'Dark Knight Rises' Production Kicks Off With First Official Photo

Photo released by Warner Bros. features heavily muscled villain Bane, played by 'Inception' vet Tom Hardy.

Better late than never, right? We had hoped and assumed Christopher Nolan's third "Batman" flick was going to kick off production not too long after "The Dark Knight" wrapped up its record-breaking run in 2008. Instead, the filmmaker pushed forward with "Inception," and as even the most diehard Bat-fan must surely admit, Nolan's twisty dream-world thriller was quite a fine cinematic diversion.

Now though, principal photography on Nolan's third and reportedly final Caped Crusader flick — "The Dark Knight Rises" — has officially begun, with the production expected to span three continents, from India, Scotland and England to Pittsburgh, New York and Los Angeles. And to celebrate this highly anticipated beginning, Warner Bros. has released the film's first official photo and fired up a viral marketing campaign.

The photo features Bane, the heavily muscled villain played by "Inception" vet Tom Hardy. With Bane bathed in shadows, his back to the camera and a freaky mask on his head, the pic offers an excellent introduction to a character not very well known to the masses but one who is cherished by comic-book fans.

The Bane photo was the payoff of a brand-new viral effort that began with a muffled audio file on the film's official website. Savvy technophiles were able to analyze the audio and discover a Twitter hashtag (#thefirerises) and account, which in turn led to the discovery of a hidden image at Thedarkknightrises.com. Expect the marketing campaign to continue for quite a while — the film doesn't hit theaters until July 20, 2012.

"We're very much excited about really finishing a trilogy and giving a conclusion to our story," Nolan told us in February. "And that's what we're doing."

Check out everything we've got on "The Dark Knight Rises."

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