July 18, 2008 — -- 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.
When actors such as Holmes are busy with other things — a Scientologist husband, a new baby, a new career direction — that also can be a reason to want to make a switch.
During an interview earlier this year with MTV News for "Mad Money," the comedy Holmes opted to star in rather than "The Dark Knight," the 29-year-old actress said she had no regrets turning down the role of Rachel Dawes.
"I had a great experience working with Christopher Nolan [and] I'm sure it's going to be a great movie," she said. "I chose to do this movie ['Mad Money'], and I'm really proud of it. I was so excited to work with Diane [Keaton] and Queen Latifah and [director] Callie [Khouri]. It was so much fun to create this character. I wish them the best for the summer. I'm excited to see it."
"Mad Money" earned $20.7 million at the box office.
Stepping into a supporting role certainly is easier than taking on the weight of established franchises, often with Oscar-winning performances.
Such was the case when Julianne Moore took on the role of Clarice Sterling in 2001's "Hannibal," perfected by Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning performance 10 years earlier in "The Silence of the Lambs."
Zacharek acknowledged that replacing an actor in an established franchise would be a challenge for any performer.
"You have to be proprietary of any role you take on. You're the one who's going to be hung out to dry if it doesn't work," she said. "I imagine it's a difficult thing, maybe more so with Julianne Moore and Jodie Foster. You're kind of stepping into her shoes, whereas with something like the Bond character — nobody wants to be the worst Bond."
But changing the lead actor in the 007 franchise is to be expected, said Box Office Mojo's Gray.
"That's how they reinvigorate the franchise," he said. "It's about the character and the overall story line rather than the actor."
Choosing a new Bond is no easy task. Some fans of Roger Moore and Sean Connery never truly grew to embrace Pierce Brosnan.
The "new" Bond, British actor Daniel Craig, underwent an online thrashing when he was chosen to play Agent 007, even inspiring the Web site www.danielcraigisnotbond.com. But his first outing as the dashing secret agent in 2006's "Casino Royale" changed many naysayers' minds.
Salon's Zacharek also was originally skeptical when Craig was cast, describing him as "scrappy ... a street cretin Bond."
But then "I fell in love with him," she said. "He takes the basic template and brings something to it," including looking great in a suit and lots of physical action.
"That's what an actor has to do. You don't want to be disrespectful, but you do have to look at the foundation and see what you need to take of the previous characterization," Zacharek said. "I don't think there's any other way."
While Bond has a history rooted in lead-character changes, the Jack Ryan franchise, based on the best-selling Tom Clancy books, has more to do with the actor in the role. After Alec Baldwin abandoned the franchise following "The Hunt for Red October," in 1990, the studio instead used Harrison Ford's popularity to market the next films, 1992's "Patriot Games" and 1994's "Clear and Present Danger," Gray said.
"The Jack Ryan character doesn't have as much stock as a Batman or a Bond," he added.
With the extraordinary media coverage and early gushing movie reviews, "The Dark Night" is expected to do handsomely at the box office this weekend, eclipsing the $48.7 million of its predecessor.
"There are several reasons why this movie should exceed 'Batman Begins,' and the number-one reason is 'Batman Begins,'" Box Office Mojo's Gray said. "It's a franchise resuscitator after 'Batman & Robin' and 'Batman Forever.'"
Despite early reports of breaking opening weekend records — "Spider-Man 3's" $151.1 million windfall in 2007 currently holds the No. 1 spot — Gray said that expectations for the new Batman movie are "unrealistic."
"The media are in a tiffy over 'The Dark Knight,'" he added.
Historically, he said, only one movie has had an opening weekend of more than $100 million in July, 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," and that had a lot to do with it being a popular, kid-friendly sequel.
Gray said that "The Dark Knight" can fully expect to out-gross "Batman Begins" because of curiosity after Ledger's death and reports of his performance.
For moviegoers, it won't be the last chance to see Ledger on the big screen.
His last movie, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," to be released in 2009, will call upon high-profile actors — reportedly Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law — to step into Ledger's shoes in different worlds. It is, after all, a fantasy film.