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.
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.
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Finally, Warner Bros., to its credit, didn’t exploit the Ledger story in marketing the movie, and indeed went 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.