UK film magazine Empire has some tantalizing early promo shots from the set of The Dark Knight Rises, the next and final film in writer/director Christopher Nolan's hugely popular Batman cycle. The photographs offer our cleanest looks yet at Batman and Bane as they will appear in the film, whose plot remains largely unknown despite a seemingly ceaseless stream of leaked set photos and mobile phone video. However, the magazine comes with new remarks from Nolan that indicate what for many fans will constitute a major spoiler with respect to the film's timeline. Read on at your own risk."[The Dark Knight Rises] is really all about finishing Batman and Bruce Wayne's story," Nolan told Empire. "We left him in a very precarious place. Perhaps surprisingly for some people, our story picks up quite a bit later, eight years after The Dark Knight. So he's an older Bruce Wayne; he's not in a great state."

That the new film takes place nearly a decade after the last one lends some massive dramatic weight to the Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer, in which a hospitalized Commissioner James Gordon says, "The Batman has to come back."

It would seem that Wayne has indeed retired following the traumatic events of The Dark Knight, in which he and Gordon conspired to make it appear that Batman had murdered District Attorney Harvey Dent, who'd succumbed to madness and rage following horrific disfigurement and the death of his fiancee. Batman and Gordon felt it necessary to protect the irretrievably corrupted Dent's reputation and save Gotham City from a huge psychic cost. If the photographs in Empire are anything to go on, the book is not yet closed on the Harvey Dent situation, as we can see the villain Bane displaying to what we assume is some kind of audience a photograph of the late District Attorney. Perhaps Bane, who in the comics was Batman's intellectual equal, knows the truth about Dent?

"He's brutal. He's a terrorist. A really horrible piece of work," said Bane actor Tom Hardy. "He's a big dude who's incredibly clinical, in the fact that he has a result-based and oriented fighting style. It's not about fighting. It's about carnage. The style is heavy-handed, heavy-footed, it's nasty. Anything from small-joint manipulation to crushing skulls, crushing rib cages, stamping on shins and knees and necks and collarbones and snapping heads off and tearing his fists through chests, ripping out spinal columns. He is a terrorist in mentality as well as brutal action."

Nolan also discussed the villain, who was created by Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan in the early 1990s as a villain who rivaled Batman's intelligence but surpassed him physically. "So when you're looking to continue the story – in this case finish Bruce Wayne and Batman's story, as we see it – then you certainly don't want a watered-down version of a character you've already done," the director said, possibly referencing the Joker. "You want a different archetype. What Bane represents in the comics is the ultimate physical villain."

In the comics, Bane's advantage over Batman came courtesy of Venom, a steroid-like drug that was injected directly into his brain. Venom amplified Bane's strength to the degree that he snapped Batman's back like a twig. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane still operates with the assistance of chemicals, but costume designer Lindy Hemming's remarks suggest that Venom is not in play. "[Bane] was injured early in his story. He's suffering from pain and he needs gas to survive. He cannot survive the pain without the mask," she said. "The pipes from the mask go back along his jaw line and feed into the thing at the back where there are two canisters of whatever it is... the anesthetic."

Finally, with respect to Batman -- who, again, is eight years older in the new film -- Christian Bale told Empire, "He has to answer the question: how long do you allow pain to dominate your life?"

The Dark Knight Rises opens July 20, 2012. The seven-minute prologue can be seen in IMAX screenings of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, opening December 16.

The referenced issue of Empire is on sale now in the United Kingdom.

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