Monday, July 21, 2008

Dark Knight, Bright Weekend

By David Luhrssen
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Heath Ledger proved bigger in death than he was in life during the opening weekend of The Dark Knight, with three-day ticket sales breaking record at $155.3 million. It was especially tragic because, with the strength of Ledger's unforgettable performance as the Joker coupled with the ordinary hype associated a summer blockbuster sequel, Dark Knight would have done almost as well if he had lived to enjoy the success.

It was a good weekend for Hollywood thanks to Ledger's film. This summer's box office ticket sales had been up slightly when measured in dollars, largely because ticket prices have risen since last year. A closer look reveals a spotty record. Overall movie attendance has slipped. Iron Man was an unassailable hit but the Indiana Jones reboot played better in dreary overseas markets where Michael Jackson is still the King of Pop than in the U.S, and Will Smith's Hancock was deemed an opening weekend disappointment. Eddie Murphy's latest stupid comedy flopped and the similarly themed Space Chimps may well lose money.

Part of Dark Knight's traffic came from screenings in IMAX houses, where tickets cost $3-$4 more than at regular cinemas. That accounts for part of the business but not for the genuine excitement the movie seems to have aroused. Despite its faults, The Dark Knight will achieve something that eludes most contemporary Hollywood and indie movies: It makes an indelible impression. The Dark Knight will be memorable. Much of the credit accrues to Ledger's frightening interpretation of a familiar character in popular culture but certainly there is more going on behind the evil clown mask. The film is a meditation on moral ambiguity, the difficult and never entirely satisfactory choices made by the powerful.

Unlike the raft of recent box-office flops that addressed Iraq or the Middle East by name, The Dark Knight mirrors contemporary anxiety in a dark fun house of distorting images. It makes our unease entertaining.

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