The first decade to truly embrace the concept of the summer blockbuster, the 1980s was marked by major cultural shifts and pop culture trends that continue to influence entertainment today. Most notably, the introduction of MTV in 1981 started a seismic shift in the way movies were promoted with a signature theme song, a flashy music video, and preferably an entire soundtrack album of potential hits ensuring viewers were revved up before they even sat down in their seats in the movie theater. Many of the films below contain songs that were nominated for Oscars — with some even going on to win — while breakthroughs in visual effects led to eye-dazzling sights that filled up the shelves of technical artists with awards. From action to sci-fi to family comedies, here are some of the major summer blockbusters that had moviegoers in the '80s packing theaters around the world.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The blockbuster sequel truly came of age at the dawn of the '80s with the smash follow-up to George Lucas' multiple Oscar-winning Star Wars (1977), starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Alec Guinness. New characters like Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and the scene-stealing Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) were added to the mix along with multiple shocking plot twists and new environments. The space fantasy took home an Oscar for Best Sound and a Special Achievement Award for visual effects.
The Empire Strikes Back was released in May, remained at the top of the North American box office for eight consecutive weeks, and stayed in many theaters for the remainder of the year. The success of the film solidified the durability of a sci-fi phenomenon that remains with us to this day.
Superman II (1980)
A famously bumpy production that led to the mid-shoot replacement of director Richard Donner with Richard Lester (thus the existence of two distinctly different cuts of the film out there now), this action-packed sequel to the groundbreaking 1978 superhero hit brought back Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, and many other familiar faces. However, it’s the trio of Krypton criminals led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) who stole the show as they physically pummeled their way from Houston all the way to the White House. A very quotable favorite with young viewers at the time, the film went on to spawn two more sequels and influence a host of later superhero films, most notably Man of Steel (2013).
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The beloved cliffhanger adventure serials from Hollywood’s yesteryear got a spectacular update for modern audiences with this breathless action-adventure from director Steven Spielberg, working from a razor-sharp script by Lawrence Kasdan which was written from a story by Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Ford vaulted to the top of Hollywood’s leading men after his performance as the snake-fearing, whip-wielding archaeologist, Indiana Jones, who teams up with his former flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), to face off against nefarious Nazis in a race to acquire the Ark of the Covenant.
Lines formed around the block for months when the word got out about the film's astonishing thrills and spills. Since then, Dr. Jones has embarked on four more big-screen adventures enjoyed by moviegoers spanning numerous generations. Ford's final outing as Jones is in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which is in theaters now.
Raiders of the Lost Ark received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and went on to win four Oscars: Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects. The film also received a Special Achievement Award for sound effects editing.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Already known for defining the modern summer blockbuster with his masterful thriller, Jaws (1975), Spielberg shattered expectations and box office records with a sci-fi adventure that had everyone from little kids to grown-ups cheering in their seats, shedding a tear or two, and being moved by the power of cinema. Henry Thomas delivers a performance for the ages as Elliott, the middle child in a divorced family who finds an unexpected best friend when he takes in a stranded alien who stands about three feet tall.
From the iconic moon-crossing bicycle chase to the finale that left a lump in the throat of every audience member, this instant classic racked up nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and went on to win four Oscars: Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Original Score. John Williams' soaring music for the film has since become a particular fan favorite, often revived in rousing concerts, including live-to-picture performances.
Rocky III (1982)
After feuding with Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed in the Best Picture-winning Rocky (1975), and then battling him again in a rematch in the film's sequel four years later, heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) roared into the '80s accompanied by the Oscar-nominated theme song "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. Here, Rocky and Apollo form a truce when a daunting new threat, the arrogant and mohawked Clubber Lang (Mr. T), brags his way up the boxing ladder. Rocky must face his deepest inner fears, and rise up to the challenge of his rival. The biggest hit in the series at the time, this third entry brought new moviegoers into the Rocky fold, paving the way for sequels and spin-offs well into the 21st century.
MORE: Essential Sylvester Stallone Movies to Watch
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)
After the shocker ending of The Empire Strikes Back, global anticipation built to a feverish pitch before audiences finally got to see the grand finale to Lucas' epic space opera trilogy in 1983. Initially announced as Revenge of the Jedi, this installment brought back everyone’s favorite characters and finally gave audiences a look at the fearsome Jabba the Hutt. Also introduced were the forest warrior Ewoks, who became a mini franchise unto themselves for a few years. As usual for the series, the toys proved to be as popular as the movies themselves – and the world would continue to hear from the Skywalker family many more times in the future.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Lightning struck once again for Oscar-winning director John G. Avildsen (Rocky), who turned to a youth karate tournament in the San Fernando Valley for this crowd-pleasing surprise hit inspired by the real-life experiences of screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. Ralph Macchio and Oscar-nominated Pat Morita made for a very appealing screen team as bullied teen Daniel LaRusso and his unlikely martial arts instructor Mr. Miyagi, who teaches him about far more than self-defense. Rocky composer Bill Conti and an infectious selection of pop songs added to the fun, and the film’s success (and enduring fandom) ensured multiple sequels, a remake, and eventually to the popular streaming series Cobra Kai.
