Heath Ledger's Death: The Success of THE DARK KNIGHT?

Heath Ledger's Death: The Success of THE DARK KNIGHT?

The great Joker debate. Is Heath Ledger's death the driving force behind Christopher Nolan's monster hit; THE DARK KNIGHT? NeoBaggins gives his thoughts and asks for yours.

We explore Heath Ledger's death and it's impact on the grand success of THE DARK KNIGHT.

We've heard people say it, some of us, from our own lips; The Dark Knight owes it's success to the death of Heath Ledger- or at least to a large degree. Let's take a look at this claim and try to get a better understanding of the theories in which this popular belief is based. From my point of view, Ledger's Death lifting The Dark Knight to it's Billion dollars status seems like one of those things people believe, but never really thought about why they believe it. I've come to that conclusion because anyone I've ever heard make the claim, merely makes the claim and NEVER elaborates on it. It's like saying greasy foods give you acne and being in the rain will give you a cold. Nothing else needs to be said because, we all know these things to be true. Right?

The first thing we must establish with such a phenomenon is the level of Ledger's notoriety, his popularity. The most popular man on Earth generated a spike in record sales upon his death, as well as Whitney Houston. But we can all agree that Heath Ledger was no Kurt Cobain, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson when it came to popularity. He's not a world renowned recording artist, so how popular was he as an actor? At the time of his Dark Knight casting (which I initially hated), I only remembered Ledger from the film 'A Knights Tale' and later learned he was one of the main stars in Broke Back Mountain. If he was in anything else up until that point, I'm unfamiliar with it. Never heard of it. This would appear to me that as an actor, Heath Ledger was not a house hold name, or at least not famous enough to generate a Billion dollars in tickets sales upon his death. I have yet to meet a person (in person or online) who was not going to see The Dark Knight until they heard of Ledgers death. Not a single one.

Some have posed the argument that Ledger was famous amongst a young female audience. I wouldn't doubt that he was, but I WOULD doubt that a young female audience pushed a Batman film to a Billion dollars. Maybe Broke Back Mountain was the vehicle of popularity that fueled his posthumous frenzy? Probably not. The Dark Knight and Broke Back Mountain are obviously aimed at two different target audiences. Not saying that movie-goers aren't versatile, just saying that the group that likes both would be too small to make such an impact on The Dark Knight's box-office.

The imaginarium of doctor parnassus. No billies at the box-office here. 30 MIL Budget. 60 MIL gross. Anyone who is more knowledgeable and with greater and more accurate sources, please intervene with numbers where they apply. Statistics and gross is not my thing. This is an open forum so please feel free to make corrections. Now, If there was something about Ledger that led his death to generate a Billion dollars for the Dark Knight, wouldn't this trend have at lease continued in some capacity in Doctor Parnassus or greater? It did not, and from my understanding, his death was an actual part of the films marketing. Far more tailored around his last performances than The Dark Knight ever was. And it wasn't.

So, I'm just not seeing the logic behind Heath Ledger's death being the driving force behind the success of the Dark Knight. I can see his PERFORMANCE being a driving force. But the actor just wasn't famous enough to generate that type of interest. Shortly after he died, I was at work and a co-worker was online and ran across the news of his death. The article had to piece together for him that Heath Ledger, who died, was playing the Joker in the upcoming Batman film. All he knew before this was that the Joker was the villain and that it was a movie he was going to see. I remember this because this is someone I had discussions with about movies on a regular basis.

Some say the Dark Knight Rises will suffer due to the absents of Ledger. This is a strange thought process considering that even if he was still alive, he wouldn't be the villain again anyway. Who thinks Nolan would make Joker the villain in back-to-back Batman movies? His death is completely unrelated.

So, that's my outlook on that theory. My personal experience and thoughts on the material. I'm looking for accounts that would explain how his death did indeed (or probably) made the Dark Knight the highest grossing CBM of all time. I may have overlooked something or haven't yet considered a certain aspect and would like to hear opposing dialog on this.

Award winning performance or death of an acting icon?

