Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd

News broke today that Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace, thanks to its recent 3-D re-release, is on track to surpass 2008’s The Dark Knight in box office grosses. This infusion of money will make Phantom Menace the 10th highest-grossing film of all time. Many would argue that Christopher Nolan’s twisty Batman Begins sequel is far superior to George Lucas’ uncontrollable exercise in CGI, and it got us thinking: Are the newest crop of movies to join the top 10 (six since Avatar kick-started a box office frenzy in 2009) demonstrably worse than their chart-mates? Well… yes and no. See the new top 10 list below.

1. Avatar (2009): 83 percent*

2. Titanic (1997): 83 percent

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2 (2011): 96 percent

4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): 35 percent

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): 94 percent

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006): 54 percent

7. Toy Story 3 (2010): 99 percent

8. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011): 34 percent

9. Alice in Wonderland (2010): 51 percent

10. Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace (1999, re-released in 3-D in 2012): 57 percent

Looking at Rotten Tomatoes scores — an aggregate of critics’ reviews — it’s true that several of the recent entrants to the top-grossers’ party have some of the lowest scores (Transformers: Dark of the Moon‘s pitiable 35 percent and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides‘ abysmal 34 percent). That said, some of the best-reviewed films of all time have also been top earners, like the astounding 99 percent “Fresh” rated Toy Story 3 and last year’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, which merited 96 percent.

No matter how high those films scored, it can’t be ignored the loss of The Dark Knight has impacted the critical prestige of the list. With Knight‘s 94 percent “Fresh” score replaced by Phantom Menace‘s unimpressive 57 percent, half of the films are proven critical bombs, and the overall average of the list drops from 72.3 percent to a verging-on-rotten 68.6 percent. A bit of context — 68 percent is the same score given to 2011 disappointment Tower Heist (which EW gave a C+), though it is four times higher than 2004’s ironically named stinker The Perfect Score (we gave that one an uncharitable D grade).

It certainly seems that there’s an unfortunate downward trend in box office totals versus film quality. Then again, with the top 20 rounded out by four films Harry Potter installements, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Steven Spielberg’s new classic Jurassic Park, and The Lion King (another 2012 3-D re-release), to name a few. Maybe it’s not so bad after all? What do you think, PopWatchers?

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