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FILING into the packed-out London 02 for our exclusive preview of Batman Live I feel a childish excitement. A vast cartoon-like cityscape unfolds in front of us complete with sweeping searchlights and, distantly, rising airships, the Doppler effect of police sirens and thrumming helicopters all around.

Men in black are ascending impossibly tiny wires, someone with a belt full of gadgets is speaking urgently into an electronic mouthpiece in front of a bank of electronic lights worthy of a Star Trek control desk and, for a second, I panic. "It's starting!" I say to my eldest.

Of course, it isn't. It's just the pre-show preparations. The set is, in a word, extraordinary -- though the word doesn't quite go the distance. It's as if the pages of a comic have come alive like a pop-up book.

"So, is this a musical, or what?" says one of my three teenage boys. "Shh!" I say, though in truth, I haven't a clue. The atmosphere is building fast, but my heart sinks a little at the thought of sitting through some sort of operatic version of U2's Spider-Man.

I needn't worry. From the moment the stage thunders into life we're treated to a three-dimensional, visual extravaganza. Gotham City goers appear, threading between the tiny buildings as the story unfolds and the comic book origins of the Batman tragedy is revealed.

For the uninitiated, a young Bruce Wayne is orphaned when a criminal kills his rich parents on a night out. Bruce vows revenge and the theme of justice versus revenge is set.

The story of sidekick Boy Wonder is the kernel of tonight's adventure. It's a far cry from the Robin of the camp TV show, rather something better mirroring Bruce Wayne's own tale. Circus kid Dick Grayson is looking for revenge after The Joker kills his parents in the middle of performing their high-wire act. He's handed over to Bruce Wayne and their tumultuous relationship takes off.

No spoilers here, the tickets are too expensive for that, except for this one: In a real 'Holy Mother of Effigies, Batman' moment, a three-storey figure of The Joker's head emerges, the face seeming to squirm with menace as we realise with horror that the teeth, eyes and hair are made up of costumed characters who wriggle apart and plop to earth like maggots. It's quite literally, in this case, jaw-dropping.

The Joker leads a formidable cast of comic-book villains including Penguin, Scarecrow, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, The Riddler and Cat Woman. The circus theme provides stunning acrobatics and extraordinary quick-escape and vanishing routines worthy of a Las Vegas magic show along with all the high-tech backdrop imagery you'd expect of a 21st-century retelling of this 70-year-old pulp fiction fable -- explosions and all. And yes, the Batmobile features spectacularly.

You may hear some critics put down this production as a Batman-themed circus. Don't mind them. It's far more than that and well worth the ticket price. The kids will be talking about this one for years -- I know this 45-year-old kid will, anyhow.

Batman Live, O2 Dublin, September 28 - October 1. www.theo2.ie/event/batman-live