"Steven Spielberg Presents" was a big selling point for years starting with the summer release of this Christmas-set mixture of horror, comedy, and Yuletide sentiment. Joe Dante directed his first studio film and, along with another Spielberg hit from the summer of '84 — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, inspired the creation of the PG-13 rating thanks to this film’s gruesome, PG-sanctioned thrills, like a gremlin meeting its maker in a microwave. Cute Mogwai pet Gizmo may have been the big toy-selling star here, but his anarchic offspring produced by breaking the rule of no feeding after midnight (not to mention no exposure to water) gave the film its rowdy attitude that increased in the cult favorite sequel, Gremlins 2: The Next Batch (1990).
After scoring an adult comedy hit with Stripes (1981), star Bill Murray and director Ivan Reitman reteamed with far more epic results for this mixture of blue-collar comedy and apocalyptic supernatural spectacle. Murray, co-writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson battle to save Manhattan from an onslaught of ectoplasmic attacks, leading to a titan-sized final monster that delivered one of the decade’s funniest punchlines. Indelible support from Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and Annie Potts, among many others, created a rich, lived-in world that filmmakers have enjoyed revisiting several times (even in Saturday morning cartoon form), while Ray Parker Jr.’s Oscar-nominated theme song is guaranteed to remain stuck in a viewer's head for days.
Back to the Future (1985)
Robert Zemeckis became one of Hollywood’s hottest directors for years thanks to another "Steven Spielberg Presents" hit, this time a teen-friendly take on time travel that became one of the beloved cinematic trilogies ever made. Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a teen from 1985 whose reality is drastically changed when the tricked-out DeLorean time machine of his friend, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), sends him back to the year 1955. As Marty’s young future parents, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover nearly walk off with the film – and you won’t find a better collection of '80s pop culture jokes, with pokes here at everything from Calvin Klein to Ronald Reagan.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Adapted from a quite different and downbeat David Morrell novel, 1982’s First Blood introduced viewers to unlucky Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), who is forced to use his combat skills to defend himself from corrupt lawmen in the Pacific Northwest. Though he never directly kills anyone in the course of that film, he more than makes up for it in the hyper-violent and wildly popular sequel that sends him on a covert mission to Vietnam to rescue POWs in enemy hands. Once again, he gets double crossed and has to wage a one-man war, with elaborate pyrotechnics and countless bullets soon erupting in his wake. The film’s runaway success led to three more sequels, as well as video games and a considerably less violent cartoon show.
The Goonies (1985)
A wish fulfillment adventure like no other, this "Steven Spielberg Presents" action comedy brings an effects-friendly goofball attitude to the traditional story of kids going on a treasure hunt. In this case our heroes are a band of children and teens, including Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Martha Plimpton, Corey Feldman, and future Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan, who try to save their home from foreclosure via a handy treasure map and a race against a family of nasty criminals. The film marked a big comeback for director Richard Donner, who enjoyed a hot streak the rest of the decade with fan favorites like Ladyhawke (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Scrooged (1988). Surprisingly, this is one of only three films on this list to never get a sequel or spin-off movie of any kind — but, everyone knows, "Goonies never say die."
Top Gun (1986)
The MTV era truly came of age at the movies when director Tony Scott, star Tom Cruise, and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer joined forces for this high-flying look at hot-shot naval aviators. With its fast editing, thundering sound mix, and wildly popular soundtrack (including Berlin’s Oscar-winning "Take My Breath Away"), the film became an audience phenomenon that carried over to the VHS and cable TV markets without losing steam. Cast on the strength of his breakthrough performance in Risky Business (1983), Cruise became an immediate box office draw on the strength of this film and would tweak his Maverick persona several times in later films. Both Cruise and Val Kilmer would reprise their roles in the smash hit 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick.
