Even in a year with some pretty notable superhero films, Birdman is a pretty significant movie about superheroes. This darkly surreal satire about an aging actor struggling with his superhero past is full of magical-realist touches and tugs at our national obsession with big heroic narratives. And here's why superhero fans really ought to see Birdman.
On the face of it, Birdman offers a pretty harsh critique of superhero films, and mass culture generally. But it also pokes a lot of fun at snobbery and the notion of "prestige" entertainment as an alternative to pop culture. Michael Keaton plays a washed-up movie star who's haunted by the superhero he used to play, as he tries to reinvent himself as a serious stage actor. And the ghost of his former superhero persona becomes not just a nagging reminder of how people see him, but also a focal point for his wounded ego.
Incredibly vague spoilers below:
A brief synopsis: Actor Riggan Thomson is trying to put his Hollywood past behind him and write, direct and star in an adaptation of literary author Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It's a serious artistic project, but also a massive ego trip, aimed at making people take Riggan seriously at last. He gets a stroke of luck when his untalented costar is injured and he gets a high-powered replacement, Mike (Edward Norton). But his manager/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) keeps reminding him that they need to make money somehow, and meanwhile everything keeps going mortifyingly, horrifyingly wrong.
Here's a pretty brutal scene between Riggan and his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone:
Birdman is one of those brutally misanthropic movies that's full of horrible human beings, who cling to their delusions in the midst of tragic self-loathing. Like Todd Solondz at his most nauseating. And the spectre of Birdman, an especially absurd superhero character, hovers over the whole thing, in a way that suggests that superhero stories are among the most ridiculous delusions of all.
In a film full of tragic, conflicted, messed-up relationships, the most ambivalent and horrible is the relationship between Riggan and the superhero he used to play. Riggan hates Birdman, loathes being asked about why he turned down Birdman 4 and can't bear the presence of the Birdman poster the crew hung in his dressing room. But his imaginary version of Birdman is also a weird projection of his ego, that both taunts and encourages him — and then offers him the prospect of escape into fantasy.
And as you can see in the trailer above, the movie is full of occasional weird flights of fancy, like Thomson imagining he can levitate, and there are a couple of weird sequences where Hollywood special effects seem to be breaking into the real world. The more out of control Riggan's play becomes, the louder the voice of the all-powerful character in his head becomes.
A ton of characters keep offering the indictment of superheroes as mindless wish-fulfillment, as poison. And even as everyone denounces the false allure of escapism, the movie does a better job of making you feel trapped in reality than anything I've seen in ages. Director Alejandro Iñárritu's famous long takes aren't just a technical marvel — they're also skin-crawlingly uncomfortable, because Iñárritu forces you to stay with a scene long after you're dying to escape it. Not that this movie is slow-paced — it never lets up — but it forces you to look at the chain of self-destructive acts created by these theater actors who can't break out of the moment any more than they can stop being their fucked selves.
There's also a playfulness to the movie's insistence on inescapable reality — like some scenes where the soundtrack turns out to be diagetic when you least expect it, because the camera pans around to reveal a musician or musicians who were previously just out of frame:
But even as the movie sets up a crude dichotomy between Entertainment and Art — between the fantasy of Birdman and the "honesty" of real theater — it also sets about screwing that dichotomy up. The notion of a pure artistic endeavor, or truthfulness in performance, or the idea that a literary stage play is in some sense "better" than a superhero film, slowly gets exposed as another kind of fantasy, another elaborate and colorful illusion. It's just another form of fame, another trap.
In the end, Birdman doesn't offer a critique of superhero movies, so much as offer them up as just one among many forms of egomania and self-deception. Riggan's shifting relationship with the hero he used to play is just one among many toxic relationships. And as his stage play debates the meaning of love with a series of bleak Raymond Carver scenarios, the movie pushes home the idea that none of these people want love — they just want to be admired or acknowledged by someone else.
In the end, this metafictional dive into the psyche of an American superhero, is less a satire on superheroes and more a look at what is broken inside us that makes us embrace so many different absurd fantasies about being appreciated by others. And that, in turn, gets at the heart of the disturbed superhero mentality in a way that fans of Tim Burton's Batman, ironically enough, might appreciate most of all.