The Dark Knight Rises Survives the Darkest Night in U.S. Movie History

While grieving over the Aurora killings, Americans still flocked to theaters, giving the finale to the Batman trilogy the all-time top opening gross of any 2-D film

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Warner Bros. / Everett

“The climax to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated movie event,” I wrote in this column a week ago about The Dark Knight Rises. “Expect pandemonium at the multiplexes next weekend.”

Pandemonium, of grotesque and tragic dimensions, did erupt at a Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, with a toll of 12 dead and 58 wounded. The anticipatory fever for a summer blockbuster was replaced by a sickness in the gut as people mourned the lives lost in a psycho spree that, for Americans, had an all-too-familiar ring.

The slaughter of moviegoers might be a unique event, but the dreadful contours of the shooting replicated those in Oklahoma City, at Virginia Tech and, 13 years ago, at Columbine High School in Littleton, 19 miles from Aurora. We are sadly schooled in these atrocities, and have become educated in responding to them. Even as we grieve, we look for a distraction — something to fill the holes in our hearts. We go to the movies.

(MORE: Bane for Real: How the Aurora Killings Shattered Movie Fantasy)

For a century, the movie theater has been the place people go to if they want to escape the crimes and cares of real life. Over the past weekend, Americans proved they still believed in that refuge. Business was up about 35% from the same weekend a year ago, when Captain America: The First Avenger and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 were the main attractions and no flesh-and-blood villain staged his own action scene using the audience as his victims.

Most of last weekend’s tally came from TDKR, which earned $160.9 million at North American theaters, according to the final figures, issued late Monday; the major studios and the computing firm Rentrak said they delayed the usual Sunday announcement “out of respect for the victims and their families.” That total was the all-time highest for a movie released in 2-D — just beating the $158.4 million earned four years ago by the DC Comics Batman predecessor The Dark Knight — but below the Harry Potter finale’s $169.2 million and the current topper, the Marvel comics epic The Avengers, at $207.4 million. (The Avengers earned 52% of its weekend gross with higher-priced tickets for 3-D screenings, which spiked the total by $30 million to $40 million over what the same number of customers would have paid for a 2-D version.)

For TDKR, $30.6 million of the booty came from the midnight shows, before the Aurora event toxified the climate. Usually the opening-weekend revenue for a superhero movie is front-loaded, beginning huge and diminishing significantly by Sunday. But the daily grosses for TDKR were remarkably similar: $46.1 million on Friday (excluding the earnings from the midnight shows), $44.9 million on Saturday and $40.2 million on Sunday.

People went to the film — perhaps in slightly fewer numbers than predicted — and they kept going. And if, in some cities, a visit to the local movie house resembled the check-in procedure at an airport, with the presence of security guards and possible pat-downs, so be it. Whatever goblins might impede the attention of the crowds trying to concentrate on the film, audiences loved TDKR, giving it a golden A rating on CinemaScore.

(MORE: Dark Knight Sequel: Did Christopher Nolan Pave Way to Something More Cryptic?)

Also open in 17 foreign territories, the movie earned $88 million, with the U.K. accounting for $22.5 million and South Korea $15.5 million. The international figures will swell as 40 more markets are added this coming weekend.

It’s too soon to guess whether TDKR will eventually exceed the $1.001 billion worldwide gross of The Dark Knight, which was just the fourth movie to pass the billion-dollar mark (after Titanic in 1998, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004 and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in 2007). But the dreadful Aurora assault is unlikely to have a material effect on the new movie’s final total.

Not that that matters to the families who lost loved ones in an obscene killing spree that, for a long time, will link The Dark Knight Rises to a man named James Holmes and to the notion of the U.S. as an arsenal for the gun-crazy.

Here are the Sunday estimates of last weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. The Dark Knight Rises, $160.9 million, first weekend
2. Ice Age: Continental Drift, $20.4 million; $88.9 million, second week
3. The Amazing Spider-Man, $10.9 million; $228.6 million, third week
4. Ted, $10 million; $180.4 million, fourth week
5. Brave, $6 million; $208.8 million, fifth week
6. Magic Mike, $4,3 million; $102 million, fourth week
7. Savages, $3.4 million; $40.1 million, third week
8. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection, $2.2 million; $60.3 million, fourth week
9. Moonrise Kingdom, $1.8 million; $36.1 million, ninth week
10. To Rome with Love, $1.4 million; $11.1 million, fifth week