Did Heath Ledger’s Death Help ‘Dark Knight’ Rise?

Frankly, I thought I was on to a big original thought when I began toying with the idea of writing about how Heath Ledger’s death elevated the current Batman theatrical franchise.

DKR-32613Until I began researching and found a piece on comicbookmovie.com a few months ago that essentially posed the exact same question.

Still, with “The Dark Knight Rises” about to open (and already favorably reviewed by my colleague Justin Chang), it is a discussion worth having, not so much to relive the circumstances surrounding Ledger’s death as to remind us of the tenuous place in the pop-culture universe comic-book-derived movies have occupied.

First, all the necessary disclaimers.

For starters, “Batman Begins” is a sensational movie — for my money, better than “Dark Knight” — and thus set the table for enhanced interest in its sequel. Christopher Nolan also upped the prestige ante by stocking the supporting cast with classy players like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, serving notice this isn’t your average “Biff! Bam! Pow!” superhero.

Nolan also set both films in a largely realistic world, other than its protagonist — in essence creating a crime drama, only where the vigilante hero happens to wear a cape and cowl.

Finally, Warner Bros., to its credit, didn’t exploit the Ledger story in marketing the movie, and indeed DKR-22216rwent to great lengths to avoid the appearance of doing so. Everyone said, and did, all the right things.

Yet the current media being what it is, it was impossible for the death of a rising young star not to provoke enormous curiosity about his final role, culminating with a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor.

As good as Ledger’s performance was, would a movie like “Dark Knight” have brought about such recognition without the tragedy connected to it? Historically, no — just as a lot of casual fans who wouldn’t know Bruce Wayne from Bruce Vilanch probably wouldn’t have rushed out to see a “comic book movie” (witness the ultimate differential in domestic grosses between “Dark Knight,” which earned $533 million, and the $206 million for “Batman Begins”) without the Ledger component.

None of this should detract from what Nolan and company have constructed, but it is an interesting commentary on our times.

Even with all the riches they’ve amassed through movies, comic books have still struggled to gain respect. It took a tragedy to help alter that equation, and contribute — exactly how much we’ll never know — to “The Dark Knight” rising as high as it did.


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  1. Joetv says:

    Hi Brian
    I always enjoy your posts, but – with this one, thought I should mention – there is a very easy way to work out exactly how much extra `The Dark Knight’ made as a result of the incredibly talented (and – genuine nice guy) Ledger’s tragic death.
    Dark Knight should have made about $500m – but it made $1bn – as a result of Heath’s passing.
    The calculations are pretty straightforward: though it seems odd, you can actually use a similar actor – Kevin Spacey, playing (villain) Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, as a very accurate comparison. They (Spacey and Ledger) had incredibly-similar acting careers up to that point, in each case.
    (ie – similar box office, similar awards, similar roles, etc)
    ie See the figures below:
    All you need to do is see how much `Superman Returns’ made, compared to the previous Supermans 20 years prior.(And – note that – Spacey didn’t pass on)
    The Supermans: 20 years on – it made 1/3 as much ($300m 20 years back compared to $390m, recently)
    So, the number for Dark Knight should go up by a third.
    The Batmans are here:
    20 years on – when Ledger died, it made twice as much as that.
    So, it (Ledger’s `Dark Knight’) should have made about $500m, (using a 1/3 addition) but instead – it made $1b.
    So – Ledger’s death almost-exactly doubled the box office returns.
    Anyway, it totally sucks that he died – he was an amazing actor. I still love watching him act. At least, we have his legacy, 19 amazing films, and he is amazing in all of them.
    Anyway – Keep up the great posts.

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