Ok, go.
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Filed Under "Batman" 4/16/2012
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WolvieCBM - 4/16/2012, 12:25 PM
It's not his death, but his great performance. That's all people talked about for months, and that's how positive word of mouth was established, and all that ended with huge box office numbers. Sure people were curious about it after he passed away, but people wouldn't go back to theatre seeing the film again and again if he wasn't good as The Joker.
WolvieCBM - 4/16/2012, 12:27 PM
Also Neo, wasn't an article like this posted a few months ago? Haha. I think I saw one a while back.
SHHH - 4/16/2012, 12:34 PM
Great Performance...
Irons - 4/16/2012, 12:37 PM
Yep, it was his performance that drove the success of the movie. The death added a little bit of mystique to the performance maybe, but the idea that people were drawn to his performance mostly because of "morbid curiosity" is asinine. 533 million dollars domestic was because people loved the movie and wanted to go back again and again.
BIGBMH - 4/16/2012, 12:50 PM
Yeah, I think it's bull when people say his death is the source of The Dark Knight's success. I haven't talked to one person who says they went to see the movie because he died. It was a major story and generated additional buzz for what was already going to be a very successful film. The movie itself is amazing though, thanks in part to his terrific performance. In terms of success, maybe it helped a little bit with the initial rush, but the quality of the movie itself is what kept people coming to see it and made it a huge hit.

Anyway, in regards to The Dark Knight Rises, I don't think it's exactly going to hurt sales very much. However, when Ledger's Joker was one of most people's favorite things about the movie, knowing that he's not in this one definitely decreases excitement. I'm pretty sure I remember Nolan saying that the Joker was intended to return in some capacity for the 3rd film The way the joker talked in his final scene about how they were destined to do this for a long time basically told fans they could expect more. With the reception the character received, I can't imagine them not putting him in the movie and advertisements to draw people in, even if the role's importance was reduced.
Darkhaven - 4/16/2012, 1:08 PM
Heath's death DID, God rest him, give TDK a boost. Not some ridiculous $400million dollar boost, but a boost nonetheless. TDK came out in late July...and was re-released in theaters after his passing in January, which took place right before the Oscars a few weeks later. Remember, they reworked segments to include a tribute to him. Take a look around your local theaters right before the Oscars, theaters will bill and broadcast all Oscar nominated films on their marquees and advertisements above even new releases. I know this because I managed a theater; old folks will watch ANYTHING with an Oscar nomination, they don't care if they know what it's about, or if they need to use earphones.

And you may ask why Heath's death 'helped' TDK, but didn't help The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. Three reasons. One, it was [frick]ing bizarre. Not Tim Burton or Zack Synder bizarre, it was [frick]ing out there bizarre. Two, TDK came out in '08, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus came out in '10 here in the US; that was more than enough time for mourning to pass and Kim Kardashian to gank media spotlight again. And three, it didn't show in even a fifth of the theaters TDK did. It was a January release, and if you know at least one thing about January flicks, they rarely get movie buzz like the summer flicks.

His performance in TDK was awesome, as were many others, but still, facts are facts. And the fact is, his death, tragic as it was, brought additional light to his work. TDK happens to be in his body of work as well.
jessepostal - 4/16/2012, 1:15 PM
Gotta agree with tea, I have some friends who only went to see it because they loved him in ten things I hate about you. People that are not comic or batman fans saw the tragedy on tv or read about it in the paper and for whatever reason went to see the movie. That has nothing to do with his performance.
Denn1s - 4/16/2012, 1:22 PM
his death certainly hyped the film and marketed it beyond the producers' dreams. but it was not only his death but the great script and performance he delivered...his death just made more people aware of the film...
marvel72 - 4/16/2012, 1:33 PM
lots of things help the dark knight make the money it did.

-heath's death,hyped the movie beyond believe you've got remember batman begins only took $371,853,783.

-the joker is batman's most popular villain,burtons batman is the second highest grossing batman movie which also featured the joker.

-the performance was good.

-nolan is a good director.

