Louis Aquiler bought his tickets for the first midnight showing of ”The Dark Knight” two weeks early. And it’s a good thing he did. Because by the time the movie opened, they would be selling for $150 on ”Craigslist”. Ask him, and the 21-year-old Hofstra University student will tell you that he’s been obsessed with ”Batman” for as long as he can remember. In fact, he dresses up like the ”Joker” every year for ”Comic-Con”, and even shaves his legs to help get into character. So, on the biggest night of his life since…well, probably since ”Batman Begins” came out in 2005, he and his friends did the only thing they could think to do under the circumstances. They stood in front of the mirror and plastered their faces with white makeup. Little did they know that when they showed up at the multiplex in Manhattan’s Union Square four hours before showtime, they wouldn’t be the first ones in line. Hell, they wouldn’t even be the first Jokers in line. ”This is going to be amazing!” said Aquiler. ”It’s going to absolutely rip our faces off!”
Or melt them off. After hours baking in the real Gotham’s heat, Aquiler’s white facepaint began to bleed. Which, in his friend’s opinion, just made him look more like Heath Ledger‘s smeared villain. Aquiler nods: ”I think this really explains my lack of a girlfriend at the moment.”
As the merry band of Jokers, Batgirls, and at least one person inexplicably wearing a cougar costume began filing into the theater, number crunchers 3,000 miles away were bullishly predicting that The Dark Knight might rake in as much as $140 million during its opening weekend — putting it within striking distance of Spider-Man 3‘s $151.1 million record.
Meanwhile, executives at Warner Bros., possibly still smarting from their candy-colored crash-and-burn Speed Racer, downplayed those expectations. Yes, their movie was opening in a record 4,366 theaters, including nearly 100 IMAX screens. And sure, so many Thursday midnight showings had sold out that giddy theater owners added 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. times. Even so, the studio insisted it was looking for a Dark Knight opening weekend in the neighborhood of $90 million.
But as the numbers started rolling in like delegate counts on Super Tuesday, two things quickly became obvious: The studio’s false-modesty campaign wouldn’t fool anyone, and Space Chimps never stood a chance. First came the Thursday midnight grosses: $18.5 million. Then the rest of Friday: $48.7 million. Saturday: $47.6 million. And Sunday: $43.6 million. By the time all of the popcorn was swept up and all of the receipts were counted, The Dark Knight pulled in $158.4 million — $7.3 million ahead of Sony’s Spidey. ”It was a surprise,” says Sue Kroll, Warner Bros.’ president of worldwide marketing. ”I didn’t imagine this would be as huge as it was. This is one of those things that you can’t plan for.” (Another thing you can’t plan for, of course, is your star getting arrested and accused of assaulting his mother and sister — but that drama was still a day away.)
NEXT PAGE: ”Both actors, Heath [Ledger] and Christian [Bale], certainly have a lot of female appeal. You look at this cast and it could just as easily do Shakespeare as a Batman film.”