Harry Potter, give your Hogwarts robes a rest. Spider-Man, hang up your spidey-suit. There's a new box-office savior in town from the world of fantasy fiction, and he wears a cape and cowl.
Beating the reigning champ Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight set box-office records this weekend, bringing in a more than $155 million from the widest opening ever - 4,366 theaters.
Hollywood was abuzz after opening day, when the movie set a record by raking in $67.85 million.
"We knew it would be big, but we never expected to dominate the marketplace like we did," said Warner Bros. distribution head Dan Fellman.
Over the past two months a series of warm-weather hits, including Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, stirred up action at a box office that had grown stagnant in the winter and spring. Still, box-office receipts are down about 1 percent from last year and the number of theatergoers is down 3.7 percent.
But now The Dark Knight is poised to take on all-time champs like Titanic, which earned more than $600 million. And in the movie business, a financial tide like this can lift all boats.
The Dark Knight sold as many tickets on its Thursday midnight show - $18 million worth - as an indie hit like An Inconvenient Truth does in its entire run.
"It's been selling out all weekend," said Brooke Hamrick, an assistant manager at the Landmark Theatre in Harbor East. "It's a very good date movie. I'm seeing a lot of couples coming in, not groups of guys."
With shrewd counterprogramming from Mamma Mia! and strong holdovers from earlier hits such as Wall-E, this weekend confirmed that American movies had rebounded from a first-half slump and were positioned to make more money this summer than ever before. The combined weekend take of $253 million also was a record-breaker.
The Dark Knight, the second in a series of Batman movies starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader, had the benefit of a fan base that broadened on home video in the three years since Bale donned the cowl in Batman Begins.
In three days, The Dark Knight made more money than Batman Begins did in three weeks.
"The average opening gross of the last five Batman movies is $47 million. This tripled that, and for a reason," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers. "A big part of that was the Heath Ledger mystique and a phenomenal performance that absolutely deserves the excitement surrounding it."
Hollywood's real savior was a comic book bad guy played by an actor who died young. In the seven months since Heath Ledger's death by an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, this talented performer's mystique has grown in ways it never did during his lifetime. Sensationalistic early reports stated that playing Batman's arch-villain, the Joker, as a truly nihilistic jester contributed to Ledger's mental woes.
When Warner Bros. screened the movie early to carefully picked critics and feature writers, they spread their praise for Ledger and the film in the pages of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. Ledger's undeniable acting feat became a must-see. Journalists as well as publicists helped position The Dark Knight not just as a comic book film, but as a very important movie, period.
Ian McDonald, 31, of Towson saw The Dark Knight yesterday in White Marsh, but he's hardly a hard-core fan of comic book films.
"Some are OK, but most are lame." He said. "I'm pretty ambivalent about them. But this was one of the best ones I've seen. It was really a surprise."
McDonald said the attention to gritty realism and a strong cast were some of the movie's chief selling points.
Warners knew it had more than enough elements for immediate success: the lure of Ledger in his last completed role; overwhelmingly adulatory reviews; and an audience that has come to expect extravagant fantasy and slick special effects as prime hot-weather fare.
Shot partly in the oversized IMAX format for greater brightness and clarity, The Dark Knight unspooled in its opening weekend at about a hundred IMAX theaters, where again it broke Spider-Man 3's records.
Spider-Man 3 sold a few more tickets in its first three days (when tickets were a bit cheaper), but it also disappointed its core audience; its opening weekend ended up accounting for almost half its total gross. The Dark Knight, though, has revved up true believers and, with the help of Ledger's bravura turn, snagged the interest of moviegoers who never picked up a comic book or even a graphic novel.
Warner Bros. says that women made up 48 percent of the audience for The Dark Knight. The Ledger factor erased the gender gap that afflicts genres that usually appeal to teenage fan-boys.
And The Dark Knight has grossed an additional $40 million internationally since opening Wednesday in a score of countries, including Ledger's native Australia.
The test for Hollywood studios will be whether they can sustain The Dark Knight's success through the summer - and not see business drop off after the splashy opening weekend.
"We're all waiting to see what next weekend holds. You never know," said Tom Kiefaber, owner of two city theaters, the Senator and the Rotunda. "When you've got 4900 prints out there - what do they call it, draining the pond? Well, we have to see how big the pond is."
Sun reporter Tim Swift and wire services contributed to this article.
Watch a preview and see more photos of 'The Dark Knight' at baltimoresun.com/