Last year's first big May releases: the historical snoozer "Kingdom of Heaven" and the forgettable comedies "Kicking and Screaming" and "Monster-in-Law."
This year's summer lead-ins: "Mission: Impossible III," pitting Tom Cruise against super villain Philip Seymour Hoffman; "Poseidon," a remake of "The Poseidon Adventure" directed by Hollywood's king of the sea, Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm," "Das Boot"); the animated "Over the Hedge," an animals-against-humans comedy from the makers of "Shrek"; and "The Da Vinci Code," reuniting Tom Hanks with director Ron Howard.
A globe-trotting mystery, the adaptation of Dan Brown's best-seller follows a symbologist (Hanks) and cryptographer (Audrey Tautou) racing to uncover clues about the murder of a member of a shadowy society harboring deep secrets about Christianity.
The film was shot at churches, cathedrals and landmarks around the world, including the Louvre in Paris, where the story begins.
"It was an almost out-of-body experience filming there," Howard said. "The building itself is a monument, and you're surrounded by the works of so many of the great masters. Being there at 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning to film eerie, suspenseful scenes in this environment, it was one part heaven and the other part kind of almost haunted house. You didn't want to wander away from the rest of the film crew, let me put it that way.
"I did have a moment all alone with the Mona Lisa in the wee hours, and that was pretty fantastic."
A look at key summer releases:
LOOKING FOR ACTION: Tom Cruise's first two "Mission: Impossible" capers were heavy on action and style. "Mission: Impossible III" director J.J. Abrams, creator of TV's "Lost" and "Alias," said he aimed to balance action with character interplay in the spirit of the television show on which the movies are based.
"The thing I loved about the show is watching these incredibly accomplished operatives seamlessly working together to pull off a very specific goal," Abrams said. "I honestly felt that as entertained as I was by the first two `Mission' films, they didn't embrace that aspect, which to me was the fundamental thing of the series."
Wolfgang Petersen is back on the water with "Poseidon," starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Josh Lucas in a remake of the 1970s disaster flick about a luxury liner overturned by a tidal wave.
"It was a chance to do a film reflecting our phobias today, our fear of terrorism or disaster, like 9/11 or whatever nature can do to us," Petersen said. "A natural disaster like this is sort of a metaphor for the impossible and most disastrous thing you can imagine, and what would we do when it hits?"
Also returning to the water: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and director Gore Verbinski with "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," the follow-up to their 2003 blockbuster.
"Dead Man's Chest" has Depp's woozy pirate Jack Sparrow trying to weasel out of an old debt; his soul, which he owes to the sea devil Davy Jones.
Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell star in "Miami Vice," written and directed by Michael Mann, creator of the 1980s cop show and Foxx's director on "Collateral" and "Ali." Farrell and Foxx take on the roles originated by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, playing undercover cops who infiltrate a South Florida drug ring.
The TV show was known for glitzy fashion and hip music, but Mann's new take is a grittier glimpse of cops on the street, Foxx said.
"It's heavy," Foxx said. "Heavy in a way that there's a real sense of danger, a real sense of what these guys go through as undercover cops. Tempted either to work for the other side or get caught up in the different characters they create."
SUPERHEROES ON PARADE: Fighters for truth, justice and the rights of Mutant-Americans are back, led by "X-Men: The Last Stand," the third installment in the franchise about the gang of super freaks, and "Superman Returns," with the Man of Steel suiting up for his first big-screen adventure in almost 20 years.
Bryan Singer, who made the first two "X-Men" movies, directed "Superman Returns," which introduces Brandon Routh as Krypton's favorite flyboy.
Co-starring Kevin Spacey as villain Lex Luthor and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, the movie has Superman back on Earth after a prolonged absence. Though not a sequel to the Christopher Reeve "Superman" flicks, the film borrows from the look and mythology created in that series.
Routh said he fashioned his performance to match, injecting his own personality into the character while trying to stay true to Reeve's Superman.
"Chris did such an amazing job. You can change things — but if you do, it could be horrible," Routh said. "When somebody does something so great, there's certain things you can tweak, but to change it just to change it sometimes is dangerous."
The "X-Men" sequel, directed by Brett Ratner (the "Rush Hour" movies), reunites all key cast members, including Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Rebecca Romijn and Famke Janssen.
Driving the action this time is the discovery of a "cure" for mutancy. Jackman said the movie will wrap up the "X-Men" trilogy, though another film is in the works centered on his Wolverine character; the bushy-haired mystery man with metal claws and rapid healing powers.
"He's that reluctant hero, and he's a fairly classic version of it," Jackman said. "He reminds me of characters I always liked, Mad Max, Dirty Harry, Han Solo, where there's more going on than what they're letting on."
Summer also offers superhero comedies. Ivan Reitman's "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" stars Uma Thurman as the ultimate woman scorned, a superhero who uses her powers to exact revenge on the boyfriend (Luke Wilson) who dumped her.
"Zoom" stars Tim Allen and Courteney Cox in an "Incredibles"-like tale of a former hero gone soft.
"Tim plays a retired superhero, and I play a kind of comic-book-obsessed, nerdy scientist. We're trying to find people to train kids to become the next round of superheroes," Cox said of her first big-screen leading role since she and her "Friends" gang called it quits.
SEPT. 11: Nearly five years after Sept. 11 comes the first major wave of big-screen films dealing with the terrorist attacks.
"United 93" mostly features a cast of unknowns in a gut-wrenching docudrama about the passengers who fought back and lost their lives during one of the Sept. 11 hijackings.
Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" stars Nicolas Cage in the story of two policemen trapped in the rubble of the collapsed towers.
On a smaller scale, "The Great New Wonderful" features Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tony Shalhoub and Olympia Dukakis in a sketch of five New Yorkers a year after the Sept. 11 attacks.
ANIMATION MANIA: Featuring the voices of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman and Bonnie Hunt, "Cars" is the latest from computer-animation pioneer John Lasseter, who directed the "Toy Story" movies. The film follows a haughty race car (Wilson) who learns to slow down and make time for friends after he's stranded in a sleepy town.
Summer's animated tales also include "Barnyard," a farm fable featuring the voices of Kevin James, Courteney Cox, Danny Glover and Andie MacDowell; the bug story "The Ant Bully," with Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep among the vocal cast; and the spooky-building adventure "Monster House," with Steve Buscemi, Nick Cannon and Maggie Gyllenhaal providing voices.
Led by voice stars Bruce Willis as a rascally raccoon and Garry Shandling as a cautious turtle, "Over the Hedge" is the story of a family of critters coping with new neighbors — humans.
How did Willis find his inner raccoon?
"I found that a lot of David Addison bled into the character," Willis said, referring to the crafty private eye he played on TV's "Moonlighting." "Wily and intrepid and a loner and gets a pretty big kick out of life. It's only when in this particular film that he is confronted with a family situation that he starts to find himself on shaky ground."
JUST FOR LAUGHS: In the comedy "You, Me and Dupree," Owen Wilson is the house guest from hell, who takes up permanent residence with his newlywed pals (Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson).
Vince Vaughn, Wilson's "Wedding Crashers" comrade, and Jennifer Aniston star as ex-lovers living in hostile territory when neither will move out of the condo they share in "The Break-Up."
"Click" features Adam Sandler as a family guy who finds the remote control of his dreams, giving him magical power over his work and home life; until the device starts acting up.
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly hit the NASCAR circuit in "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby," playing a duo that almost always finishes first and second in races until an upstart comes along.
"My character holds the record for most second-place finishes in the history of NASCAR," said Reilly, who also co-stars with Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan and Woody Harrelson in Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion," a fanciful look at Keillor's radio show.
CREEPY AND CRYPTIC: Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has made late summer a Halloween prelude with such eerie hits as "The Sixth Sense," "Signs" and "The Village."
Shyamalan is back with "Lady in the Water," the tale of an apartment manager (Paul Giamatti) who discovers a water nymph ("Village" star Bryce Dallas Howard) living beneath his complex's pool and trying to escape creatures preventing her return to her own world.
"Lady in the Water" began as a bedtime story Shyamalan made up for his children But it grew to an epic that took a month to tell — and a year to retell as the kids asked to hear it again and again.
"That one was so vivid," Shyamalan said. "It became this kind of haunting story that stuck with us as a family. The movie is very original for the story being told, because it's so absurd and not like anything you've heard before."
Also on the fright front: "The Omen," with Julia Stiles, Mia Farrow and Liev Schreiber in an update of the 1970s Antichrist tale, and "An American Haunting," starring Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland in the story of a 19th-century family tormented by a supernatural presence.