Image: Sony Pictures
A look back at how the milestone has changed over 30 years
The superlatives just keep stacking up for Spider-Man: No Way Home. The box-office behemoth has now become Sony’s top-grossing movie of the all-time in the United States, with absolutely no end in sight. Even with a 69 percent drop in sales, Tom Holland and Zendaya brought in over $81 million on a holiday weekend, according to independent box office tracker The Numbers, bringing the movie’s grand total to $467.3 million.
Only nine days into wide release as of this story, No Way Home currently has the 19 highest-grossing domestic box office of all time. But don’t expect it to stay sandwiched between 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for long. Phantom Menace, which exceeded box office expectations, took months to earn what No Way Home has earned in days. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that No Way Home enters the top 10 of the highest-grossing movies in the in the U.S. by 2022, bumping 2018’s The Incredibles 2 out of the history books.
Here’s the current top 10:
- Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015) ($936,662,225)
- Avengers: Endgame (2019) ($858,373,000)
- Avatar (2009) ($760,507,625)
- Black Panther (2018) ($700,059,566)
- Avengers: Infinity War (2018) ($678,815,482)
- Titanic (1997) ($659,363,944)
- Jurassic World (2015) ($652,306,625)
- The Avengers (2012) ($623,357,910)
- Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) ($620,181,382)
- The Incredibles 2 (2018) ($608,581,744)
No Way Home reshaping the top 10 is the type of story that has become commonplace for Disney in recent years. So alongside documenting No Way Home’s meteoric rise, it’s worth asking: what did the domestic top 10 look like before the current reign of the Mouse House? Before the MCU?
Going back to 2001 and 1991, 20 years ago and 30 years ago, the list looked somewhat different — though maybe not as drastically different than some might think. Based on data from The Numbers, here are the movies that had the highest grossing domestic box office as of 1991.
- Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977) ($460,998,007)
- E.T the Extra Terrestrial (1982) ($435,110,554)
- Star Wars VI: Return of The Jedi (1983) ($309,205,079)
- Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back (1980) ($291,738,960)
- Home Alone (1990) ($285,761,243)
- Jaws (1975) ($260,000,000)
- Batman (1989) ($251,188,924 )
- Ghostbusters (1984) ($242,604,185)
- Beverly Hills Cop (1984) ($234,760,478)
- The Exorcist (1973) ($230,347,346)
The first thing that stands out are the obvious similarities between 1991’s list and 2021’s: Star Wars. The original franchise dominated the top of the box office for decades, and would continue to reign at the very top well into the ’90s. Also, a superhero is on the list, one who’s not even in today’s top 10!
But just as things have stayed the same, things have also changed quite a bit. Home Alone would become a franchise in the aftermath of a gargantuan haul, as would Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters. But these movies are all live-action comedies, and very different ones at that. Ghostbusters was supernatural, Beverly Hills Cop played on Eddie Murphy’s charm, and Home Alone relied on John Hughes’ script, Macaulay Culkin’s every-kid charm, and the endless joy of seeing Joe Pesci whacked with a paint can.
Most of the movies on this list were expected hits, like Jaws. But others, like The Exorcist, caught studios by surprise. Nobody had expected Black audiences to show up for a movie about a white Catholic priest, but they did in droves, to the extent that William Friedken horror movie helped end the trend of blaxploitation movies. So there were big franchises and superheroes, but there were also comedies and horror thrown in there as well.
Fast forward a decade to 2001. The top 10 looks like:
- Titanic (1997) ($659,363,944)
- Star Wars: Phantom Menace (1999) ($474,544,677)
- Star War: A New Hope (1977) ($460,998,007)
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) ($435,110,554)
- The Lion King (1994) ($421,785,283)
- Jurassic Park (1993) ($402,523,348)
- Forrest Gump (1994) ($330,151,138)
- Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1977) ($309,205,079)
- Independence Day (1996) ($306,169,255)
- The Sixth Sense (1999) ($293,506,292)
There’s some clear continuity between 2001 and 1991. Both have three Star Wars movies in them, although one of them is new. And people really did love that crazy E.T with his Reese’s Pieces, didn’t they?
But 2001 crowned a new number one, a phenomena that all aging millennials will likely remember. Leo and Kate and Billy Zane on top of the world, sweeping the Oscars and being generally inescapable. At the release of Phantom Menace, the press wondered if George Lucas would get “sweet revenge” on Titanic director James Cameron by restoring Star Wars to the tops of the charts. Lucas always denied any such motivation, and at the end of the day, he didn’t get it.
Like the 1991 list, a lone psychological thriller makes the case for non-sci-fi genre film. There’s an animated movie on here, another modern rarity. And there’s Forrest Gump, a historical fantasy stretching from the ’50s through the early ’80s targeted squarely at Baby Boomers. A movie that was a warm and mostly apolitical look back at periods of serious tumult, its nostalgia became a winning mix.
At this point, all but Titanic have been squashed out of the top ten, where it remains at number six. Cameron’s historical epic has been joined by his sci-fi adventure film, Avatar, and when the sequel eventually comes out, if it’s still on the list, Titanic will be the only movie in the top 10 unconnected to any franchise or cinematic universe whatsoever.
People have loved stories that go beyond a single movie for a long time. But clearly, franchises have gone into overdrive in the last decade.