-6 months at the cinema helped with that billion gross.
leftcoastpunk - 4/16/2012, 1:52 PM
I agree with the comments about how it assisted in the films success, but wasn't the driving force. Only thing I might add is that there was also the buzz that Heath, putting himself in such a dark and psychotic place emotionally to portray the joker, may have developed his dependency on his medication because he couldn't quite come back to reality. I think that may have attracted an additional audience to come, out of curiosity, to see just how twisted the character was
CPBuff22 - 4/16/2012, 2:13 PM
There we sooooooo many people I know who don't follow comics and many who didn't even see Batman Begins who went to multiple showings of TDK only because they liked Heath Ledger and he died making the movie. Even though that wasn't really the case. Its not like a Brandon Lee happened. But people came out. I sat behind a couple that had to be at least 70yo when I went to see it and after the move as we walked out they were discussing it and neither of them understood the movie at all. Also my Great Aunts thought on TDK is that "Its a shame that nice young man had to die playing such a horrible role".

Personally Ledgers portrayal of the Joker is one of the few things I enjoyed about TDK. But that shows you that his performance was phenomenal and I would never take anything away from that. Its just a lot of people who have never seen a superhero movie before (or at least since the original Superman) came out just because Heath Ledger died.
ICStoopedPeople - 4/16/2012, 3:01 PM

He's my second favorite Joker after Mark Hamill.
TheMyth - 4/16/2012, 3:20 PM
It's not at all what made it a blockbuster, it would've been so anyway. It DID promote the movie and increase curiosity and awareness. I would also like to point out Darkhaven's comment where he says old people will watch anything with an Oscar nom on it for no other reason and with no other knowledge of the film aside from the fact it's been nominated. Every woman I know over 35 does this. TDK would've done well regardless, but his death and the following media blitz DID add to it's success, no doubt about it.
NeoBaggins - 4/16/2012, 3:37 PM
The combination theory seems the most logical. Things like the items Marv pointed out are good factors. But I still think that whatever influence Ledger had on curious attenders and/or Ledger fans, is miniscule in the big picture. It would have to account for an incredible sum of the ticket sales and if that were the case, I think it would be more apparent. I'd know at least one person or a person that knows a person who saw the film because of Ledger alone.

I think the general consensus here (in this article) is a is that Ledger's death played a part in the box-office to some extent. But these questions were initially prompted by people who say the box-office is a direct result of his death.

I was a Street Fighter fanatic and couldn't believe they made a movie. It was a big deal at the time. Raul Julia, who played M. Bison, died before the film's release. I'm going to say he was a more popular actor at the time than Ledger was at the time of the Dark Knight. And even though the terrible film made a prophet, I doubt anyone in attendance was there to pay homage to Julia. And that's not to say it isn't possible, but just like with Ledger, I think the group is small.

"Also Neo, wasn't an article like this posted a few months ago? Haha. I think I saw one a while back."

Haha, I don't know. This has been sitting in an email draft I saved at work a while ago. I decided to copy and paste it when someone started the 'Heath's-death-made-TDK' commentary in an Avengers thread today.
Gerrit - 4/16/2012, 3:38 PM
It helped, and it's pretty obvious. I didn't even know that there was gonna be a second Batman movie coming out until he died, or at least just before that, I can't remember correctly. But I do remember that after his death, due to the press relating it to his portrayal of the Joker, everyone I know started to talk about TDK, even people who didn't like comics.
Gerrit - 4/16/2012, 3:39 PM
But I don't think it was THE driveing force that turned TDK into the sucess it was.
SageMode - 4/16/2012, 4:44 PM
I confirm DARKHAVEN's exerpt.
TheBigBoss917 - 4/16/2012, 4:44 PM
He was the core of the movie and that didn't matter if he was alive or dead
MrReese - 4/16/2012, 4:47 PM
it was the performance that drew the crowd also fans of Heath's from past movies.& wasn't Nolan gonna use the Joker again if he hadn't passed? I always wondered bout that when Joker said "I think U n I r destined 2 do this forever".Maybe wishful thinkin XD

