Holy Conundrum Batman! How Does Blockbuster Handle Star's Death?

When actor James Dean died in a car wreck in 1955, studio executives wrung their hands and moaned "there goes the movie," believing audiences would be scared away from seeing the two films he'd completed shooting just before his death.

In today's darkly cynical, celebrity-obsessed culture, Wes Gehring, a film professor at Ball State University in Indiana and author of a book on Dean, believes it's highly doubtful that anyone at Warner Bros. would ever have said such a thing about "The Dark Knight," after Heath Ledger, who portrays a disturbingly deranged Joker, died in January from an accidental prescription drug overdose.

"We are a much more cynically humorous world," Gehring told ABCNews.com. "A tragedy happens and it's on the Internet in two minutes followed by all kinds of jokes. These are macabre, perverse times, where anything goes."

Heath Ledger
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That's only going to help, not hurt, "The Dark Knight," the next installment in the Batman franchise, when it opens in theaters July 18, Gehring said.

"There's the titillation factor of seeing a performer who is no longer with us," he said. "That would drive the added perk to this particular movie. Ledger plays a darkly comic character who almost supersedes Batman. How ironically fitting that, from word-of-mouth, he's given a great performance and he died. Nobody is going to think twice about seeing it."

From the marketing of the film, it would appear that the studio is not terribly concerned that audiences might be turned off by seeing a dead actor. According to Chris Thilk, who writes a blog about film marketing on his Web site moviemarketingmadness.com, Warner has, for the most part, carried on with the campaign it started, with Ledger's character, the Joker, at the center.

heath ledger as the joker
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"You definitely have to give props to Warner for saying 'in for a penny, in for a pound,'" Thilk said. "This was the movie they were given and the situation they were in and they said, 'Let's just go for it.'"

Warner Bros. declined to comment on the marketing of the movie.

Steve Zeitchik, a senior writer at The Hollywood Reporter, said he does not believe the studio did anything differently to market this film than it would have done if Ledger were still alive.

"This is as straightforward a marketing campaign as you can get, with added sensitivity," Zeitchik told ABCNews.com.

Early on, when the 28-year-old actor was still alive, the marketing campaign hinged on Ledger's ghoulish clown image with his smudged raccoon eyes and blood-red lipsticked grin. Starting last September, visitors to the Web site whysoserious.com, named after one of the Joker's famous lines, could follow the Joker's trail by sending an e-mail or text message.

After Ledger died, Warner put up a memorial photo of Leger on its official Web site for the movie. The Joker campaign took a break, and the studio released a statement saying it had already planned to shift the focus to Batman and the other characters from the film, which Thilk said was done to head off any perception that it was avoiding showing images of Ledger.

Nonetheless, the Joker was still everywhere on the Internet, Thilk said, and the public's reaction was not at all negative. By April, the Joker had returned to an active role in the online campaign.

In the trailers and television commercials, Ledger also appears prominently.

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