Deathly Hallows Part 2
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk

Has any hit ever been more sure-fire than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2? The eighth Harry Potter film opened just under a decade after the first one — a decade that saw Potter fandom sweep across the globe. The franchise’s rapid release schedule — with a new film hitting theaters every 18 months on average — meant that a whole generation of moviegoers literally grew up with Harry Potter, watching the stars age from humble prepubescent beginnings into grown-up megastars. The fact that J.K. Rowling released the three final books during the same period occasionally made it feel like all of pop culture had a Hogwarts obsession.

In days gone by, all of this Potter might have seemed like overkill. But Deathly Hallows 2 is most of all a testament to the evolving tastes of moviegoers and cultural consumers. Just look at the title. The filmmakers decided to split Rowling’s final book in two — an adaptation strategy that was quickly taken up by Twilight, The Hobbit, and The Hunger Games. Splitting Deathly Hallows in two led to one of the most unusual filmgoing experiences of the blockbuster era: The final Harry Potter film constitutes 130 minutes of pure climax, winding down a couple dozen character arcs in a final-act battleground.

April is Summer Blockbuster Month here at EW, and it’s difficult to think of a film that better defines our modern blockbuster era — what Hollywood makes, and what Hollywood wants to make — than the final Harry Potter film. (Note: EW’s Summer Blockbuster Countdown follows the one-film-per-franchise rule, which means that 2 Deathly 2 Hallows is the only film about the boy wizard on the list. Yes, Prisoner of Azkaban is arguably better, but Prisoner of Azkaban didn’t have half the culture-defining depth-charge oomph of the final film.)

Rank: 17

Release Date: July 15, 2011

Box Office: $381 million domestic ($169.2 million opening weekend); $1.34 billion worldwide

Deathly Hallows 2 is currently the fourth-highest-grossing movie of all time, according to Box Office Mojo, behind only James Cameron and the Avengers. By a wide margin, it had the largest global gross of any Harry Potter film — almost $370 million more than Sorcerer’s Stone. It was one of three films to gross over a billion dollars globally in 2011. And the other films were Transformers 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 4, so Deathly Hallows 2 can also lay claim to being the best movie to gross over a billion dollars in 2011.

The Competition: Sensing a thwacking, Hollywood mostly counter-programmed in the weeks leading up to Hallows‘ release, unloading modestly budgeted films like Larry Crowne and Monte Carlo alongside bro-comedies like Horrible Bosses and Zookeeper. The only other film released on Deathly Hallows‘ weekend was the immediately forgotten Winnie the Pooh reboot. Intriguingly, Hallows didn’t necessarily drain anyone else’s mojo: Cowboys & Aliens flopped hard a couple of weeks later, but Marvel’s first Captain America movie did just fine, hitting theaters in Deathly Hallows‘ second week. It’s another example of how Harry Potter rewrote the rules of blockbusterdom: Deathly Hallows made about 45 percent of its box office cash in its first weekend.

What EW said:Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 leaves us with the dawning, awesome recognition that the world is huge, fraught, enigmatic, magical, dangerous, delightful, and, ultimately, the responsibility of young people who must first find their own footing. That’s quite an accomplishment for a story about a boy with a wand. A” — Lisa Schwarzbaum

Cultural Impact Then: Already difficult to explain in hindsight. The Harry Potter films helped to perfect the postmillenial idea of the movie franchise-as-regular event, and Deathly Hallows 2 provided closure not just on the movie series, but also on the decade-plus rise of Potter fandom. It’s very likely that, if you attended a screening opening weekend, you were surrounded by people wearing Hogwarts scarves and otherwise demonstrating their support for the saga. The film received generally rapturous praise from critics — according to Metacritic, it’s the best-reviewed film of the series — and was nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, and Best Makeup at the Oscars. (It lost to Hugo twice and The Iron Lady once.)

In recent years, the prospect of bringing a major pop culture saga to a close usually instills an incredible amount of anxiety in fans and creators alike, inevitably leading to long months of anticipation followed by equally long months of debate. (See: The Dark Knight Rises, Lost, Breaking Bad, any other long-running story that has had an ending in the last 10 years.) But Deathly Hallows 2 arrived four years after the book that spawned it, with everyone involved implicitly or explicitly promising to keep Rowling’s vision intact. As a result, this gave the hubbub around Deathly Hallows 2 a uniquely elegiac vibe: Everyone had already accepted that it was all over.

Cultural Staying Power: Harry Potter isn’t really over, of course. There will be a spinoff prequel movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Or rather, spinoff prequel movies. Or rather rather, spinoff prequel “megamovies,” according to the CEO of Warner Bros., the studio that is currently planning/hoping to recapture the magic that thrilled millions (and gave the studio an incredible regular cash windfall during the 2000s).

You could argue that it’s hard to pinpoint just how much one single film mattered in the greater Potter saga. But Deathly Hallows 2 is one of the best-constructed projects from a contemporary fan-service perspective, mixing together a Greatest Hits series of long-awaited moments (Harry Ron and Hermione kiss!) with nice little grace notes for the film’s sprawling cast (Neville grew up nice!). Deathly Hallows 2 was the final Big Media Moment for the Potter franchise proper, and director David Yates left nothing to chance, providing viewers with a full-fledged visual assault that makes the original film look like an episode of Shining Time Station by comparison.