Even before "Marvel's The Avengers" landed in U.S. theaters Friday, it was shaping up as a megahit, selling out 1,000 advance showtimes across the country through Fandango.com and racking up $185 million overseas. It's clearly this season's movie to beat.
But aside from years of fanboy anticipation, what makes "The Avengers" seem like such a perfect summer movie? For starters, there's the cast, filled with brand names like Downey, Johansson and Jackson. It also has a big budget and loads of special effects. But the main ingredient is harder to identify, an ability to please crowds with a sense of excitement, action and fun. That's defined the summer movie for decades, even before Hollywood put the term into common use.
Here are five of the greatest summer movies, from the golden age of cinema to the current era of superhero mania:
THE WIZARD OF OZ (Aug. 25, 1939)
Though not a box-office gorilla at the time, this fantasy classic set the template for the "Harry Potter" summer spectaculars: lavish effects, a memorable supporting cast and a story line that entranced kids and adults alike.
JAWS (June 20, 1975)
Steven Spielberg's epic fish tale launched the blockbuster era (though George Lucas' "Star Wars" helped) by covering nearly every genre: horror, adventure, action, drama. Its one-word, high-concept premise -- "Shark!" -- remains a Hollywood gold standard.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (June 12, 1981)
Everything old seemed new again when this Spielberg-Lucas homage to the matinees of the 1930s became a massive hit. Actually, everything old is still new: Today's superhero movies also are based on characters from 50 years ago.
INDEPENDENCE DAY (July 2, 1996)
Roland Emmerich nearly went "Jaws" one better with this sci-fi-invasion-disaster flick that grossed $306 million. It also set new rules for what the summer blockbuster should be: big, loud, effects-driven and filled with scenes of famous American cities being destroyed.
THE DARK KNIGHT (July 18, 2008)
Christopher Nolan's second "Batman" film was the year's top grosser, with $533 million, but it's a summer-movie oddity: dark, violent and artfully made, with an Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker. The third and final chapter, "The Dark Knight Rises," arrives in theaters July 20.