LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Times are tough and getting tougher, and as the summer movie season's first half launches on Friday with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," Hollywood is banking on escapist fare and fantasy flicks to cheer recession-weary audiences.
Following "Wolverine" comes the big-budget reboot of "Star Trek," conspiracy-minded "Angels & Demons" and action-packed "Terminator Salvation." And the summer's stars are A-list too, from Tom Hanks to Will Ferrell to Jennifer Aniston.
Why all the hype around Hollywood's summer that starts in May and runs through August? Those four months can rake-in up to 40 percent of annual ticket sales, so if summer tanks from the start, Hollywood dips into its own financial funk.
But one star says he's not feeling any pressure from appearing in the first big film: Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman.
"Whatever (launch) date it is, I'd want it to do well," Jackman told Reuters of his new "X-Men" movie. "I probably put more credence into that -- whether people have a great time -- than how well it does at the box office. I'm a big believer that money and box office will take care" of themselves.
Despite an unfinished version of the movie that leaked online, "Wolverine" -- in which Jackman plays a "mutant" battling bad guys with his retractable claws -- is expected to boost box office in an already strong year as fans look to escape the hum-drum of everyday life.
Year-to-date, the U.S. box office stands at $3.06 billion, which is up 17.4 percent from the year before, according to box office tracker Media by Numbers.
Of course, "Wolverine" is not the only game in Tinseltown.
It opens Friday against romance "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," starring Matthew McConaughey as a Scrooge-like womanizer visited by ghosts that help him renew his love for a childhood sweetheart (Jennifer Garner).
Also that first big weekend is animated adventure "Battle for Terra," about a peaceful alien planet invaded by humans.
Older movie fans looking for space adventure have only to wait for the May 8 debut of "Star Trek," director J.J. Abrams' new look at the early adventures of the USS Enterprise crew, including Captain James T. Kirk, Spock, Sulu and Chekov.
"There was an aura of epicness" to making the new "Star Trek," said Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov.
On May 22, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," has museum characters coming to life, and one week later, the newest Disney/Pixar animated movie "Up" hits theaters, telling of an old man who ties thousands of balloons to his house and floats into the air on an adventure.
But moviegoers needn't leave Earth to encounter fantasy or futuristic threats. On May 15, "Angels & Demons" -- the movie version of author Dan Brown's prequel to "The Da Vinci Code" -- hits theaters chronicling Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon's (Tom Hanks) attempts to unravel secrets about the Vatican.
Christian Bale trades-in last year's batsuit for some post-apocalyptic duds in "Terminator Salvation" on May 21.
More evil robots explode into theaters June 26 with "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," about robots who shift their shapes into cars and battle aliens on Earth, starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox and directed by Michael Bay.
Yet the summer wouldn't be complete without comedies, and Hollywood harkens to prehistoric times to dredge up laughs.
Will Ferrell stars as a researcher sucked into a time vortex in "Land of the Lost," based on the 1970s television series about modern-day people on the run from prehistoric dinosaurs. The film hits theaters June 5.
In "Year One," due in theaters June 19, director Harold Ramis explores the comedy of cavemen when two lazy hunter-gatherers (Jack Black and Michael Cera) are banished from their primitive village.
On July 1, "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" has Simon Pegg joining the animated film franchise's cast as a one-eyed weasel who hunts very big game on the tundra.
There are plenty of summer spooks, too.
"Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots with May's "Drag Me to Hell," starring Alison Lohman as a loan officer who falls under an evil curse.
In June, Nazi zombies terrorize skiers in the kitschy Norwegian horror flick "Dead Snow."
Back in the real world, marriage becomes a con in June's "The Proposal," in which Sandra Bullock stars as a career woman who weds her hunky assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to avoid getting deported to her native Canada. In May, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn star in "Management," about two very different people brought together at a roadside motel.
Other big-ticket titles in the early months of summer include Vegas bachelor-party-gone-awry comedy "The Hangover" and a remake of the 1970s thriller "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington.
Ending the season's first half on July 1 will be "Public Enemies," a biopic about a trio of 1930s bank robbers starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Channing Tatum. Even though it may not offer much of an escape from reality, a story about robbing banks may strike a chord with bailout-weary audiences.
And that takes audiences into the summer's second half when widely-anticipated "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince" is set to conjure up some magic.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Frank Simons)
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte