s two lead characters are "accidentally in love." However, the gargantuan box office that greeted Shrek 2 was no accident. The original Shrek was a beloved affair, as seen by its strong weekend-to-weekend drops across the summer of 2001. Positive word of mouth turned Shrek into a pop culture phenomenon. Three years later, a sequel to such an acclaimed movie was something audiences around the world greeted with anticipation. Plus, this was back in an age where theatrically released animated sequels were much scarcer than they are today. For 2004 moviegoers, the prospect of getting Shrek 2 was an event rather than par for the course.
Debuting in May 2004, three years after the original Shrek, Shrek 2 didn’t just exceed the worldwide box office haul of its predecessor. It nearly doubled that film’s $491 million box office gross with a $928 million sum. After breaking box office records across the globe, Shrek 2 managed to dethrone Finding Nemo to become the biggest animated film of all-time worldwide. This achievement didn’t just come about because of the original Shrek being beloved. It also helped that Shrek 2 was an acclaimed production in its own right, one that was just as appealing to teens and adults as it was to family audiences. With those factors on its side, audiences were very purposefully in love with Shrek 2.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince conjured up box office magic
In the ten years that Harry Potter movies were being made, reliably small gaps of time existed between installments. To make sure these movies could be made while the lead actors were still teenagers, typically only eight to 20 months separated installments of the series. However, the largest gap between installments, a whole two years, emerged between the releases of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This prolonged absence came about after Half-Blood Prince saw its release date delayed from November 2008 to July 2009.
If there was any concern that the Harry Potter movies would lose their luster with an extended break, they vanished away once The Half-Blood Prince made its theatrical debut. The film grossed a whopping $934 million worldwide, a gross that put it ahead of all but one other release (Avatar) among 2009 movies at the worldwide box office. While delaying its release date may have irked fans, it turned out to be a wise move for Half-Blood Prince’s box office. Released towards the end of summer 2009, the film only had to compete with the likes of G-Force and Funny People for the attention of moviegoers in late July. With such meager competition, Half-Blood Prince was able to be the only massive blockbuster in the marketplace. Thus, it was able to prove that no extended break could slow down Harry Potter‘s box office momentum.
One movie ruled the 2002 box office thanks to The Two Towers
In the history of summer blockbusters, it’s customary for the second movie in a franchise to make less than its predecessor. Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the list goes on and on. This isn’t exactly due to these productions being flops. On the contrary, many of them did quite well in their own right. It’s just that certain summer blockbusters are greeted with such long-simmering anticipation and massive grosses that the follow-ups can’t help but come up short.
One surprising exception to this phenomenon? The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Though The Fellowship of the Ring was anticipated for decades, The Two Towers managed to beat it out at the worldwide box office with a $937 million worldwide gross.
The enduring ubiquity of the Lord of the Rings books meant movie adaptations of those texts were seen as likely candidates for box office success. However, few could’ve predicted that these films would end up getting bigger and bigger as they went along. The wildly positive response to The Fellowship of the Ring meant audiences were craving more Middle-earth adventures, especially since nothing else released in December 2002 could compete with The Two Towers. This resulted in The Two Towers avoiding the box office sophomore slump that’s plagued so many other blockbuster sequels.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix soared financially
In the summer of 2007, there was no shortage of lucrative sequels for moviegoers to see. New Bourne, Shrek, Spider-Man, and Pirates of the Caribbean installments all made their theatrical debuts that year. Also opening in this timeframe was the fifth Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix. An adaptation of the longest Harry Potter novel, Order of the Phoenix had no trouble standing up against a wave of other blockbuster fare. In fact, the movie managed to amass a gigantic $942 million worldwide gross, a haul that would’ve been impressive in any summer.
Some franchises, like The Terminator, lose all steam five entries in. By contrast, Order of the Phoenix saw the Harry Potter series hitting its highest worldwide box office haul since Sorcerer’s Stone. Order of the Phoenix partially excelled due to great timing in its releasing. Making its domestic debut in July 2007, Order of the Phoenix premiered the same month that the final Harry Potter book, Deathly Hallows, hit bookshelves. This sent "Harry Potter mania" to whole new heights in the pop cultural zeitgeist. With an increased level of interest in the franchise, the perfectly timed Order of the Phoenix rode that surging fandom to box office success.
Audiences set sail with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
There was a lot of competition for the title of biggest movie at the 2007 worldwide box office. With films like Spider-Man 3 and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the year was far from short on big franchises dropping new installments that could’ve conceivably topped all other 2007 releases. Coming out on top of the entire pack, though, was Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which continued the robust success the Pirates movies were having at the worldwide box office.
While At World’s End did come up short of the worldwide box office haul compared to its predecessor, Dead Man’s Chest, it still managed to amass a hearty booty of $961 million. Though it arrived just ten months after the previous film, At World’s End made it clear that audiences didn’t just see this film as reheated leftovers. This was helped by the fact that Dead Man’s Chest ended on a cliffhanger regarding whether Jack Sparrow would live or not. This kept moviegoers across the globe eagerly awaiting what would come next in the franchise. The fact that Dead Man’s Chest also received positive marks from audiences (just look at its A- on CinemaScore) ensured At World’s End sailed onto theaters on a wave of excited buzz. With those factors serving as the wind in the film’s sails, it’s no wonder At World’s End topped all others at the 2007 worldwide box office.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone kicked the franchise off with a bang
There was a time where it didn’t look certain if Harry Potter would translate properly into film. That now sounds like a ludicrous concept considering the ongoing success of a franchise that’s resulted in a combined worldwide haul of $9.2 billion. However, the very first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, arrived at the dawn of the 21st century, when live-action fantasy movies — thanks to the likes of Dungeons & Dragons and Warriors of Virtue – had a far spottier box office track record than they do today.