also he could've introduced Harley & digged deeper on Arkham.Kinda like a "Silence of the Lambs" meets Batman type of thing.Harley goes ape shit frees Joker destruction enter batman some1 dies n then batman wins roll credits. XD
msullivan1945 - 4/16/2012, 4:55 PM
10 things I hate about you was a major source of his teeny bopper popularity, however it still wouldn't boost revenue that much. His death helped in lack of story, plot holes, and errors though. People have trouble crticizing any part of the movie such as the 2 ferries that weren't rigged to blow. Everything else in the movie happened as he said it would but Nolan pussed out on that scene. Bad movies that hit a billion: Transformers dark side of the moon, Pirates of the Carribean - on stranger tides (worst of the series).
headlopper - 4/16/2012, 4:56 PM
1st of all, good editorial.
2nd of all, well argued.
3rdly, I agree with you.

It's just was great performance from him framed by a great movie.
AC1 - 4/16/2012, 5:01 PM
@Darkhaven The Dark Knight was released the July after Heath Ledger died. Ledger died in January 2008, TDK was in cinemas from July 2008. It was then re-released the following January.
I think that may be one of the saddest parts. He truly devoted himself to that role, and he never got to see the fruits of his labour. His performance was phenomenal, and naturally, after his death the promotion of the film subtly shifted to showcase more of him in action. I think his death did have a slight influence in box-office numbers, but not one that's really worth noting.
BlindLemonShemp - 4/16/2012, 5:22 PM
differing opinion #5: Most people heard that Heath Ledger was in it and went to see it in the theater to see butt sex, based on Brokeback Mountain's precedent
llezsirg - 4/16/2012, 5:40 PM
It wasnt his dath, it was his prefomance of the Joker that made the movie great. To be honest the joker was the best part of the movie.

It goes
Heath Ledger- Joker
gary oldman -sirius black...um i mean commissioner gordon
morgan freeman- lucius fox
aaron eckhart -harvey dent
christian bale -batman

Im not saying Bale wasnt good as Batman , Im just saying the charecter of Bruce Wayne is not really expanded on.

Im pretty sure Tom Hardy can deliver on Bane so I look forward to TDKR
gamecreatorjj - 4/16/2012, 5:47 PM
@darkhaven you know ledger died, months before TDK came out in theaters
Kalel219 - 4/16/2012, 6:09 PM
I'm from australia and here when the news broke that Heath died, pretty everyone I knew rushed to the cinema to see the movie cause the news was reporting like every night for the first week about how playing the joker was too much for his mind to take and shit.

I saw the film with a few friends and one came out claiming he was buy every one of Heath Ledger's movies on dvd as a sign of respect. (He didn't go through with it) :P

I think his death sadly promoted the movie to untold levels. It didn't matter that you think he was a lesser known actor Neo, it's the fact it was in a BATMAN movie which nearly everyone knows of.

Now for my thoughts on the movie, I think his performance makes it alot better then it would have been without him. I say that as a long time fan of his, when he was casted, I'm pretty sure I was the only person saying "YES! He's gonna be amazing"
Lilvic92 - 4/16/2012, 6:10 PM

Ledger died before the movie was even completed with filming if I'm not mistaken.
marvelstudios - 4/16/2012, 6:29 PM
wow this is such BS. his performance was up there amongst the greatest ever
SamWinchester - 4/16/2012, 7:10 PM
While, yes, his performance was phenomonal and the script for "Dark Knight" was outstanding - there's no denying that the eer and aura of Ledger's untimely death helped to catapult that film into the billion dollar stratosphere. It even rung in an audience who wouldn't ordinarily have went to see a comic book-based film. People were simple curious and enamoured by how that role played into his real life.

Sure, it was the story that got people to rewatch the film over and over in the theatre, but a part of their obsession with his performance as the Joker had to do with the role being Ledger's swan song, his magnum opus. It's the reason why this debate still rages within the fandom even today, despite a good number of politically correct fans who're still in denial about the tabooed sympathy surrounding the posthumous accolades awarded to Ledger.

But the truth defends itself, much in the way that it does with Brandon Lee's death in relation to the "Crow" film from '94: While, yes, I feel that the film was a good effort - I don't think that it would've been as highly regarded as much as it is today had it not been for Lee's unfortunate demise. Same here when it comes to TDK in my opinion.
SpiderFan35 - 4/16/2012, 7:18 PM
Holy re-hashing an old argument Batman.
Ghostt - 4/16/2012, 7:25 PM
his death gave the movie a boost, but the performance gave his death a life of its own. His performance made his death large and mythical.

