The show starts at midnight tonight, but Dan Miller of Bloomington reserved his tickets for "The Dark Knight" in April.

The 23-year-old fan's anticipation of the latest Batman sequel has been building for more than a year, thanks to a viral marketing campaign including teaser YouTube clips and fake "Gotham City" online newspapers. Miller will be in line tonight at the Great Clips IMAX in Apple Valley, one of 1,700 theaters nationwide to offer midnight showings of the film, starring Christian Bale as Batman and the late Heath Ledger as the Joker.

"I became immediately hooked on this film and everything about it as soon as I saw the first released image of the Joker," Miller said. "I don't think there's a way it can be a failure."

The unusually high number of midnight showings are just the beginning. "Dark Knight," scheduled so far to open in about 4,300 theaters, could break the record held by "Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World's End," which opened in 4,362 theaters in May 2007. Only about 15 films in history have opened in 4,000 or more venues.

Chad Hartigan, an analyst with California-based Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box office releases, said "Dark Knight" is on pace for the widest release ever. It will likely surpass "Batman Begins," which brought in more than $200 million at the domestic box office after a $49 million opening in June 2005.

Regal Cinemas Eagan 16 has added post-midnight screenings about every half hour through 6 a.m. Friday. The AMC theater chain has sold out half of its 20 area midnight screenings. More showtimes may be added, and AMC reports "unprecedented" sales for IMAX screens.

The Great Clips IMAX at the Minnesota Zoo is expecting a sellout weekend for its 580-seat theater, said Karin Snortland, theater director. The midnight show is sold out, and the recently added 3:15 a.m. option could follow suit.

"We're all abuzz here," Snortland said, noting that the theater had sold tickets to "The Dark Knight" further in advance than any other film to date.

Fans have eaten up, literally, a yearlong marketing campaign that has included tie-in pizzas from Domino's, disguised as "Gotham City Pizzeria," as well as phony YouTube campaign commercials and Comcast mini-movies and behind-the-scenes footage.

High interest also surrounds Ledger's performance as the Joker, following the 28-year-old star's accidental overdose death in January.

"Watching the trailers, I've just become a huge fan of [Ledger's] performance. And I haven't even seen it yet," said Barrett Goetz, 22, of Maplewood, who plans on arriving five hours before the midnight show to revel with other fans. He calls the Joker his favorite pop-entertainment villain.

At the online service, "Dark Knight" has sold more than three times as many advance tickets as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," and more than twice as many as "Spider-Man 3," at the same point in the sales cycle. At the competing site Fandango, "Dark Knight" grabbed 90 percent of sales in the last week and has sold out more than 700 shows nationwide. In a Fandango poll, 38 percent of ticket buyers said they intended to take some or all of Friday off from work to see the film.

"It'll be interesting to see if July 18 turns out to be 'Dark Friday' at offices," said Fandango spokesman Harry Medved. "We're expecting coffee sales to rise dramatically Friday."

Tony Gonzalez • 612-673-7415