LOS ANGELES – Studio executives hope they've trained their audience well as the season of summer blockbusters arrives.
From May through mid-August, Hollywood will bank on the idea that there is at least one movie every week — and sometimes two — that you simply must see.
Summer features such box-office staples as Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Jack Black, and brings back beloved characters such as Indiana Jones, Batman, Speed Racer, Carrie and her "Sex and the City" gal pals, the "Narnia" kids, the Incredible Hulk and two very different agent couples: paranormal troupers Mulder and Scully and comic spies Maxwell Smart and Agent 99.
A look at the lineup:
MAY 2: Heavy hitters like "Spider-Man" and "Superman" are established big-screen figures, but the comic-book world has a deep bench.
Robert Downey Jr. takes the lead in "Iron Man," playing a wealthy inventor who lacks superpowers but does have a nifty high-tech suit of armor that really leaves an impression when he gives villains a knuckle sandwich.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges co-star in the tale based on the Marvel Comics hero, a man with a subversive sense of humor who starts off as "not the most likable fellow," said director Jon Favreau.
With "Iron Man" less familiar to audiences than Supe or Spidey, it took an actor of Downey's status to ease some worries Favreau had.
"My biggest concern was that it would slide into some B-hero wheeled out by Marvel, that this movie would be a poor man's 'Spider-Man,'" Favreau said. "Hiring Robert, the challenge shifted from whether it was going to be good or bad to how far we were going to push things and bend the genre."
MAY 9: Andy and Larry Wachowski turned virtual reality on its head with "The Matrix." Now they follow their R-rated franchise with the family-friendly adventure "Speed Racer," an adaptation of the animated show starring Emile Hirsch as the kid roaring along the roadways, Christina Ricci as his helicopter-flying girlfriend and Matthew Fox as mystery man Racer X.
A fan of "Speed Racer" growing up, Hirsch said he wanted in as soon as he heard the Wachowski brothers were writing and directing.
"Seeing 'The Matrix' for the first time when I was 13 to this day is one of my most memorable experiences ever in a movie theater," Hirsch said. "I already loved the show, and for guys of that kind of caliber to get involved with it could only be something special."
MAY 16: Things sure can change in 1,300 years, as Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie learn when they go over the rainbow again in "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," the second installment in the fantasy franchise based on C.S. Lewis' books.
Only a short time has passed for the siblings in England, but centuries have gone by in Narnia, which now is under the bootheel of the tyrannical Telmarines and mean King Miraz. The Pevensies encounter a new ally — Caspian (Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to Narnia's throne — and are reacquainted with old buddy Aslan the lion, again voiced by Liam Neeson.
The three years since the first movie, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," have resulted in huge digital advancements in how director Andrew Adamson could depict computer-generated creatures such as Aslan.
"It's little things like when Lucy first sees him this time, she runs up and gives him a hug. ... It's a great image to see a little girl hug a lion," Adamson said. "And there's a great shot in this film where Aslan actually tackles someone off a horse and rolls around on the ground with them. The level of interactivity makes it so much more real."
MAY 22: Cue the Indy fanfare. Henry Jones Jr. is cracking his whip again.
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" reunites the dream team of Harrison Ford as the archaeologist-adventurer, director Steven Spielberg and creator-producer George Lucas.
It's been 19 years since the last movie, and the fourth film hurtles the aging Indy from his Nazi-fighting days of the 1930s to the Cold War era of the '50s, with Cate Blanchett as a Soviet operative and Karen Allen returning as Marion Ravenwood, his love interest from 1981's "Raiders of the Ark."
Unlike film franchises that crank up the action and effects with each sequel, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford are offering an old-school Indy.
"We did everything exactly the way we did it before, so if you expect F-14s flying into freeways, it ain't gonna happen," Lucas said. "If you expect this to suddenly have bells and whistles and have 10 times more whatever than the first ones, it's not. It's just like a continuation. It's like sitting down on a cozy old sofa that you've had for 20 years and having the same experience."
What sort of toll did the action take on 65-year-old Ford, who sustained knee and back injuries on some of the earlier "Indiana Jones" movies?
"I broke a fingernail," Ford said. "I walked away with a hangnail."
As for the big question fans have posed — is co-star Shia LaBeouf the love child of Indy and Marion? — neither Ford nor Lucas will say.
"I can't say that. I'm not allowed. Steven would kill me. You'll have to get that out of Steven," Lucas said. "If you get it out of him, then it must be true."
MAY 30: Is "Monogamy and the City" as much fun?
When we last saw "Sex and the City" stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon, their TV characters were settling down and seemingly leaving behind their randy ways.
The movie reunites the four with co-star Chris Noth as Big, the on-again, off-again beau of Parker's Carrie, with whom she finally wound up as the series ended four years ago.
While the movie maintains the show's cheeky humor and ribald conversation, it's not a sex romp but a story about women dealing with commitment, family and all the issues of growing older, Parker said. Newcomer Jennifer Hudson, as author Carrie's young assistant, helps contrast where the characters are now with where they were then.
"Carrie looks at her and says 'Wow, I was that girl. I came to the city looking for love. I believed in all the promise and potential that New York offered,'" Parker said. "It's not like a slumber party in sweats, anymore. It's about the beauty and heartache of getting older. It doesn't mean you're old. It just means things have a different value than when you were in your 20s."
JUNE 6: Adam Sandler's Zohan will do anything to stay out of the line of fire. Jack Black's Po is dying to get in on the action.
"You Don't Mess With the Zohan," whose co-writers include Sandler and Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up"), stars the comedy king as an Israeli commando who pretends he's been killed so he can become a New York City hairdresser.
The animated action comedy "Kung Fu Panda" features Black voicing the tubby Po, a panda stuck working at his family's noodle shop when he's tapped to train as a martial arts master and battle an evil snow leopard threatening the land.
The voice cast includes Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu and Seth Rogen.
Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne wanted to pay respect to the live-action martial arts movies they admire while offering a fresh approach to fight sequences carried out by creatures that include a viper, a tigress and a crane.
"We didn't want it to look like people wearing animal costumes," Stevenson said. "It took a lot of work to figure out a special martial arts style that worked for animals, using animals' anatomy and the natural qualities of animals, while still being actually accurate to those kung fu movies."
JUNE 13: When we last saw Marvel Comics' big angry green guy, he was hopping around in the desert in Ang Lee's "Hulk," a critical and commercial disappointment.
The Marvel gang went back to the drawing board for "The Incredible Hulk," starring Edward Norton in a new take that the filmmakers say will channel both the comic books and the 1970s and '80s TV show starring Bill Bixby.
The movie wastes no time explaining how Norton's Bruce Banner was transformed into a man who mutates into the Hulk when angered, said producer Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios' head of production. The story hints at what happened to him then jumps into the action, he said.
"This is not an origin story," Feige said. "We are assuming everyone buying a ticket will know Bruce Banner is a scientist on the run who grows into a green hulk 9 feet tall. That's all people need to know. So the adventure is off and running right from the beginning."
JUNE 20: Maxwell Smart took himself seriously, even when he was talking into his shoe phone. So the makers of "Get Smart," an update of the 1960s TV comedy, took him seriously, too.
Taking on the character created by Don Adams, Steve Carell plays bumbling spy Max as a desk jockey finally promoted to field work, paired with veteran operative Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) as they try to stop a doomsday scenario by the KAOS crime boss (Terence Stamp). Dwayne Johnson co-stars as the superstar agent Max idolizes.
Carell and Hathaway say the idea was not to parody spy flicks but to do an authentic one with lots of action — and loads of laughs.
"I'm not sure we actually succeed as a spoof," Hathaway said. "I think we're more silly. We're not lampooning the genre. We just have a lighter take on it."
"What about a comedic 'Bourne Identity?' You take the action in that and you make it a legitimate spy movie that's funny, as opposed to taking the cliches of spy movies and turning them on their heads," Carell said. "If the villains are like Terence Stamp, these guys are scary and actually have some threat to them. There's some sense of jeopardy. The comedy laid on top of that might resonate more."
JUNE 27: So far, the Pixar-Disney animation outfit has done no wrong, crafting such acclaimed hits as the "Toy Story" movies, "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille."
"Finding Nemo" director Andrew Stanton now offers up "Wall-E," the tale of a janitorial robot toiling away for centuries because no one remembered to turn him off after humanity trashes Earth to the point that the planet must be abandoned.
Here's Stanton's short take on the story: "The last robot on Earth crosses the galaxy for love."
"I thought it was the saddest character in the world, this poor little guy that doesn't know it can stop what it's doing," said writer-director Stanton. "It's the ultimate definition of futility. Machine or not, you have to be asking yourself, 'Does what I'm doing mean anything at all?'"
JULY 2: With such hits as "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," Will Smith has owned the Fourth of July weekend.
He aims to dominate it again with "Hancock," which co-stars Charlize Theron in the tale of a churlish superhero with real problems like the rest of us.
"It's the very authentic version of an alcoholic superhero," Smith said. "You will scream laughing, then there's some dramatic turns that just leave your jaw dropping. Huge special effects. It is all things."
JULY 11: Brendan Fraser finally offers scientific proof that there is an albino dinosaur at the Earth's core — and he does it in 3-D.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth" is a modern twist on Jules Verne's classic tale presented entirely in three-dimensional digital video that practically sets the characters and effects in the audience's lap.
Gimmicky old 3-D films "made the brain and eyeballs do calisthenics. Frankly, it made you feel kind of queasy and ill," Fraser said. "This allows you to live in the environment that the actors inhabit."
The weekend's other big name, Eddie Murphy, gets to inhabit his own weird environment — himself — in the comedy "Meet Dave."
Murphy stars as the leader of a group of tiny aliens scouting Earth because their own race is endangered. They blend in with humanity by tooling about in a ship that looks just like Eddie Murphy.
"He's robotic and not quite in control of his form, his human form," said co-star Elizabeth Banks. "Eddie's performance, he has a lot of naivete about the world around him. He comes off as being extremely strange and odd, and that naivete translates very nicely into charm."
JULY 18: Batman is back with "The Dark Knight," reuniting star Christian Bale with director Christopher Nolan and pitting the soul-searching crimefighter against his greatest enemy, the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger in his next-to-last role.
With great buzz on Ledger's frantic performance and his demonic makeup, the Joker is the corrupted flip-side of Batman, who lives by a strict code despite raging inner turmoil.
"It's a fine line, something which we kind of toy with in the story, of this fine line, essentially both being freaks to most people, both being idealists," Bale said. "The Joker trying to show the hypocrisy of society and trying to show Batman that his way just ultimately can't work. These rules that he places on himself are just a joke."
JULY 25: The basic story for "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" has been kicking around in writer-director Chris Carter's head since his paranormal TV series went off the air six years ago.
Carter reunites with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson for the second big-screen adventure of Mulder and Scully, who spent years in the FBI chasing aliens and supernatural phenomena.
So what's the story? Carter's not telling, other than to say it's not about aliens but an earthbound tale "within the realm of extreme scientific possibility."
"It takes into consideration that the characters have grown or aged or progressed in the six years since we last saw them," Carter said. "I think we are true to everything that the characters have experienced not just in the last six years but over the course of the television show."
AUG. 1: After digging way down under with "Journey to the Center of the Earth," Brendan Fraser comes up for air with "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," the third outing for the adventuresome family who, as he puts it, "by some bizarre coincidence just always encounters the undead."
Maria Bello replaces Rachel Weisz as Fraser's British wife, the couple coming out of bored retirement to join their grown-up son on a dig in China, where they end up battling an ancient ruler (Jet Li) who springs back to life aiming to conquer the world.
Director Rob Cohen said it was not necessarily a hindrance that Weisz decided against returning.
"The truth is, I was happy to have a new opportunity to bring something different to the movie, so that you really have a sense of freshness," Cohen said. "I thought, Brendan will be more on his toes with a new actor, and Maria threw him as much new stuff as anyone could."
AUG. 8: America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel and Blake Lively are back as the gal pals who like to share a particular hand-me-down in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2."
Three years have passed, they've just finished their first year of college, and "we kind of come back together to realize everyone's growing in a lot of different directions," Bledel said. "It's about the four of us finding our unique selves but finding a way to keep this relationship that means so much to us."
"I'm sure that young girls really appreciate seeing fun female relationships like this that aren't competitive or kind of just sidebars to male stories," added Ferrera.
AUG. 15: What if pampered, hapless actors went off to make a Vietnam War movie and got caught in a real battle?
That's the idea behind co-writer, director and star Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder," a comedy that features Robert Downey Jr. as a white actor portraying a black character with insanely serious devotion and Tom Cruise as a bald, raving studio boss with hilarious dance moves.
The germ of the idea struck Stiller 20 years ago, and it eventually percolated into a story about self-centered actors (Stiller, Downey and Jack Black among them) whose location shoot in the jungle pits them against brutal drug smugglers.
"The movie's kind of taking off on actors who obviously have to take it seriously when doing these films, and you see these interviews where they talk about the experience as if they've been in a real war," Stiller said. "I think it's very easy to see the humor in that."