Hollywood's high-grossing summer -- How much the winners (''Dark Knight'') and the losers (''Speed Racer'') made this season

The Olympics. The election. The Madonna/A-Rod scandal. It sure seemed like the most compelling dramas took place far from your local multiplex over the past three months. But Hollywood had one hell of a summer too — and it spent Labor Day weekend crowing over a record-setting $4.2 billion box office haul. ”The summer kicked off perfectly with Iron Man,” says Media by Numbers president Paul Dergarabedian. ”The comedies kicked ass, and you had a huge musical crowd-pleaser thrown in.” Read on for a look at the movies that marked the most successful summer box office season ever.

No shock here: Superheroes were the big story. Of the 10 highest-grossing films, eight centered on dynamic dudes with out-of-this-world abilities. (Actually, nine if you count Angelina Jolie’s bloody exploits in Wanted.) The Dark Knight ($505 million), Iron Man ($318 million), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ($316 million) alone accounted for nearly a quarter of the summer’s earnings, while WALL-E ($218 million) and Kung Fu Panda ($214 million) succeeded by aiming their yuks at kids and adults. Even potentially damaging buzz about infighting between The Incredible Hulk‘s Edward Norton and Marvel Studios didn’t stop the green monster from reaping a respectable $135 million.

It turns out that relaunching old properties doesn’t just work when you’re using comic books, either. Meryl Streep helped the ridiculous stage-to-screen adaptation of Mamma Mia! ($133 million) overcome negative reviews to become the highest-grossing musical since Chicago. Sex and the City proved that a four-year wait, a wedding, and fabulous wardrobes could coax $153 million from fans. Brendan Fraser remained viable with Journey to the Center of the Earth ($95 million) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ($99 million), while Steve Carell helped us all forget about last summer’s dreadful Evan Almighty by leading an adaptation of the ’60s TV show Get Smart to a cool $128 million.

With the exception of Fraser and Will Smith, it wasn’t a good summer for ’90s icons. The pairing of The Matrix‘s enigmatic Wachowski brothers with Speed Racer seemed interesting on paper, but proved a huge mismatch: The surreal kiddie flick made just $44 million. ”It was rejected by the public,” says Warner Bros. domestic distribution president Dan Fellman. ”We thought we’d be able to pull it out.” So did Fox, which released M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Its $64 million take improved upon previous outing Lady in the Water — how could it be worse? — but came nowhere close to his early endeavors. Mike Myers’ creepy turn as a self-help shaman in The Love Guru ($32 million) prompted his poorest showing since 2003’s View From the Top. The long-in-coming (and supposedly long-anticipated) X-Files movie sequel attracted a lowly $21 million. Eddie Murphy’s Meet Dave was a $12 million flop, and Kevin Costner’s Swing Vote ($16 million) failed at the polls.

And while it’s always a treat when a fun bit of counterprogramming unexpectedly breaks through — think Little Miss Sunshine or March of the Penguins — virtually no small-budget films made an impact. Even high-school-themed American Teen ($861,817) and The Wackness ($1.9 million), which rode big waves of Sundance buzz, flunked out. ”The sensibility among people who want high-end films is that they want more relief than depression or emotional demand,” says Focus Features distribution president Jack Foley. ”America is still depressed, which is why comedies and super-hero movies [worked] so well.”

Raking It In
The five top-grossing films of summer 2008

1 The Dark Knight: $504.8m

2 Iron Man: $317.8m

3 Indy 4: $315.8m

4 Hancock: $227.4m

5 WALL-E $218.4m

Mamma Mia!
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