**Obligatory spoilers warning**
**Seriously: Major spoilers ahead**
**Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.**
Riggan Thomson soars between towering Manhattan buildings, watching mid-day traffic as the voice of Birdman–his haunting alter ego who can destroy morale as equally as he can build self-esteem–tells him, “You are above all those people.” Riggan glides down in front of the theater where his adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is in the middle of its shaky 3-day preview. He struts to the front doors, throws them open with a puffed out chest, and a taxi man emerges from his cab, yelling, “You didn’t pay me!”
It’s funny moments like these throughout the film “Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” that keeps the audience grounded from Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) fantastical flights of fantasy. It’s not that he isn’t a somebody; he doesn’t want to disappear and become irrelevant to the acting world and to his family. His first Broadway play–where he writes, directs, and stars–is a coup de grâce to save himself from obscurity. It’s his last chance to escape some of his demons lurking around, quite literally at times, as Birdman.
The most stunning aspect of the film is the cinematography; nearly the entire film is one continuous shot, employing the use of cleaver editing techniques anytime someone walks into a shadowed corridor or looks directly into the sun. This required some heavy choreography and tight cues on the actors’ part, much like that of a live theatrical production, but the result is akin to a professional Broadway performance. The cinematography adds a dream-like quality to the film, employing the use of multiple perspectives without confusing the audience or slowing down the pace of the film.
The writing is extremely cylindrical; Riggan discovers parallels in his theatrical adaption to his own life and–perhaps too coincidentally–there are parallels to Michael Keaton’s own acting career. After reprising the role of Batman, he turned down the opportunity to play him a third time. Keaton’s character turns down the opportunity to play Birdman for a fourth time. To add a greater complexity, Birdman was a cartoon that first aired in 1967 while the original live action Batman TV series first aired in 1966. I would argue that Birdman was originally a spoof on Batman, and the satire remains true today.*
Of course, the character of Birdman is secondary to the main story of a man who must battle his ego in attempt to recover his family, his career, and himself, but Riggan’s legacy (and shadow) as Birdman is what drives the plot. It’s ambiguous as to whether he intended to commit suicide on stage during the final scene on opening night. However, maybe the message of “going viral is power” interjected subtly throughout the film got to Riggan, and he knew he needed to do something big on opening night, lest be ripped to shreds by Times critic, Tabitha Dickinson.
“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” Birdman growls to Riggan. Fuck the critics. So, maybe he just wanted to give the audience a bloody good time. The most brilliant piece of writing (and one of the best scenes in which Keaton’s character becomes a less composed human) happens when Riggan berates Tabitha’s in-progress review in the middle of a bar. He exclaims that it’s just a bunch of words backed by nothing. At that point, the character turns into the person he has chased for many years.
(Also: Edward Norton. Bravo, sir. Bravo.)
“Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is a fresh take on the old “down and out actor” trope and, in turn, makes the experience worthy of the audience’s attention. It’s a refreshing meld of action, blood, sex, comedy, and philosophy.
*I may be putting my literary-hat on and searching for unintended symbolism. While I do not think Iñárritu meant write any of the above comparisons, casting Keaton as Riggan Thomson has caused much speculation, perhaps to the detriment of the film through the eyes of some critics. However, I think it’s a fun coincidence.