If his performance was mediocre, no one would have thought twice of his death, or of TDK
hunt2c - 4/16/2012, 7:39 PM
They killed him on purpose to make the third Batman a box office success. I know I sound like an asshole. jk jk
DocDeath - 4/16/2012, 7:41 PM
Its just like micheal Jackson or Elvis - you don't want to see them just because they died, you see th cos you like their music- same for joker - it was an amazingly scary - new - great acting - people went to see it - cos they like batman or action or both
Darkhaven - 4/16/2012, 7:53 PM
@gamecreatorjj, ACira, Lilvic92: Ah ha, you are all correct; my memory is apparently shot during Finals week! Please correct me if any of my other stats are off if you don't mind, I'm just shooting from brain power.

So, with Heath's death taking place TDK's release, rather than after as I'd thought it did...I'm going to firmly say that his passing assisted in TDK's boom, along with the lack of competition at the time, and it's re-release months later. Power in a re-release exist, just ask George Lucas how he's enjoying having a Star Wars over the billion point mark for theater sales :)

On the sad note of Heath's passing again, I kind of wish I'd caught TDK in the theaters when I had the chance, I just kept putting it off. Also, The Brother Grimm and A Knight's Tale [frick]ing own, watch them if you haven't already.
RolandD - 4/16/2012, 8:22 PM
@Neobaggins-Very well written article. A couple of points
1. Some peopel mentioned his fans who watched becasue they liked him in another movie, which is irrelevant to the arguments posed.
2. For me, it is his peformance by far. I have watched the movie a number of times because it is a great movie overall (a great Batman movie to boot). I never get bored of the scenes he is in. His Joker is fabulous. I still think Nicholoson/Burton's Joker is truer to the comics, but Ledger/Nolan's is a fantastic movie character.
3. His death probably did bring some viewers in, but my guess is that is a relatively small percentage. I think we would still be talking about phenomenal ticket sales without his deaath.
4.@Gerrit-What are you doing on this site if you didn't already know a new Nolan Batman movie was coming out. JK-Couldn't resist.
Ashes2Phoenix - 4/17/2012, 4:37 AM
Nice article ! I would say it is definitely a mixture of both. I recently watched the film and his acting is so believable. He does it so well you forget that it is Heath Ledger. When an actor is capable of doing that, they have a very special talent. Most actors play different versions of themselves but Heath Ledger was one of those actors who full on embodied the role.
In regards, to the marketing, his death played a significant part. When Brando Lee died on the set of The Crow many people went to see it because it was his last performance. I think it intrigues the general public because it is a very surreal feeling to see someone who has died, still alive on film.
hunterelf - 4/17/2012, 6:32 AM
i'd say it's both his death and his performance, there's always that bitterness whenever i watch TDK knowing that HL joker will NEVER be in another movie... #gonetooyoung
DoomPhD - 4/17/2012, 8:09 AM
just chimming in here, but the Joker is a seriously iconic character. In most contemporary portrayals he's a very very dark character, and if an actor playing him died due to a prescription drug overdose for depression can only add to the intrigue in the portrayal of a charater people were already interested. The movie would do well regardless, folk wanted to see the Joker, but his death only added intrigue to the character. Some people think the Joker killed Ledger. I don't. Doom out.
Fe94 - 4/17/2012, 12:59 PM
People don't like a movie just because an actor died after making it. People like a movie because it's truly good.
CaptainObvious - 4/17/2012, 4:04 PM
I would also like to add Batman Begins as a factor to TDK's success. When BB came out, it had a $48M opening weekend. Not exactly on par with openings for superhero movies at the time. However, as word of mouth spread, the movie had smaller drops and by the time it had closed, it grossed $205M. Not to mention the fact that it had strong DVD sales with people passing it to those who didn't see it in theaters. So the word of mouth of BB played an important part in how much TDK made.
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