Jeff Jensen
January 13, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

In the mythology of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Batman films, the craggy bowels beneath Wayne Manor served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, offering sanctuary to runaway slaves, before becoming the hideout for a costumed vigilante. The Batcave was a key location in Batman Begins and went unseen during The Dark Knight, but it returns in The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final installment in the Inception director’s trilogy of Batflicks. The set — which occupies most of a massive L.A. soundstage — is extraordinary for being exactly what it needs to be. Just a big old cave. One with a working waterfall that feeds a subterranean lake, as well as a concrete platform that rises up from the watery deep and hides secret plastic cabinetry that can pop up from the floor with the press of a button.

One of these clear boxes contains Bruce Wayne’s Batsuit, and during a break in between shots, Christian Bale stands alone on the set, parked right in front of that costume. He adjusts the cowl. He straightens the belt. But for the most part, Bale keeps his arms folded and just stares at it. Months later, the 37-year-old Oscar winner recalls taking a moment that he has rarely allowed himself during the last seven years of playing the defining superhero of our times. ”It’s a fascinating thing, that suit, don’t you think? And since I am generally within it, I actually don’t get to see it that often. Not the way that other people do.”

On July 20, our own fascination with the Caped Crusader — or at least this very successful cinematic incarnation of the 72-year-old pop icon — will come to a close when the year’s most anticipated film (sorry, Bilbo) reaches theaters. Commercial success is more or less a certainty, although much box office will be needed to recoup a reported, unconfirmed budget of $250 million. Everything else is a total mystery, including the plot and the matter of whether The Dark Knight Rises can be the pop culture phenomenon its predecessor was four years ago. The Dark Knight took in $533 million in the U.S. (the highest-grossing movie ever made by someone other than James Cameron), earned a posthumous Academy Award for the late Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance as the Joker, and minted a heady and edgy approach to superhero material that others have aspired to duplicate (see: Watchmen, Kick-Ass, the forthcoming Spider-Man reboot). The widely acclaimed movie also generated Best Picture buzz, and its failure to nab a nomination helped spur the Academy’s controversial decision to expand the field from 5 films to 10 in 2009. That’s one heck of an act to follow, yes? ”I can tell you the truth because I’m done with it: I felt immense pressure,” says Bale. ”And I think it’s a good pressure, because you owe it to the films — and the people’s expectations — to make great work.”

The Dark Knight Rises (which was written by Nolan with his brother Jonathan from a story conceived by the director and David S. Goyer) explores the ramifications of The Dark Knight‘s chilly ”heroic” climax. Your refresher: Crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) was successfully purging Gotham of corruption and crime until the Joker warped him into Two-Face, a hideously scarred amoral cop-killer. After Dent died, Batman took the blame for the DA’s crimes, hoping that if he preserved the sterling rep of Gotham’s ”white knight,” the public that believed in Dent the do-gooder would continue the work of saving Gotham. ”If Batman’s plan was to stamp out crime,” says Jonathan Nolan, ”the new movie asks: What if the plan actually worked?” And so the story begins eight years later, with Bruce Wayne still recovering from the physical and psychological traumas of his Joker/Two-Face double whammy, Batman still a reviled cultural scapegoat, and Gotham prospering from the deception. ”At least superficially,” says Christopher Nolan. ”The movie deals with the idea that if you’ve papered over the cracks, then you’re just solving problems in a way that may not hold for the future.”

While grappling with the repercussions of the conspiracy he hatched with Gotham’s police commissioner, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Bruce Wayne will have to repair his troubled relationships with faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and weapons master/vehicle designer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). New characters include a cop played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a Wayne Enterprises board member (fellow Inception alum Marion Cotillard). And then there are Batman’s mysterious adversaries: Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), a burglar who hides behind high-tech spyglasses that resemble feline ears when flipped up onto her forehead, and the brilliant, brawny terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), who hides behind a menacing and medically necessary mask. If you’ve seen the prologue (the first six minutes of the movie) and the trailer released last month, then you know that Bane and his followers are capable of extraordinary acts of mass destruction that suggest a movie of immense, IMAX-friendly scope (holy exploding football fields, Batman!). You may have also concluded that Bane will be almost impossible to understand, thanks to Hardy’s peculiar inflection and the muffle of Bane’s muzzle. Don’t sweat this, Nolan says. ”I think when people see the film, things will come into focus. Bane is very complex and very interesting, and when people see the finished film they will be very entertained by him.”

Like Nolan’s previous Batman movies, The Dark Knight Rises aspires to be an epic entertainment with a prickly political subtext. In seeking to craft ”a portrayal of a city and the different strata of people living in it,” Nolan and his brother were inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the silent cinema of Fritz Lang, arguably best known for the sci-fi landmark Metropolis. The globe-trotting production shot throughout 2011 in the United Kingdom, India, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Manhattan, including the Wall Street area. Nolan denies reports that he wanted to shoot the protesters who encamped in Zuccotti Park last fall for the film. He and his collaborators conceived Rises more than three years ago, he notes, and obtained their New York shooting permits ”nine months before Occupy Wall Street even existed.” Still, he’s not shying away from the implications. ”The truth is, we wanted to shoot on Wall Street for the same iconic reasons that the Occupy movement chose that location: It is a symbol of American wealth and capitalism,” says Nolan, who has just begun editing the movie and cautions that the question of relevancy is premature. ”In trying to tell a story of a self-made hero who is a multibillionaire, it raises certain issues that I do think are important in the world today, about the use and abuse of what is Bruce Wayne’s only superpower: extraordinary wealth.”

For Bale, Wall Street has a different, more personal symbolic meaning: It is the place he said goodbye to Batman for good. ”My last day in the suit was also the last day of shooting for me,” says the actor. ”I was in New York, on top of a downtown skyscraper. The day began with Morgan Freeman and then ended with Anne Hathaway. I got to say goodbye from within the batcowl.” As he took off the cape and cowl and painful, tight-fitting body armor for the final time, Bale suddenly realized the significance of what he was doing. ”It was very quiet, just a couple people there,” he recalls. ”But in the midst of it, I said, ‘Hold on a sec. Let me take a moment. This is it. I’m never going to have this claustrophobia again!’ So I had to pause. I had to.”

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