Following the completion of his sci-fi action horror cult hit, The Terminator (1984), director James Cameron effortlessly switched to major studio filmmaking with this combat-heavy, adrenaline-infused sequel to Ridley Scott’s horror masterpiece, Alien (1979). Bringing back Sigourney Weaver as an even more resilient Ripley, Aliens lives up to its title by pitting a military squad against a colony overtaken by xenomorphs – complete with a twist about their biological origin. Weaver’s multi-layered, riveting performance earned her an Oscar nomination, and the production led Cameron to many other ambitious cinematic gems, including Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009), and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).
Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
After starring in three buddy films, Eddie Murphy proved his solo leading man chops with the surprise hit Beverly Hills Cop, released in time for Christmas in 1984. A sequel was inevitable, with director Tony Scott ramping up the action and visual style considerably for this summertime sequel. Both Judge Reinhold and Ronny Cox returned for the further adventures of Detroit-based police officer Axel Foley in Los Angeles, here turning to major firepower against baddies Jürgen Prochnow and Brigitte Nielsen. With only his third feature, Scott had already developed his signature visual style, carried over from Top Gun, one that would be carried over to other Simpson-Bruckheimer films as well into the '90s. As with the first film, the soundtrack is filled with infectious original songs, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for Bob Seger's "Shakedown."
Die Hard (1988)
Promising that "it will blow you through the back wall of the theater," this Christmas-set action thriller taking place in Los Angeles delivered on that promise with a finely-honed rollercoaster experience still being copied today. After starring on TV’s Moonlighting and only headlining two feature comedies, Bruce Willis turned out to be an exceptional action star as John McClane, the sardonic New York police officer whose family visit to his estranged wife turns into a harrowing hostage situation (and something much more) when armed intruders overtake her company’s holiday party. Followed by four sequels, the film marked the middle of an action trilogy for director John McTiernan, between Predator (1987) and The Hunt for Red October (1990), and it ended up receiving four Oscar nominations (for Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing).
MORE: Essential Bruce Willis Movies to Watch
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Animation fans could not believe their eyes when this film delivered what seemed to be the impossible: beloved characters from the Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Looney Tunes stables all sharing space together in the same movie. A lightning-paced mixture of animated mayhem and film noir-inspired L.A. murder mystery, this alternate universe look at 1940s Hollywood takes place in a world where "toons" and humans create entertainment side by side. After a Tinseltown homicide seems to point to agitated star Roger Rabbit, private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) has to sift through numerous clues and suspects (including Roger’s stunning wife, Jessica) to find out the motive.
Coming to America (1988)
Eddie Murphy stars as an African prince trying to find the love of his life in Queens. This romantic comedy was based on a story written by its star who plays four roles on-screen (as does his sidekick, Arsenio Hall). The reteaming of Murphy and director John Landis came five years after their hit comedy, Trading Places (1983), with a delightful cameo shout-out to that film here, and the cast is loaded with veterans giving it gravitas, including James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, and John Amos. Look fast for a young Samuel L. Jackson as well. The groundbreaking makeup effects received an Oscar nomination for Rick Baker (plus one for Costume Design for Deborah Nadoolman Landis); Baker would go on to win an Oscar for doing makeup on multiple Murphy roles again for The Nutty Professor (1997).
The marketing juggernaut of this superhero film eclipsed all that came before it in the last summer of the decade. Previously known for comedy roles, Michael Keaton effortlessly slid into the cowl and cape of Batman (and the tuxedo of Bruce Wayne) for Tim Burton's massive-scaled take on Gotham's most famous crime fighter, here facing off against an outrageous Joker portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Essentially setting the template for the modern superhero craze to come, the film not only delivered Burton’s trademark stylized spectacle but showed the way for future Batman films, including Burton's own Batman Returns (1992), two Joel Schumacher sequels, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, and the most recent iteration where Robert Pattinson played the caped crusader in 2022’s The Batman. Keaton reprised the role after decades for this year’s The Flash. The film picked up an Oscar for Art Direction, and spawned two successful soundtrack albums, one featuring the much-loved score, and the other comprised of songs by Prince.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Spielberg and Lucas closed out the '80s together with the third (of what would ultimately become five) big-screen outings for Ford’s Indiana Jones, here teaming up with his estranged father, played by an endearing Sean Connery. Set in 1938 to depict Indy’s first real run-in with Nazis, the film depicts a globe-hopping quest to locate the Holy Grail, as well as the father-son bonding experience along the way. The film received three Oscar nominations, including Best Original Score and Best Sound. The film, which brought in hordes of viewers during its release on Memorial Day weekend, won an Oscar for Sound Effects Editing. Thanks to its riveting prologue, which featured River Phoenix as a young Indy, the film went on to inspire the popular TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.