This summer at the box office looks like a showdown between a superhero in blue tights and Tom Hanks with crazy hair — with some mutants, pirates and Tom Cruise tossed in for a little flavor.
With hugely anticipated hits such as "The Da Vinci Code" (May 19) and a new Superman movie (June 30), the 2006 summer movie season is looking to sweep away memories of one of the flattest warm-weather box office showings in a decade last year.
"Things are looking much better than 2005, with momentum moving into this summer," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "This time last year we were heading into what really ended up being quite a slump — it was the worst summer in many, many years."
And while "Superman Returns" and "Da Vinci" may be the biggest names, there are several other dogs in the fight to be the No. 1 summer blockbuster, like this Friday's "Mission: Impossible III," "X-Men: The Last Stand" (May 26) and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" (July 7).
"This is definitely more than a two-horse race. With 'Mission: Impossible III" and a new 'X-Men' movie, there are a lot of potential blockbusters — and that's good news," Dergarabedian said. "Movies like 'Cars' and 'Over the Hedge' also have a shot, and there's even 'Snakes on a Plane' getting a lot of Internet buzz."
But while there are many contenders this year, most industry experts seem to think that "Da Vinci Code," based on the best-selling Dan Brown novel and buoyed by a huge load of pre-release press, will come out on top.
"As of now I think it's a lock for 'Da Vinci Code,' thanks to Tom Hanks and a heavy-duty load of pre-release publicity," said William Luhr, professor of English and film at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. "The upcoming film has garnered a huge amount of attention with the Dan Brown plagiarism trial in England and the controversy over its portrayal of the Opus Dei Catholic movement."
And Hanks may want to thank God for his likely success.
"After the runaway monster success of Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ,' religious topics are all the rage," Luhr added.
However, Dergarabedian said "Superman Returns" will fly away with the No. 1 summer movie title.
"Superman is such a well-known character and Warner Bros. did such a great job of bringing the Batman character back already," he said. "Spider-Man is the only other character that could generate the kind of money Superman could. 'Da Vinci Code' will be in the top five, but Superman has this base of younger fans that 'Da Vinci' can't tap into."
But many film experts disagree, calling "Superman Returns" just the latest in a long string of Hollywood remakes.
"He's been a mainstay of American popular culture for a long time, but to keep milking the superhero franchise you have to do something different," said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "The film will have to darken the character. The white bread Christopher Reeves version of the '70s won't pass muster anymore."
However, this new Superman movie may do just the opposite. In the new film, Superman reportedly leaves Earth for several years to do some soul searching — returning to Krypton in an attempt to figure out who he is, why he's on Earth and why he's fighting so hard to protect his new home.
Many dark horse contenders lurk in the background as well, with mutant superheroes and, of course, Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp waiting in the wings.
The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise returns to swashbuckle with this summer's top films, and will no doubt be helped by Depp's surprise nomination for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the first movie, and by rumors that rock star Keith Richards will join the series by the third film to play his father (Depp reportedly based his half-mad Sparrow on a caricature of Richards in the first film.)
"It wouldn't surprise me if this second movie coming out did as well as 'Superman,'" Sharrett said.
The "Mission: Impossible" franchise also returns this summer, sporting a whole slew of unexpected stars such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laurence Fishburne — and of course Tom Cruise's wild, wacky gravy train of publicity.
However, some film experts question whether Cruise has irrevocably damaged his public image with his recent eyebrow-raising stunts and could actually hurt the new film's success.
"I really wonder if the jumping up and down on Oprah's couch and yelling at Matt Lauer about the history of psychoanalysis will translate into big box office," Luhr said. "You really could call it a meltdown. The 'Mission: Impossible' franchise could wipe all of that away, but he may very well have turned himself into a joke."
Some movie fans seem to agree, saying that the "Tom Cruise Show" has finally turned them off.
"I won't be seeing 'Mission: Impossible III," said SportsNet New York commentator and television writer Brian Steele. "Consider me one person who's just too creeped out to go."
But Dergarabedian said all of the actor's antics are really a sideshow, and won't affect his already-proven success with audiences.
"Tom Cruise seems to be Teflon-coated," he said. "People said he was sunk last year after yelling at Matt Lauer, and 'War of the Worlds' ended up being his biggest movie to date. No matter what his antics, once the publicity comes out, young people start lining up."
And, of course, critics can never rule out Marvel Comics' mighty, underdog mutant heroes the X-Men — after the last film's surprise $85 million showing at the box office.
The director of the first two films, Bryan Singer, left the series to direct the new "Superman" movie, and the third film now handed to "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner has been haunted by bad Internet buzz and the leaking of images of new characters online that were resoundingly criticized by fans.
"The director has left the franchise, but this should be largely irrelevant," Luhr said. "The third time around people will come — if it's a disappointment it will affect the third and fourth weeks. It still wouldn't surprise me if this one turned out to be a turkey, the 'Ishtar' of this year."
However, Ratner told Entertainment Weekly that the images that were leaked on the Web were early, unfinished versions of some of the new characters — and that the latest 'X-Men' installment would thrill fans.
"The runaway success of both of the first films has shocked the critics, and I think this latest 'X-Men' movie is poised to do so again," Dergarabedian said.
Fans seem to think that "Superman" is clearly the superhero to sweep in and take the No. 1 spot this summer — pointing to the DC Comics character's iconic status.
"Superman is one of the top three icons in American popular culture, along with Mickey Mouse and Uncle Sam," New York-based actor and comic book fan Nick Thomas said.
Others disagree, saying that "Da Vinci" has established itself from the best-selling book enough to tug on Superman's cape.
"Superman is a little played out, it's kind of a passe superhero without any edge," Steele said. "'Da Vinci Code' has a built-in audience, because it has religious themes that have been leading to big box office. From the sales of the book, you can tell it's become a household name."
So will the victor be a Kryptonian superhero or a Tom Hanks as a Da Vinci obsessed cryptologist? You try and crack the code.