Christian Bale's Batman is perched atop a skyscraper, looking over a dark and foggy skyline pierced by glittering lights, preparing for a dive to the gritty streets below.
But when he alights, he won't find the gargoyle-infested, bricks-and-mortar city that Washington Irving first dubbed “Gotham.” He won't battle the Joker on wet cobblestones, or loom in the shadows of a dominant spire that evokes the Empire State Building.
In the newest incarnation of the movie franchise, the mythical Gotham City – long assumed to be an allegorical Big Apple – is unmistakably based on Chicago.
Not that a move to the Midwest is a stretch. Neal Adams, who has illustrated Batman for DC Comics since the 1970s, said he has always thought of Chicago, with its mobster history and miles of dark alleys, as the basis for Gotham.
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“Chicago has had a reputation for a certain kind of criminality,” said Adams, who lives in New York. “Batman is in this kind of corrupt city and trying to turn it back into a better place. One of the things about Chicago is Chicago has alleys (which are virtually nonexistent in New York). Back alleys, that's where Batman fights all the bad guys.”
But Chicago's back-of-the-building ethos isn't the only reason the “Dark Knight” filmmakers chose the city.
“I think the architecture of the city is really brilliant, fantastic,” said director Christopher Nolan. “That gave us an incredible amount of variety that's used as the background for the film.”
Nolan spent three weeks here shooting the previous film, “Batman Begins.” For “The Dark Knight,” he expanded that time to three months.
By no means did his cameras shy from the buildings and landmarks that easily identify the Windy City. He flipped a semi-truck on LaSalle Street. He blew up abandoned buildings on the city's west side. Cameras pan above the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago River, the Magnificent Mile.
Chicago's modern feel lent itself well to Gotham City, said James McAllister, the key location manager for “The Dark Knight.”
That's not to say the latest filmmakers abandoned New York all together.
In Nolan's “Batman Begins,” Gotham's layout is more similar to New York's, McAllister said. “There's all these different boroughs, with rivers to interconnect. I think it's hard to get away from that, because Gotham is based on New York,” he said.
Unlike the previous “Batman” movies – in which Gotham's streets are ever dark, often abandoned and shrouded in mist – Nolan's cityscapes don't stray too far from a typical workday in Chicago, where office workers on lunch breaks dart in and out of cafes; businessmen roll suitcases and shake hands in front of City Hall; and long shadows crisscross the skyscraper canyon of LaSalle Street.
“We make (Chicago) look a lot grittier through the camera in the story,” said Gary Oldman, who plays Lt. James Gordon, “but I think initially there were artists' impressions of cities, and they take a skyscraper from here and a skyscraper from there and a monorail from somewhere.
“And (Nolan) looked at this picture and he said, ‘That's Chicago – we don't need to make this up. …We can actually physically go and shoot in a city. It's Gotham.'”