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Alcoa unofficially kicked off earnings season with gusto Tuesday, delivering second-quarter results that smashed expectations.

The aluminum giant reported an adjusted quarterly profit of 18 cents a share — 50% more than expected. The news boosted shares of Alcoa 2% in after-hours trading.

Positive profit news from an industrial mainstay such as Alcoa is a big comfort to U.S. investors in general, who have been hoping for a resumption of earnings growth in the second quarter. A big profit beat like that at the start of earnings season supports the optimism that there might be enough underlying earnings growth to justify the stock market's march to new highs this year.

On Wall Street, Alcoa's profit report has long been considered the start of earnings season because it had been the first of the 30 companies in the Dow Jones industrial average to report results. That was until late last year, when the company's stock was ejected from the Dow industrials. But getting dumped from the Dow didn't change Alcoa's status as the opening bell for the deluge of quarterly profit reports about to start.

It was an important quarter for Alcoa because it marked the company's return to the black. Including all charges, the company earned $138 million or 12 cents a share during the quarter (the adjusted 18 cents-a-share figure excludes charges). That reversed the company's $148 million loss in the same period a year ago. Revenue also was a pleasant surprise. Alcoa had revenue of $5.8 billion, 2.6% higher than expected.

"Great quarter, guidance reaffirmed and overall business doing well," says Bill Selesky, analyst at Argus Research in an e-mailed response. The company's metals unit is benefiting from the winding down of its high-cost smelting practices, says Andrew Lane of Morningstar. This allows the company to boost its profitability in selling primary metals despite a 11% decline in production from year-ago levels, Lane says.

Not all earnings news was positive. Shares of retailer Container Store fell more than 14% in after-hours trading Tuesday after issuing a cautious outlook for the rest of the year.

Investors are already thinking about what's next in earnings season. With the Standard & Poor's 500 up more than 7% this year, investors want to not just see companies deliver what they expected, but even more.

Analysts are calling for more than 6% earnings growth from companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index in the second quarter, says S&P Capital IQ. That's up from 3.4% earnings growth in the first quarter of 2014 and 4.9% growth in the second-quarter of 2013.

"Eventually, stock prices will have to be constrained by the fundamental underpinnings," says Jack Ablin of BMO Private Bank. "But for now, we'll continue to stretch valuations."

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