"The Dark Knight" set a box office record for a midnight debut, bringing in $18.5 million Friday from its midnight screening in 3,040 theaters, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers.
That bested the 2005 performance of "Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith," which took in $16.9 million at its debut. "The Dark Knight" figure did not include any of its 3 a.m. or 6 a.m. showings.
As die-hard fans wearing Batman gear headed to thousands of sold-out 12:01 a.m. screenings on Friday, industry watchers predicted "The Dark Knight" would pass the $100 million mark on its opening weekend.
Gitesh Pandya, who runs the Web site boxofficeguru.com, said the film will easily break the $100 million mark and will definitely be one of the top five openings of all time.
"It may hit the top three — anything is possible," he told FOXNews.com. "Anticipation is as high as I've ever seen."
Photo Essay: Heath Ledger as the Joker
Photo Essay: 'Dark Knight' Premiere
"Dark Knight" will hope to beat the record debut of Sony Pictures Entertainment's "Spider-Man 3" in 2007, which reached $151 million.
But Pandya doubts that "Knight" will top "Spider-Man 3," which was shown on more screens and was more kid-friendly.
"This is a little darker and violent," he said.
Thousands of midnight showtimes sold out across the country as the movie opened early Friday morning, and online ticket seller Fandango predicts Friday will be the biggest ticket-selling day in company history.
The movie, playing in a record 4,300 theaters, was Fandango's second best-selling movie in pre-sales — "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" was No. 1 — and made up 94 percent of this week's Fandango ticket sales.
Across North America, more screenings were being added to meet demand, Finke reported.
The popularity of what seems like the umpteenth Batman movie seems to hinge on a confluence of cultural currents, not the least of which is the lingering grief surrounding the accidental overdose death of 28-year-old star Heath Ledger in January.
His twisted, riveting portrayal of one of Batman's most diabolical enemies has drawn rave reviews and talk of a posthumous Oscar.
The buzz is inspiring "that kind of adulation you'd expect for a rock star," says Rick Butler, chief operating officer of Fandango. "It opens up the audience to non-Batman fans, who are going to the movies tonight to pay tribute to Heath Ledger."
The movie also features a strong cast, with Christian Bale as Batman, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. And director Christopher Nolan was the director of the enormously successful "Batman Begins."
Even without seeing the film, fans like Shannon Kleehaas, a junior at Queens College in New York, are already rooting for Ledger to win a posthumous Academy Award.
“I hope he gets the Oscar. From the trailers alone, it looks as if he did a fantastic job," she recently told FOXNews.com. "All the hype about his performance has built up my excitement to see the movie, and I’m impatiently counting the days."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.