When is a poster not just a poster? When it's the fan-unhinging first promotional image for The Dark Knight Rises, the highly anticipated sequel to the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight. The newly released poster shows the iconic bat symbol outlined by rubble falling from disintegrating skyscrapers — with no glimpse of Batman or his foils. (See the image at right and below.) The commentariat is already hard at work, obsessing over every square-inch of the poster for clues to the much-guarded follow up to Christopher Nolan's 2008 hit. What conclusions have they drawn? Here, six theories:

1. Gotham City is in peril
The Dark Knight ended with Batman running from the police, taking the fall for Two-Face's murders so that Gotham residents wouldn't discover that their moral district attorney, Harvey Dent, had turned evil. With its crumbling buildings, the poster suggests that the city is "literally falling to pieces without him," says Paul Owen at Britain's Guardian. Indeed, it's obvious that Gotham City is in dire straits, says NME. And the bat void represents "the hole left by the masked vigilante."

2. This movie will be very, very dark
The poster is "bleak," says Sean O'Connell at Cinema Blend. The "washed out, black-and-white tones" suggest that even more devastation awaits in The Dark Knight Rises. Agreed, says Josh Wigler at MTV. By filling the outline of the Batman insignia with a cloudy sky, the poster warns that more "bad things are coming to Gotham."

 3. The trilogy may end happily
The poster "suggests a Gotham citizen looking up" from the destruction, seeing the bat outline as "the only bright sky (and it isn't even particularly bright) against the devastation of Gotham," says Russ Fischer at SlashFilm. This implies that Batman will be redeemed, and there's a "truly heroic end to this trilogy." Indeed, says Owen at The Guardian, the bat shape represents "the only chink of light — or hope – in the gloom." Clearly, Batman will "rise above" the destruction and save the desperate city, says Billy Crosby at The Daily Caller.

4. The bad guys may disappoint
Where are the villains? The film's antagonists — Anne Hathaway's Catwoman and Tom Hardy's Bane — are "noticeably absent" from the poster, says O'Connell at Cinema Blend. The most remarkable marketing images for The Dark Knight featured Heath Ledger's "bloody smile" as The Joker, which was iconic in a way this poster simply isn't. Could it be that this outing's villains are subpar?

5. It's official: Christopher Nolan is fascinated by buildings
The poster evokes the one for Nolan's most recent film, Inception, which depicted "buildings tumbling like cliffs into the sea," says Owen at The Guardian. "What the heck did a building ever do to Christopher Nolan?" asks Andy Greenwald at Grantland. The destruction of skyscrapers has become a motif in the director's films: Brace yourself for more effects-heavy "architectural violence" from The Dark Knight Rises.

6. This poster is, riskily, targeting devotees
In an unusual move, the poster features no characters, and "only a single line of text," says Wigler at MTV. Prospective audiences are expected to know all about Nolan's Batman trilogy — who the actors are, what's at stake, and where the story picks up in The Dark Knight Rises. In other words, this film will cater to the franchise's most devoted fans.