Christian Bale as Batman in scene from movie "The Dark Knight Rises", Warner Bros Pictures
LOS ANGELES - By midnight Thursday, The Dark Knight Rises had already won the box office weekend and entered the record books.
A few minutes past midnight, no one cared.
The Colorado theater massacre that killed 12 people and wounded 58 others froze Hollywood, which, in a rare show of studio unity, declined to report weekend ticket sales, a modern-day first for the industry.
But the bigger question, analysts say, is The Dark Knight's legacy, which some fans already considered cursed because of Heath Ledger's accidental overdose death in 2008.
"There will be a dark shadow hanging over this (trilogy) for as long as people remember the massacre," says Scott Mantz, film producer and critic for Access Hollywood. "And people aren't going to forget."
Although distributor Warner Bros. said it would not release official box office numbers until Monday, analysts at ticket-tracking firm Exhibitor Relations estimate the film will debut at $150 million to $170 million, thanks primarily to online and pre-show sales. The estimate comes from the film's midnight screenings, which collected $30.6 million, the second highest on record.
On Friday evening, the studio announced it would not report weekend grosses out of respect for the victims. On Saturday, Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, Sony and Universal followed suit.
"You have to give the studios credit, especially Warner Bros.," Mantz says. "They're having to write the book on how to handle something like this, because no one has had to."
Though analysts expect Rises to be one of the year's biggest movies commercially - and an Oscar front-runner for best picture - they wonder whether the film's achievements will fade beneath its real-life tragedies.
"Batman was already holding one giant IOU from the (motion picture) academy for The Dark Knight for a best-picture nomination," says Tom O'Neil, author of Movie Awards and head of awards handicapping site Goldderby.com.
O'Neil says that the shooting "cements the Oscar talk," particularly after the movie's strong reviews. Outrage was so vocal after The Dark Knight's best-picture snub (Ledger won posthumously for best supporting actor) prompted the academy to double its field from five to 10 candidates to acknowledge more popular fare.
"If it doesn't get in now, there would be a mutiny," O'Neil says. "It will face fierce competition, but right now, considering the acclaim and how the franchise has been treated in the past, it certainly makes it a clear front-runner."
Even a best-picture win, though, won't unshackle the franchise from its macabre realities. Some comic-book fans still refer to the "Superman curse," so coined after George Reeves' suicide and Christopher Reeve's paralyzing accident. The comic-book movie The Crow earned a similar moniker after star Brandon Lee died on set in 1993.
Mantz says that because theater shootings are so rare, the movies "could be remembered for the violence because it happened where we go to be safe. The Dark Knight is always going to have a tragic element to it, which isn't fair, because they're the best comic-book movies ever made."
Whether fans can separate Batman's world from the real one becomes clearer over the next two weeks, says Jeff Bock, Exhibitor Relations box office president.
"It will all come down to where people are still interested after what they've read in the news," he said. "Heath Ledger's death was different, because people could pay homage to a great performance. Here, the violence and darkness is so real, it may be tough for people to separate from that. We don't know what to expect because we've never seen this happen in a movie, the one place we still felt safe."
By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY