Anticipating the release of "The Dark Knight Rises" has included a series of highs and lows, and the new poster featuring Bane walking away from a broken Batman mask can be safely filed under the "highs."

To be honest, Operation Early Bird had me down. It was my own fault for getting my hopes up on a viral campaign that has done nothing to engage a highly suggestible fanbase. Seriously, if you tell us to wear jockstraps and protective cups over our mouths and parade around town as Bane to unveil the trailer online, we'll do it. Instead, you lead us to a world map and an event website? I didn't even have to pretend to live in a fictional city and confuse pedestrians. You just handed it to us. Granted, I'm excited to see the prologue early, but I would have preferred to earn it.

But then, this stark and brilliantly dark image picked my spirits right back up. I can't imagine a Batman fan that looked at the new poster and felt anything short of childlike glee. The design could have been lifted straight from a classic issue of the comic books, yet it still feels true to Christopher Nolan's Gotham and his series. Every aspect of the poster leaves no doubt that there are enormous stakes here. It's no longer about topping "The Dark Knight."

Taking the new poster, the first teaser poster with the crumbling Gotham and the feature in Empire magazine all into consideration, everything we know about "The Dark Knight Rises" points to a very clear tone and idea of what this movie will be. In his many recent interviews, Gary Oldman has said that Nolan is too clever to make a movie to just make a movie. Until recently, we had not seen enough evidence to prove otherwise. Of course, there had to be a follow-up to "The Dark Knight," but how was it going to top it? Was Bane really the villain to follow Heath Ledger's Joker? Without any hint of what this movie might be about, "The Dark Knight Rises" was going to be just another Batman movie. Nolan was going to have to do something dramatically different and unexpected to get out from under the shadow of his previous Batman movie.

But now we have this. "The Legend Ends." The first poster set the tone. Gotham falls apart around Batman's symbol, the only source of light. Then Empire tells us that Bane will be a true force of destruction, and in the new poster, he walks about from the destroyed mask. "The Dark Knight Rises" adds a new element to the series that most of us didn't know was missing until now. Even when Joker had the upper hand in "The Dark Knight," no one ever doubted that Batman would not prevail and save the citizens of Gotham. There was little threat of any real danger because Batman saves the day. Yes, Rachel died, and Harvey went over to the dark side. The tragedies of the series until now were personal and intimate. That is no longer the case.

Bane changes all of this. As the first villain to challenge Batman physically, he is capable of a whole lot more. The first poster hinted at Gotham's destruction, and in the new poster, he's destroyed Batman. Nolan and Bale have made their intentions to leave Batman behind them clear, so all bets are off. "The Dark Rises" marks the first time that the threat is there in a big way. Gotham may fall into bedlam, and the one thing that's never been possible before could happen.

For the first time in the series, we have to seriously ask, "Will Bruce Wayne make it out alive?" This is by no means a new question, and there is a reason people have come to ask the same question. Nolan has earned an unprecedented amount of trust from a movie studio. The man made an action movie about dreams and ruled the box office. If anyone can kill off Bruce Wayne on the big screen and get away with it, it's Nolan. He's a storyteller, and if the story of "The Dark Knight Rises" is best served by killing the Caped Crusader, Nolan will do it.

But how could they kill Batman? Easy, you can't kill Batman. You can kill Bruce Wayne. If "Rises" goes down this path, expect that to be the message. The idea was there even in "Batman Begins," which we know will factor heavily into the story and theme this time around. If Bruce Wayne does bite it, someone will pick up the mantle, and "Rises" has been kind enough to offer the perfect candidate: John Blake, good-guy beat cop. He's young and passionate and just the man for the job. He'd also make a fine Robin. Just saying.

Now I want to hear from you. Do you think Bruce Wayne will die in "The Dark Knight Rises"? Let me know on Twitter via @KPSull, and we'll discuss next week.

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