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.”
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 Steel, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Divergent, Insurgent, 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 an adjunct lecturer at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and a Ph.D. student of Literacy and Language at Cardinal Stritch University. I live next door to Milwaukee as a Chicago transplant. My writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Jacobin, Guernica, PopMatters, several anthologies, and elsewhere.