Pop Culture

‘Dark Knight’ sets midnight debut record

Nothing dark about Batman’s first night at the box office.

“The Dark Knight” lit up cash registers during its midnight debut, stealing away with a record $18.5 million from 3,040 theaters, distributor Warner Bros. said Friday.

That bested the 2005 performance of “Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith,” which took in $16.9 million during its midnight debut in 2,915 venues.

“The Dark Knight” figure did not include any of its 3 a.m. or 6 a.m. showings.

And while Batman only strikes at night, all indications are that “The Dark Knight” will keep landing blows: Advance ticket sales were booming.

The early numbers mean “The Dark Knight” will likely join the ranks of 10 other films that debuted on non-holiday weekends and cleared more than $100 million from Friday to Sunday, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of tracking firm Media By Numbers LLC.

“There is an unbelievable demand for this movie,” he said. “The Heath Ledger factor is a major part of this. Beyond that, the movie is so good, it’s worthy of all these accolades.”

The movie directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as Batman cost $185 million to make, excluding money spent marketing, Fellman said.

Critics have heaped praise on the movie — especially the late Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker, which has already generated whispers of a posthumous Oscar nomination.

“We’re very proud of the film,” said Dan Fellman, Warner’s head of distribution. “It’s the magic of the movie business, how one film just stands out above the others.”

Fans praise Ledger’s final performanceAs Chris Finegan watched Heath Ledger’s stunning portrayal of the Joker on Friday in “The Dark Knight,” he couldn’t help but think of another actor who wasn’t on the screen: James Dean, who also died prematurely and tragically, nearly 53 years ago.

“Heath Ledger is going to have the same impact on our culture as James Dean did,” said Finegan, one of many fans across the country who were both awed and saddened by Ledger’s performance.

“He went out with a hell of a bang,” said Finegan’s son, Alex, 18, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Ledger’s leering Joker face in cracked white makeup and those red lips frozen in a sickening smile. “He stole the show. It was everything I expected and more.”

Manhattan movie theaters are not usually packed at 9 a.m. on weekdays, but there was not a free seat to be seen at the AMC Lincoln Square multiplex on Friday morning, and lines lengthened all day. Many fans were back after trying and failing — like the Finegans — to get into packed midnight performances.

“When we were leaving at 3 a.m. people were still streaming in,” said Susan Pepsin, 31, who saw the film at the Arclight theater in Hollywood.

Of course, as the latest installment in the Batman series, “The Dark Knight” likely would have been an event even without the added interest over Ledger, who died at 28 in January of an accidental prescription drug overdose. But Ledger seemed at the top of everyone’s mind. During the show, fans applauded many of the actor’s particularly demonic moments.

“He was unbelievable,” said Michael Loizon, a 23-year-old asset manager in Manhattan. “I had no idea he’d be THAT good.” His and his colleague, Michael Holmgren, played hooky from work to see the film. They didn’t get in trouble, though — their boss came, too.

“I was the ringleader,” confessed John Pileggi, a big comic book and action-film fan. “It was intense, overwhelming,” he said of Ledger’s performance. “It’s sad to say that it was the role of his life, because his life is over. He was so young. I have a son about his age, so I kept thinking about it.”

Yet he and many other fans said they hoped the hype over the death wouldn’t somehow diminish what they saw as the brilliance of the performance. And they said the portrayal was so absorbing that during the film they forgot about Ledger the man.

“The whole time you know it’s Heath Ledger, but at the same time you have to remind yourself that it’s him. He is so convincing,” said Katie Burns, 23, who went to a midnight screening in Paramus, N.J.

Pepsin said her screening in Hollywood was interrupted by a fire alarm — and even that didn’t ruin it. “The character is so crazy, I felt at times, Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m watching this,” said Pepsin, a financial planner. “These are images that will stay in my mind for a long time.”

For Jared Yates, an engineer in St. Louis, Ledger’s performance was “perfect,” and there was only one moment where he was reminded — and jarringly, too — of the actor’s death.

“It was where Joker tells Batman that the two of them ‘could do this forever,”’ said Yates. Of course, the moviegoer was reminded that that wouldn’t be possible.

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