A Big Summer for the Big Screen

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NPR movie critic Bob Mondello weighs in on the offerings at the multiplex this summer. There are superheroes, clone wars, animated pandas, fabulous shoes ... and even a Shakespeare sequel in store.

Troubled Heroes, Killer Hairdressers and 'Hamlet 2'

In Hollywood, Summer Means Sequels — and a Surprise or Three

Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in 'Dark Knight' i i

hide captionBack in black: Batman (Christian Bale) and The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

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Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in 'Dark Knight'

Back in black: Batman (Christian Bale) and The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in 'The X-Files: I Want to Believe' i i

hide captionMatters of faith: Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) surface in X-Files: I Want to Believe.

Diyah Pera/Twentieth Century Fox
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in 'The X-Files: I Want to Believe'

Matters of faith: Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) surface in X-Files: I Want to Believe.

Diyah Pera/Twentieth Century Fox
Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black in 'Tropic Thunder' i i

hide captionWar movies are hell: Robert Downey Jr. (left) and Jack Black, playing Hollywood heavies in the battlefield-drama spoof Tropic Thunder.

Merle Welemiller Wallace/DreamWorks LLC
Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black in 'Tropic Thunder'

War movies are hell: Robert Downey Jr. (left) and Jack Black, playing Hollywood heavies in the battlefield-drama spoof Tropic Thunder.

Merle Welemiller Wallace/DreamWorks LLC
Meryl Streep in 'Mamma Mia' i i

hide captionMen After Midnight: Mamma Mia posits a past for Meryl Streep's Donna.

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Meryl Streep in 'Mamma Mia'

Men After Midnight: Mamma Mia posits a past for Meryl Streep's Donna.

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From 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars' i i

hide captionDie another day: Obi-Wan Kenobi fights again in the latest Star Wars saga.

Warner Bros. Pictures
From 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars'

Die another day: Obi-Wan Kenobi fights again in the latest Star Wars saga.

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Anne Hathaway and Steve Carell in 'Get Smart' i i

hide captionAnne Hathaway and Steve Carell in Get Smart.

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Anne Hathaway and Steve Carell in 'Get Smart'

Anne Hathaway and Steve Carell in Get Smart.

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Peter Mullan and Andrew Garfield in 'Boy A' i i

hide captionPeter Mullan (left) and Andrew Garfield in Boy A.

The Weinstein Co.
Peter Mullan and Andrew Garfield in 'Boy A'

Peter Mullan (left) and Andrew Garfield in Boy A.

The Weinstein Co.
Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in 'Hamlet 2' i i

hide captionSteve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Focus Features
Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in 'Hamlet 2'

Steve Coogan and Elisabeth Shue in Hamlet 2.

Focus Features
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hide captionWall-E's hard-working star.

Pixar
Image from 'Wall-E'

Wall-E's hard-working star.

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Seth Rogen and James Franco in 'Pineapple Express' i i

hide captionSeth Rogen (standing) and James Franco in Pineapple Express.

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Seth Rogen and James Franco in 'Pineapple Express'

Seth Rogen (standing) and James Franco in Pineapple Express.

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Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson in 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' i i

hide captionVicky (Rebecca Hall, left) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) visit Barcelona on holiday and find love in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Victor Bello/The Weinstein Co.
Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson in 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'

Vicky (Rebecca Hall, left) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) visit Barcelona on holiday and find love in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Victor Bello/The Weinstein Co.

With Iron Man, Prince Caspian and Indiana Jones already slugging it out at the box office — Indy just racked up the second-biggest May opening in movie history — there's no doubt summer is in full swing at the multiplex.

But there are still more than 100 pictures opening before Labor Day, which means no summer-movies preview can hope to be comprehensive, at least not without also being a book. Still, we can hit the highlights.

Let's start with the big guys, the superheroes back for one more digitally enhanced, special-effects-crammed roller-coaster ride. Batman, for instance, in The Dark Knight, an adventure made even darker by the recent death of actor Heath Ledger, who plays Batman's nemesis, The Joker. ("This city deserves a better class of criminal," he snarls, "and I'm gonna give it to them.")

Batman's not the only one returning. The Incredible Hulk will come back, this time played by Edward Norton; The Mummy will come back, tormenting Brendan Fraser — who'll come back in Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is itself coming back, this time in 3-D.