Of course, Sorcerer’s Stone far exceeded the box office norms for the fantasy genre by managing to gross $974 worldwide, in the process becoming the biggest movie of 2001. This was in spite of the fact that Sorcerer’s Stone opened against other holiday season 2001 tentpoles like Monsters, Inc. and the first Lord of the Rings movie. Of course, one can attribute this to the popularity of the Harry Potter books. The source material had enchanted kids and adults alike all around the world, and they were eager to visit Hogwarts on the big screen for the very first time. All that excitement resulted in a movie with a box office gross that remained unsurpassed in the Harry Potter franchise until the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, ten years later.
Batman reached new box office heights with The Dark Knight
Batman hasn’t always been as big of a draw at the worldwide box office compared to other superheroes like Spider-Man. This was reflected in how Batman Returns made $266 million worldwide in 1992 and how Batman Begins made $373.6 million worldwide in 2005. Ordinarily, domestic moviegoers ate Batman movies up, but they tended to resonate far less with overseas audiences. But The Dark Knight was no ordinary Batman movie. Thus, its worldwide box office haul was something truly unprecedented in the franchise’s history, with a mammoth $1.005 billion worldwide gross. Whereas Batman Begins had grossed only $166 million overseas, The Dark Knight managed to gross $470 million internationally.
This sharp increase in box office didn’t come from out of nowhere. The Dark Knight premiered in July 2008 on an avalanche of buzz generated from a variety of sources. For example, there were positive responses from its predecessor, critical buzz that had never before been given to the superhero movie genre, and of course, the tragic passing of Heath Ledger. With these elements at its back, The Dark Knight proceeded to hit a new high for Batman movies at the worldwide box office, and its financial achievements weren’t just limited to its own franchise. The Dark Knight also became the first superhero movie in history to cross $1 billion worldwide. With that accomplishment, Batman’s days of being less of a worldwide box office draw were clearly over.
A pirate’s life proved appealing to everyone with Dead Man’s Chest
"Jack is back." With that tagline on its poster, the appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was made immediately apparent. After all, film critic Roger Ebert once said of Jack Sparrow, "There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie." The character’s uniqueness had captured the imagination of audiences around the world, and fueled by the love for all things Jack Sparrow, all Dead Man’s Chest had to do to pique the interest of moviegoers was announce the swashbuckler was returning to the screen.
Dead Man’s Chest’s embarked on its box office run in July 2006, and the voyage was strong from the get-go. Dead Man’s Chest scored the then-biggest domestic opening weekend at the domestic box office, as well as becoming the first movie in history to make $100 million over just two days at the domestic box office. Overseas audiences also turned out in droves for the title, as seen by how it broke box office records in countries like Russia and Italy. Dead Man’s Chest would go on to make a massive $1.066 billion worldwide, the first time a Disney movie cracked $1 billion worldwide. With this kind of box office performance, Jack Sparrow wasn’t just back with Dead Man’s Chest, he was back with a vengeance.
A trilogy concluded on a high note with The Return of the King
"I didn’t think it would end this way." So says Pippin as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King comes to a close. Though he was talking about the events of the movie, he might as well have been talking about the box office trajectory of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole. Though J.R.R. Tolkien’s books had proven to be massively popular texts, nobody could’ve imagined the final installment of this cinematic trilogy would prove to be such a gigantic smash.
The Return of the King managed to gross $1.140 billion worldwide, an impressive sum on a number of levels. For one thing, it was, at the time, only the second movie in history to gross $1+ billion worldwide, following Titanic. For another, its take was nearly 12 times the movie’s $94 million budget. On yet another level, The Return of the King reaffirmed how important worldwide audiences were in the 21st-century movie scene. Roughly two-thirds of The Return of the King’s massive box office haul came from overseas moviegoers. It was another indicator of just how far the appeal of Lord of the Rings had spread with this trilogy, and on top of the massive amounts of cash, the film also earned 11 Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture.
Nobody could’ve seen The Return of the King ending in this manner, though nobody responsible for bankrolling the expansive project was complaining about the final box office tally.
Avatar became the new king of the world … and of the 2000s
Leave it to James Cameron to pull off Avatar. In the last few weeks of the 2000s, the man behind some of the most iconic blockbusters in history delivered the biggest movie of the decade. Though prior to its release, it was pelted with jokes about its similarities to everything from Quigley Down Under to Delgo, Avatar managed to become the newest example of Cameron being able to spin any premise into gold.
Grossing $2.744 billion worldwide, Avatar surpassed Cameron’s own Titanic to become the biggest movie of the 2000s … and in all of cinematic history. Cameron’s dedication to groundbreaking visual effects and digital 3D technology had turned Avatar into a must-see, big-screen event. The use of 3D here was especially responsible for its box office success. Up to this point, digital 3D had been used for concert films and animated kids movies. A massive action spectacle like Avatar being presented in digital 3D had some real novelty that allowed it to wow moviegoers.
Avatar’s box office sum still registers as noteworthy by modern box office standards. This is reflected by how it took a whole decade for another movie to surpass its worldwide total. While Avengers: Endgame narrowly overtook Avatar in July 2019, Avatar’s box office accomplishments are still outstanding. It just goes to show that only James Cameron could take blue-cat aliens and turn them into the biggest movie of the decade.