All this, while Ledger was still alive.
Now the Batman archfiend stands as Ledger's next-to-last performance. And while it's not the first, "The Dark Knight" has already emerged as arguably the biggest movie featuring a posthumous role in Hollywood history.
Yet none had the magnitude of a comic-book franchise with an illustrious 70-year history, and movies in those eras did not arrive with the fanfare of today. Certainly none had the advance word of a delirious, demented turn by an actor completely reimagining one of Hollywood's greatest villains.
"It was punk, it was 'A Clockwork Orange,' it was druggie. It was this kind of fantastic, anarchic look to him. This character who had absolutely no rules whatsoever," said Christian Bale, who returns as rich guy Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego Batman. "That's not like any Joker I've ever seen before, what I saw Heath do."
As the sequel to the 2005 blockbuster "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight" already was one of this year's most-anticipated films. Opening July 18, the film's must-see status has only risen since Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose Jan. 22.
"More people will come to see it because of his death," said Bill Ramey, founder of the fan Web site Batman-on-Film.com. "No doubt some people may be apprehensive about seeing it because there may be a little ghoulish factor about it. But I'm betting that more people now kind of look at it as a tribute to him, and the biggest tribute you could give someone is to go see it and enjoy his performance."
When Dean died in a car wreck in 1955, studio executives lamented "there goes the movie," figuring audiences would be scared away from his final two films, said Wes Gehring, who teaches film at Ball State University. To the contrary: "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" were huge hits.
In today's anything-goes celebrity climate, it's doubtful anyone in Hollywood ever felt Ledger's death might hurt the box-office prospects for "The Dark Knight," Gehring said.
"It's a tacky thing to say, but what would have been a negative in the past now could be a positive thing," Gehring said. "I think we've done a flip-flop on pop culture. Now it might actually be a selling point for a movie where you say, 'So and so's dead. Let's go see his movie.' What might have been a hindrance in 1935 now won't be a problem."
In the days after Ledger's death, fans debated how it might affect the film.
Would distributor Warner Bros. make changes or even delay its release? Would the advertising shift away from its early focus on Ledger's demonic Joker and his mocking taunt, "Why so serious?" Would the Joker's ghastly persona disturb fans? Would viewers be able to set thoughts of his death aside as they watch his performance?
"Of course, you find more poignancy in moments, and I'm very, very aware he's not here with us," said Bale in an interview shortly after the film's opening segment in which Ledger's Joker orchestrates a bank heist was screened in mid-March at ShoWest, a convention for theater owners. It was the first time Bale had seen the sequence, and Ledger's death weighed on his mind.
"I can't deny that kind of threw me watching that just now," Bale said. "You can't help but have that different feeling when I'm viewing it, especially since he's somebody I was in touch with until just recently and believed would be a future friend."
Director Christopher Nolan, who revived the franchise with "Batman Begins," said he expects the performance will speak for itself, that morbid thoughts of Ledger's death will not affect the way audiences view "The Dark Knight."
"Having seen the movie myself in such heightened and tragic circumstances, no, I don't think that's going to be the case," Nolan said. "What I found in watching the movie myself is that you're not looking at the actor, you're not looking at the friend, you're not looking at the colleague. You're looking at the Joker. ... He inhabits this character, and it's an extraordinary icon, so it's easy to enjoy it on that level, just as a great piece of acting."