And amid all those comebacks is one first-timer, a troubled superhero — who, along with his superpowers, has super-problems. Played by Will Smith, Hancock drinks, swears, womanizes and screws up so often that he finally gets public-relations coaching on how to clean up his act.

You don't have to have superpowers to save the world, but they help. Angelina Jolie gets all excited that James MacAvoy can curve the paths of the bullets he fires in Wanted — though it's hard to see what that lets him do besides shoot around corners.

And there's wizardry of the Jedi kind in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but this time it's animated. ("Kidnapped, Jabba the Hutt's son has been. Negotiate the treaty with Jabba, Obi-Wan will. Find the renegades that hold Jabba's son, your mission will be.")

Repeat, I probably should: Animated, not live-action, Clone Wars is.

Ditto Kung-Fu Panda, with Jack Black as a pudgy martial-arts doofus saving a Chinese village. And what looks to be the cream of the animated crop is a little guy the Pixar folks have brought to life: a robot named Wall-E, who's left behind by humans when they abandon Earth, and who develops, over the course of some 700 years, a personality.

Wall-E is perhaps the most unusual of the summer's comedians. But he has some stiff competition, including Adam Sandler as an assassin hairdresser in You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as relatives who can't stand each other in Step-Brothers, and Robert Downey Jr. as a white actor hired to play a black character in Ben Stiller's comedy about the making-of-a-war-movie, Tropic Thunder. Read that again: blackface meets Ben Stiller's sensibility meets Apocalypse Now. Soooooooo ...

Other boys gone wild will include Office dweeb Rainn Wilson seeking groupies and fame in The Rocker and James Franco seeking the perfect high in Pineapple Express, a stoner comedy from the Apatow Factory.

Now, boys-gone-wild is usually the whole summer-comedy story, but this year, the girls are getting in on the action in a bunch of feminized teen comedies — and also in Mamma Mia, a musical about a bride-to-be who's forced to consult her mother's diary when she's looking for a dad to walk her down the aisle.

"I have three possible fathers," she explains to her girlfriends — and what does she do? To the music of ABBA — and to her mother's great surprise — she invites all three candidates to the ceremony. Meryl Streep plays mom — as a sort of sister-in-spirit to the womanly quartet of free spirits who will, as the ads for another girls-on-the-loose comedy put it, get Carrie-ed away this summer.

"I assumed that if my friends and I ever got our fairy-tale endings, that would be the end of the story," says Sarah-Jessica Parker in the movie version of Sex and the City. "But real life always has a twist." (Trailers hint that the twist might be that Carrie leaves Big on their wedding day.)

And Sex and the City is barely the tip of the TV iceberg. There's also Get Smart, in which Steve Carell steps into Don Adams' shoe-phones as Maxwell Smart, plus the return of two famous paranormalists in a new adventure — in X-Files: I Want to Believe.

If that last big-screen reboot does things traditionally — expanding a one-hour TV drama into a two-hour movie — Emma Thompson is heading a cast that's doing the opposite: squeezing an 11-hour miniseries into a two-hour movie. Call it Brideshead Revisited, revisited — evidence that more sophisticated films, even films with foreign accents, won't be completely squeezed out of the multiplex in hot weather.

Among the more intriguing "art-house" pictures is the Russian epic Mongol, about Genghis Kahn's ascent to world domination, the Spanish romance Elsa and Fred, about a frisky couple falling in love in their 80s, and the haunting British drama Boy A, about a 10-year-old convicted of murder. And there's a vaguely Borat-style mockumentary called The Doorman.

And watch for a couple of audience favorites from Sundance: The Wackness, which prompted cheers for a high-school hero who pays for his therapy sessions by keeping his shrink (Ben Kingsley) well-supplied with marijuana, and another story about the power of an actor-turned-teacher to inspire students.

It involves, yes, a sequel — to Shakespeare's classic drama about a melancholy Dane, and never mind that everyone dies at the end of the original: Teacher's got a concept. It involves Jesus, a time machine and the Gay Men's Chorus of Tucson.

Hamlet 2. Proof that summer can be a time for ... culture? I suppose we'll see.

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