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Why is Pop Culture Obsessed with Destroying Chicago?

I was 9 the first time I heard Chicago had been destroyed. It was the summer of 1996 and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day was on a rampage. Bill Pullman’s President Thomas J. Whitmore told the audience Chicago was dead, incinerated by fire or, as Will Smith’s character put it, that “green shit.”

popcultureI was 9 the first time I heard Chicago had been destroyed. It was the summer of 1996 and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day was on a rampage. Bill Pullman’s President Thomas J. Whitmore told the audience Chicago was dead, incinerated by fire or, as Will Smith’s character put it, that “green shit.”

Other American cities were destroyed first. A laser split the Empire State Building in half. The White House was incinerated. A bunch of hippies greeted the aliens on top of Los Angeles’s U.S. Bank Tower, only to get a hot stream of high energy right to the face.

As a child growing up with monster movies, I knew cities were often roughed up. I loved watching Godzilla stomp through a cardboard Tokyo. I knew how King Kong treated the Big Apple. But hearing that Chicago—my city, the only city I knew—had been reduced to rubble and ash, struck a special cord.

Until the past few years, Chicago wasn’t destroyed as often as other metropolises in pop culture. According to a Film.com piece in 2012, New York has been annihilated 61 times, Tokyo a little less, Los Angeles 22, Paris 11, and London 8. Chicago: only 3 times.

But that was 2012. Since then, Chicago has become cinematic ground zero. Between Michael Bay’s Transformers series and a burgeoning number of studios taking advantage of tax credits, Chicago is in the crosshairs.

Of course, Chicago was once destroyed literally. There was a fire. It was sort of a big deal back in 1871. Since then, we’ve seen Chicago destroyed (or at least manhandled) in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Man of SteelTransformers: Dark of the Moon, DivergentInsurgent, and Transformers: Age of Extinction. This year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Allegiant will join the list.

And yet Chicago, as a place, rarely factors into the narrative in any meaningful way. Sure, The Dark Knight sort-of justifies Chicago as a choice, but it isn’t really Chicago. It’s Gotham. The landmarks are familiar, the buildings ring a bell, but it could’ve been shot in any major American city with cold winters and a surplus of masonry and steel. As proof, the third movie in the franchise was filmed in Pittsburgh, and I doubt the rest of America (and the world) could tell the difference.

The same can be said of poor San Francisco, a city that’s also been rising on the metropolitan kill-count charts, namely in X-Men: The Last Stand, Pacific Rim, Godzilla (2014), the new Planet of the Apes series, and the opening of Terminator: Genisys. But Chicago’s recent prominence as Hollywood’s destroyable sandbox speaks to a deeper trend in cinema about place, space, and the difference between location and setting.

Is Chicago the new Vancouver?

Tony Zhou, creator of Every Frame A Painting, has an excellent video essay about the role his home city, Vancouver, plays in the film industry. Due to its bland architecture, temperate weather, and beneficial tax incentives, Vancouver often fills in for Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Metropolis… really anything the filmmaker desires. Vancouver has even filled in for Chicago.

But Zhou’s point is that Vancouver rarely plays itself. It plays other cities. It’s always a location, never a setting. A story’s setting colors the narrative, informing the tone and the characters, but a location is just a backdrop. A setting is integral to a piece of work, while a location is interchangeable. What would Mean Streets and Taxi Driver be without 1970s New York, or Chinatown without Los Angeles, or The Bicycle Thief without bombed-out Rome? Would Achebe’s Things Fall Apart work outside of Nigeria?

To bring us back to Chicago, what would Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March be without Humboldt Park? Augie’s way of speaking is indispensably Chicagoan. Or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which depends on Chicago’s unique conditions as the meatpacking capital of the world at the time. What about Studs Terkel’s reportage? Or Erik Larson’s narrative nonfiction in The Devil in the White City? All of these works communicate the uniqueness of their setting.

And yet, Chicago is becoming the next Vancouver. Which is unbelievably sad, because Chicago used to play itself. Films like Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Untouchables, High Fidelity, and Barbershop featured Chicago locations prominently, and the setting informed the characters, plot, and overall tone of these films. Plug in the other John Hughes movies, along with The Fugitive and even While You Were Sleeping, and you’ve got a rich history of Chicago on film.

The Untouchables is undeniably Chicago, filled with Prohibition tropes and gangster stereotypes that are unique and distinct to the city. Barbershop is firmly rooted in the South Side’s history and culture. And the ur-Chicago set films, Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, are colored deeply by the city.

Blues Brothers revels in the city’s jazz/soul/R&B scene, features prominent landmarks like Lower Wacker Drive (there’s even a short cameo by my original hometown, Wauconda), and namedrops “the Honorable Richard J. Daley Plaza.” More importantly, Blues Brothers feels Chicago. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi even have the appropriate accents and inflections.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off does this as well. There’s a parade in the Loop capturing the soul and vitality of Chicago, a visit to Wrigley Field that’s not a lame cameo, invocations of Abe “the Sausage King of Chicago” Froman, and general gallivanting throughout the city. Our characters visit the Art Institute and become immersed in George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Not only are they in the right museum, but they’re gazing at the right painting. This is far better than poor Milwaukee, who had their gorgeous art museum turned into Patrick Dempsey’s private carpark in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

But now, when Chicago appears (aside from blips like Spike Lee’s horrible Chi-Raq), it does so in the vein of Vancouver. Why? I don’t want to dig deeply into the consequences of tax incentives, globalization, or late-period capitalism, but it’s likely a little bit of all of that.

