It's the beginning of the end for Batman's days in the movie theater.
On Thursday at one minute after midnight, the Caped Crusader returned to the big screen in The Dark Knight Rises, the last in director Christopher Nolan's epic trilogy starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Batman.
Estimates vary as to the size of the crowd at midnight showings, though we know that AMC Entertainment pre-sold 100,000 tickets. And what should have been a celebratory event took a tragic turn when a gunman opened fire at the The Dark Knight Rises opening in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 and wounding 58.
The news dominating headlines certainly affected fan turnout for the latest Batman installment. Still, the recent slew of big-budget, superhero blockbusters has paid off for the multiplexes. The enthusiasm has led to a rally in shares of Regal Entertainment (RGC), up 17% year-to-date, and Cinemark Holdings (CNK), up more than 31% over the same period.
And as good as business might be for theater operators, producer Warner Studios and parent company Time Warner (TWX) should benefit most if The Dark Knight Rises proves to be as popular as its predecessor, 2008's The Dark Knight, which took in more than $1 billion worldwide.
Warner's Dynamic Duo
Between Nolan's Batman franchise and the Harry Potter series based on author J.K. Rowling's best-selling books, Warner has managed to rake in more than $9 billion in global box office receipts over the past decade.
Is there any character or cast of characters big enough to help fill that soon-to-be gaping hole left by Batman?
Superman might be first off your tongue -- and understandably so. Henry Cavill will don the red cape next summer for a reboot titled Man of Steel. DC Comics' original character is known worldwide. Trouble is that he doesn't always connect with audiences: 2006's Superman Returns managed just $391 million in gross receipts globally after spending $270 million to produce the film.
The truth about comics -- and comic book movies -- is that Hollywood studios have a way of keeping their legends alive even as they create new ones, enriching their investors in the process. Here are four candidates to take the mantel at the movieplex:
Green Arrow. A darker version of the battling bowman is already scheduled to appear on Warner's CW network this fall in an action series titled Arrow. If it does well, expect Warner executives to consider bringing the emerald archer to the multiplex. Sharp-witted with a righteous anger that burns for justice, Green Arrow might be just the remedy for audiences longing for more of the Caped Crusader.
The Flash. The scarlet speedster has the blessing of DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, who has said publicly he'd like to see The Flash in a movie, but he also has a rocky history trying to break out of comic books. CBS television's The Flash ran for one season in 1990 but couldn't capture a big enough audience to stay on the air. Two decades worth of improvements in special effects might make the difference in depicting his abilities.
The Justice Society of America. Taken from the Golden Age of the 1940s, DC's first superhero team would play off our fascination with and respect for Word War II vets -- the same effect that helped lift Walt Disney's (DIS) Captain America: The First Avenger last year -- while setting the stage for films featuring the modern versions of similar DC characters, including Hawkman, the Atom, the original Green Lantern, and the Flash. Think of it as a sneaky way to help establish the sort of character universe that Marvel Studios has now with The Avengers. (A job that the failed Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds, was supposed to perform.)
Wonder Woman. A woman replacing Batman? Why the heck not? The Amazon Princess has been a beloved character in the comics for decades and inspired a hit '70s TV show starring Lynda Carter. Update the story and put her in a modern outfit that makes sense (like, you know, this one), and DC should see plenty of guys and gals turning out at the box office.
Rebooting the Reboot
No matter who stands in for the Dark Knight over the next few summers, don't be surprised if, in the end, Batman's box office replacement is ... Batman.
Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Time Warner and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and past columns. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney.