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

The late Heath Ledger's turn in "Batman" has critics buzzing and execs puzzled.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 7:24 AM

July 2, 2008— -- 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."

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.

"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.