'Dark Knight' Gets New Leading Lady

When Katie Holmes turned down her role in "The Dark Knight," many people asked: Why?

A revival franchise like Batman, under the auspicious pairing of director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale, seemed a no-brainer for box-office success. And early watchers said Heath Ledger would be perfect in the role of The Joker — a belief that has only gained traction since the unforeseen death of the young star in January.

The Batman franchise is dominated by the Caped Crusader and his arch-villain foes, but could a leading-lady casting switch — with Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Holmes as Rachel Dawes — raise eyebrows?

"I don't think people care. It was interesting that she was cast at all," Stephanie Zacharek, senior entertainment writer/film critic for Salon.com, told ABCNews.com. "Not to cast any aspersions on Katie Holmes, but [Gyllenhaal] is more of a straightforward girl. [Holmes] doesn't have the underlying prickliness that Maggie Gyllenhaal has."

For an actor who has a predilection for darker roles, such as a receptionist with a fondness for S&M in "Secretary," and under-the-radar indies such as "SherryBaby," Gyllenhaal, 30, has something more going for her than a famous little brother. And early word is that she uses her acting range in "The Dark Knight."

"I think she's doing the full pirouette for what she was given [in 'The Dark Knight'] and what the role demands of her," Zacharek said.

Before Gyllenhaal took on the role Holmes created in 2005, she sought out her predecessor's approval.

"I wanted to be sure, first of all, that I had her blessing," she told The New York Post. "And I was assured that I did. I'm a big fan of hers. I think she was really great."

Not only did Gyllenhaal say she got approval from Holmes, but she also has received pre-opening critical commendations for her more grounded interpretation of the character.

What remains to be seen is the verdict of movie audiences, never shy about vocalizing their opinions when a new actor takes over a role after a high-profile star drops out. "The Dark Knight" opens today.

A secondary role like Rachel Dawes is easily replaceable, said Brandon Gray, president and publisher of tracking firm BoxOfficeMojo.com. He noted that the Batman franchise has a history of replacing the lead role, "so in that context, it's even more expected or forgivable.

"[But] it would be off-putting if they replaced Christian Bale at this point," he said.

Gerry Gladston, co-owner of Midtown Comics in New York City, said that comic-book fans are probably some of the most anxious fans of "The Dark Knight," and they have anointed Bale the preferred Batman incarnation of recent years.

"What Michael Keaton and [TV's] Adam West were doing in their era was great, but Christian Bale has an edge and authenticity," Gladston said. "[Comic-book fans] were very happy with 'Batman Begins.'"

Gladston said he has not heard much commotion about the Rachel Dawes character switch.

"It was a small role in the first movie, and it didn't have that much of an impact," he said. "But that could change with this movie."

Gladston knows of no tie-in products made in Holmes' likeness as Rachel Dawes — nor, so far, of Gyllenhaal in the role.

"But anything with The Joker, of course, with Heath Ledger" has been a big seller, he said.

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