More importantly, the flattening of Chicago that happened in 1996’s Independence Day is indicative of a flattening in pop culture settings.

Hyperspecific Settings in a Global Marketplace

Setting is a key part of art, but it’s also seen as a limitations by film and television execs in today’s global marketplace. Someone watching Blue Brothers in Omaha or Akron might understand the nuances that make Chicago a specific and unique place. But for audiences in Omdurman or Ankara, the uniqueness of the setting can be a hindrance to big bucks. I’m not implying that overseas audiences can’t understand the finesse of Chicago culture; what finesse is there in Chicago, a city where people shove Polish sausages and Italian beef down their gullets? What I mean is that setting is constrained by context, and sometimes contexts don’t transfer seamlessly.

Thus, marketers and studio execs aim for mass appeal through generic settings. Like in Transformers: Age of Extinction, when the movie relocates from Chicago to Hong Kong (which was actually filmed in Detroit) and then to other locations in China (which were actually filmed at McCormick Place) for absolutely no narrative reason, beyond appealing to a new, profitable market through the path of least resistance. Honest Trailers sent this up effectively.

It’s the pop culture equivalent of McDonald’s (a Chicago-area behemoth based in Oak Brook, no less), who pride themselves on unlimited reproducibility anywhere on the planet. A burger in Chicago tastes the same as a burger in London, Tokyo, Johannesburg, and Sao Paulo. All of these culture’s cuisines are obliterated. Setting is irrelevant.

In a global marketplace, uniformity and continuity are valued while the specific, the different, the multiplicitous, and the polyphonic are downsized. Chicago is still a fixture in pop culture but it no longer plays itself. Not many cities do anymore.

So the next time you see Chicago blown up on screen, don’t shake your fist at aliens, or rampaging robots, or superheroes. Don’t even blame the writers. Blame the executives and producers who use our home as a disposable backdrop in their attempt to reach every wallet in the world.

I'm a writer and professor living in Chicago, as well as author of a forthcoming book on the comics of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. My work has appeared in The Atlantic, Jacobin, Guernica. The New Humanism, Salon, and elsewhere.

7 comments on “Why is Pop Culture Obsessed with Destroying Chicago?

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  3. Rampage is a monster movie and one of the PG-13 rated movies where Chicago is destroyed again. In Rampage the monster movie, the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) can be seen getting completely destroyed by 3 gigantic aggressive super monsters.

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    • Don’t forget about the movie iRobot, which was also shot and filmed in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve also watched Transformers Dark of the Moon and Transformers Age of Extinction before, those were very good PG-13 rated action movies and Chicago was also destroyed in 3 of those movies. iRobot is an another PG-13 rated movie about an undercover Chicago Police Officer named Del Spooner, who has sworn to protect the City of Chicago against hostile weaponized-robots. Although Del Spooner does not trust any robots, he is forced to team up with a robot in order to fight other weaponized-robots. Undercover CPD Officer Del Spooner discovers that the only way to save Chicago, Illinois from being destroyed is to team up with a robot that he does not trust, but that robot is the only one who saved his life in a car crash. Undercover Chicago Police Officer Del Spooner realizes that robot is the only one who help him to fight the weaponized-robots.

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  4. I have seen Rampage the movie before, Chicago is seen being destroyed by 3 gigantic monsters and a US Army veteran named Davis Okoye and his friend Kate Caldwell try to save the World from being destroyed by these 3 monsters that were ripping Chicago apart. The Rampage is a PG-13 rated monster movie, though. The Military even tried to stop these monsters but they couldn’t.

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  5. I have also seen the whole entire Rampage movie too. I bought the full movie on my iPad Pro and downloaded for $10.00 with my iTunes Card and now I can watch it completely offline without internet connection. When I saw Rampage the PG-13 rated monster movie, I saw Chicago, my Native Hometown being destroyed in Rampage the monster movie. Now I can watch the whole movie on multiple Apple devices ever since that I have already paid for it.

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  6. Apple employee at the Apple Store told me that I only have to pay for paid features once and I can re-download for free. He even told me that as long as I’ve already paid for it, it is completely legal for me download it for free on any Apple devices as long as they are linked to the same account. I bought Rampage the movie on my 12.9 inch iPad Pro for $10.00 with my iTunes Card and downloaded it on my iPhone. Even if I delete the movie, Rampage on my iPad and iPhone, I can still re-download it for free because I’ve already paid for it. I can now watch Rampage the movie on multiple Apple devices completely offline without internet connection, not just only on one Apple device, but on multiple of them. I bought and downloaded a flight simulator game on my iPhone 3GS before I even had an iPad. My dad bought an iPad for me and paid for it at the Apple Store. I then opened up my iPad at Store, the Apple employee saw me downloading the flight simulator game for free on my new iPad and I did not get in trouble for that because I already paid for the flight simulator game on my old iPhone 3GS. The flight simulator game is also not free, it is actually paid. The Apple employee told me that I only have to pay once and never have to pay again, even if I delete it, I can still re-download it for free on any Apple devices. I did not buy Rampage the movie on my iPhone, I bought and downloaded Rampage the movie on my 12.9 inch iPad Pro. I am also a former student from Jacqueline Vaughn Occupational High School in Chicago, too.

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