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Chicago’s Superhero Boom

From the iconic scenes of The Dark Knight, to this weekend’s Suicide Squad, a look at why Chicago is so popular among comic book blockbusters.

Above:Chicago memorably plays the role of Gotham in The Dark Knight.
Photo: Wallup.net/Warner Bros.

Suicide Squad hits theaters today with an expected $125 million opening weekend, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Writer and director David Ayer’s anti-hero epic has been widely panned (one critic described it as “light and candy-assed”), but on the brighter note, it joins a growing list of comic book movies that filmed in Chicago.

The city sets the scene for famous superhero battles including Batman vs. Joker (they duked it out in the city’s financial district), General Zod vs. Man of Steel (they “destroyed” half the city, including the interior of Chicago Union Station), and Spider-Man vs. Doctor Octopus (they traded webs and robot arms atop a moving L train).

“Chicago is incredibly cinematic and serves filmmakers well in offering a dramatic cinematic backdrop, from superhero movies, to television series that are doing urban dramas, to commercial producers that are looking for big-city backdrops that aren’t necessarily supposed to look like any city in particular,” says Rich Moskal, director of Chicago’s Film Office.

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In 2015, Chicago hosted more than 500 film projects, a 22 percent increase from the previous year. This year, we’re home to roughly 20 independent film festivals and an increasing number of award-grabbing crime and action dramas—we’re looking at you, Dick Wolf.

The boom is likely due in part to Illinois’ competitive incentives, including a 30 percent tax credit, which the state has offered since 2008. Other states offer tax breaks too, and they’re often more generous than California—in fact, as of 2016, big budget films have more incentive to leave the West Coast than to stay.

You can expect a lot of those blockbusters to be superhero flicks. The joke in Hollywood is that it’s called show business not show-art,” says Aaron Greer, film & digital media program director at Loyola. “So, part of the reason we’re seeing more superhero movies is that the first set of superhero movies did such good business and the studios want to keep replicating that success.”

More and more, studios are looking to Chicago to be the backdrop—even those universes that are supposedly based in NYC (like Spider-Man 2). The city was cast as both Gotham and Metropolis in and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and critically slated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Crews filmed across the city in November 2014 at Chicago landmarks large and small. What is it about Chicago’s lakefront skyline that has production companies clamoring for film permits? Below, Chicago’s film industry pros explain.

The Skyscrapers

Suicide Squad only filmed here for two nights of aerial shots from a helicopter, one over the Chicago River between Michigan and Wells and the other down Clark Street between Washington and Jackson. Skyscraper canyons were their primary interest,” says Moskal. The tall buildings make a dramatic backdrop for quick overhead pans that are ubiquitous to urban movies. Chicago’s healthy relationship with Warner Bros. is helpful too, Moskal adds. “They like working here and know they can count on us to deliver and make it possible.” 

The Financial District

The Dark Knight crews flipped an actual truck, along with several other very real stunts, on a stretch between Jackson to Madison. Much like the rest of the movie, Christopher Nolan went heavy on the explosions and light on the visual effects for this famous fight scene. “That skyscraper canyon doesn’t get more narrow, nor tall, nor iconic than the view looking south toward the Board of Trade,” says Moskal. “There’s hardly a production designer or cinematographer that walks down there that doesn’t go, ‘This is our spot.’”

Upper Wacker Drive/Michigan Avenue Bridge

“That vicinity of the Michigan Avenue Bridge and the intersection of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue is without question the most popular [location] that’s permitted for filming because it is just so iconic. If you’re looking to identify Chicago in a hurry, you’re going to have a tough time doing better than that area,” Moskal says. Upper Wacker Drive boasts a multitude of prominent towers: The Wrigley Building, Trump Tower, Marina City Towers, and the Jewelers Building, to name a few.

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Under layer upon layer of visual effects in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, you can catch glimpses of the drive’s sunnier side as Shia LaBeouf dodges Decepticons through the skyscraper canyon along Chicago River. “Michael Bay’s interest in coming to Chicago had everything to do with the fact that the Michigan Avenue Bridge was a beautiful panorama of interesting architecture, multiple bridges, a river carving right down the center of the city,” says Moskal. “It’s custom-made for cinema.”

The Illinois Center

Debris rained down on the Daily Planet offices during the battle of Metropolis in Man of Steel. Watch closely and you’ll see the Illinois Center in the role of the fictional newspaper from DC Comics. The structure was later “rebuilt” in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. “Gotham City was perhaps an edgier Metropolis, whereas Metropolis was perhaps a little more contemporary and a little more streamlined,” says Moskal. “As a result, the architecture was more in the world of Mies van der Rohe as opposed to Louis Sullivan.”

Chicago Union Station

Who can forget when Superman broke his moral code to save a helpless family from Zod’s heat-vision? Unlike Christopher Nolan’s stunt-studded Dark Knight films—also shot in Chicago—Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel used more visual effects. “Even use of real locations was enhanced with all kinds of visual effects that made things look more spectacular or made fight scenes look more dramatic, made explosions look bigger,” Moskal says. The blockbuster shot the final battle inside Chicago Union Station’s ballroom.

Lower Wacker Drive

“[Lower Wacker Drive] is Batman’s world,” Moskal says. “This is where Batman knows the city better than anyone else. And that use of the location seemed very organic and true to the story.” Though other films have used the underground street, he says scenes from The Dark Knight were the best fit.

Willis Tower

In both Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel, the exterior of Clark Kent’s famous workplace was filmed at the Illinois Center, but you can’t see all of Chicago from there, so the interior shots were filmed in the Willis Tower. The 110-story skyscraper also served as Batman’s lookout in The Dark Knight. “Downtown Chicago has great architecture and enough variety in architectural style that it can double as a lot of different types of cities or read as your generic big-city, urban landscape,” says Greer. “It’s basically NYC, Chicago and Toronto in North America [that can do that]. If you’ve been to L.A., for example, you know it doesn’t look like a Gotham.”

The L

In what was supposed to be downtown New York City, but was in fact downtown Chicago (you don’t see many elevated trains in Manhattan), Spidey and Doc Ock duked it out in Spider-Man 2. The scene was filmed from cranes throughout the Loop during low-traffic times. The L later became the Gotham Transportation Association in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. According to Moskal, “There’s hardly a movie that’s shot here that doesn’t in some way incorporate the L, whether it’s people fighting on top of it or just seeing it zip by in the background, it is one of those iconic locations that you can’t find in other cities that tells the audience real quick, ‘Hey. We’re in Chicago.’”

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