Christopher Nolan's Bat-trilogy concludes this weekend with The Dark Knight Rises, and audiences appear poised to rush out in unprecedented numbers to find out exactly how "The Legend Ends." The Dark Knight Rises is debuting at 4,404 locations, which is the second-widest release ever behind The Twilight Saga: Eclipse's 4,468 theaters. With over 70 minutes filmed using IMAX cameras, the movie will play at a record 332 IMAX locations, and it's a foregone conclusion that it sets a new record in that format. The bigger question is whether The Dark Knight Rises can steal the opening weekend record away from The Avengers, which established an insanely high bar when it debuted to $207.4 million in May.
If anyone can beat The Avengers, though, it's Batman, who is arguably the most popular character in American pop culture. 1989's Batman set the opening weekend record at the time with $40.5 million; that was eventually topped by Batman Returns ($45.7 million), which was then beat by Batman Forever ($52.8 million). By the time Batman and Robin opened in 1997, though, the pervading silliness had sullied the franchise, and the movie was a financial disappointment at $107.3 million total.
After an eight-year hiatus, Warner Bros. hired up-and-coming writer-director Christopher Nolan to reboot the franchise. Nolan's first installment, Batman Begins, opened slowly but went on to earn a very respectable $205.3 million. The movie was also extremely well-regarded—it has an 8.3 rating on IMDb—and found a very strong after-life on DVD and TV.
Three years later, sequel The Dark Knight pitted Batman against his most-famous foe, The Joker. The anticipation of seeing that conflict play out in Nolan's universe was only amplified by Heath Ledger's untimely death, and the movie went on to set a record with an incredible $158.4 million debut. It ultimately closed with $533.3 million; both the opening weekend record and the total have been passed twice in the years since, though that doesn't lessen the accomplishment. Aside from being financial successful, The Dark Knight is also one of the most widely-seen and widely-liked movies in recent memory: it ranks eight on IMDb's Top 250 list with an 8.9 rating from over 729,000 users.
While initial marketing for The Dark Knight Rises may have relied a little too much on past glories (the first teaser seemed to feature more old footage than new), the campaign eventually found its footing by focusing on a few key areas. First, and most importantly, it's clearly been conveyed that this is the final installment in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy ("The Legend Ends" has been plastered all over the material). Considering studios would prefer to milk a cash cow for as long as possible, this definitive ending is almost unheard-of for an original property. What makes it even more enticing is that audiences don't have the slightest idea how the story will end: in the case of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, for example, moviegoers were generally aware that Anakin Skywalker was on his way to becoming Darth Vader.
There's an obvious void in this installment without Heath Ledger's Joker, so the second main tenant of the campaign has been an emphasis on the conflict between Batman and Bane. Many billboards position the two foes facing off against each other, and commercials and trailers tease plenty of physical and mental battles. A hero is only as strong as his villain, and in this case Warner Bros. has done a nice job raising a B-level villain up close to A-level status.