Without a doubt, superheroes dominate today’s pop culture. They’re in our movies, on TV, in video games, and even star in a comic book or two. In all honesty, it wouldn’t be outrageous to assume that in the near future just about every working actor in Hollywood will at one point have appeared in a superhero movie or television show – they simply permeate our media that much.
A factor in why superheroes are so popular is their ability to be reinvented and stay relevant. Superman was created over 70 years ago, but the character has remained a part of the American zeitgeist ever since, constantly being updated to better fit the generation currently embracing him.
That kind of longevity is usually only earned by fictional characters because they aren’t encumbered by the same frailties as living, breathing humans, but every so often there are people who manage to become timeless, whose legacy lasts long after they’re dead. And perhaps that is why superheroes – and specifically playing a superhero – has become increasingly popular; actors, writers, directors, and more are all looking to remain relevant long after they’re gone by hitching a ride on a superhero’s cape.
That yearning for relevancy – the urge to make a mark on the world proving to later generations that at one point you mattered – is at the very heart of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). And it’s no coincidence the film’s main character – washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), trying to reinvent himself and restart his career with a Broadway play – is plagued by his past work as a superhero in the movies.
In Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu pits the popular arts versus high art, questioning if one or the other better serves an artist’s legacy. He then connects this to Thomson’s desire for relevancy, because after finding his success with Birdman so fleeting, Thomson turns to theatre to reestablish his sagging career.
For those who consider live theatre – and in particularly the great Broadway – to be a cut above the rest of the performing arts, Thomson’s play (an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) is an obscene gesture. This is especially evident with Lindsey Duncan’s New York Times critic, Tabitha, who without even seeing the play in previews promises to crucify it and Thomson’s performance in her opening night review. Ouch.
It’s within this toxic atmosphere that Thomson is desperately trying to rediscover his talent and passion for acting. Keaton is masterful in his portrayal of an actor battling his own self doubt – depicted as the growling, disembodied voice of Birdman – as well as all those around him who’d love to see him fail. Easily, this may be Keaton’s finest performance and a Best Actor nomination or two wouldn’t be unexpected.
It’s impossible to not draw connections between Thomson’s antagonism towards his past as Birdman to Keaton’s own time spent as Batman, and that sort of meta-reference only makes his performance all the stronger. Keaton imbues Thomson with such pathos he’s an easy hero to root for, though he isn’t without flaws, particular as a husband and father. Thomson is consumed by his need to matter and it’s that desire that drives to him to edge of his sanity.
However, the actual state of Thomson’s mental health is left rather ambiguous, and more than once it isn’t clear whether he’s actually hallucinating or not.
Birdman‘s whole ensemble is excellent, but along with Keaton, it’s Emma Stone and Edward Norton who give the standout performances. (And interesting to note that these two are also veterans of the superhero movie machine.) Both come in to Thomson’s life during this turbulant time – Stone as his daughter who’s recovering from a stint in rehab and has chosen to become her father’s assistant in order to stay clean, and Norton as the last minute replacement for the play’s other male lead, a celebrated method actor who may be more trouble than he’s worth.
Stone is stellar as Sam, and brings a maturity to her character’s few scenes – especially in a biting rant she throws at her father that was reportedly filmed in a single take. Norton, too, adds many layers to a character that could have easily been played as a one-dimensional tool. It’s a fascinating and perhaps a tad revealing performance from Norton that explores the nature of acting, and one he delivers handily.
Birdman is billed as a “black comedy” and that certainly isn’t an inaccurate description of the film. It’s a great satire on acting, writing, and showbiz in general, and there are plenty of moments that’ll have audiences cringing as well as laughing out loud. Sometimes both at the same time, like during a rather humiliating scene involving a walk though Times Square in nothing but a pair of tighty-whiteys.
The real star of Birdman, however, is the film’s incredible camera work. Iñárritu chose Gravity cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki and that decision proves to be the best of the entire production. Filmed and edited in a manner as though to depict the entire film as one unbroken and continuous take, the camera moves throughout the backstage maze of the St. James Theatre as an unnoticed observer, slipping in and out scenes as swiftly as it does dressing rooms.
No doubt this caused difficulties while filming, but the claustrophobic atmosphere it creates is vital for the film, forcing the audience to feel just as trapped and desperate as Thomson. And where this kind of constantly-in-motion camera work can usually have a nauseating effect (think Cloverfield), here it works naturally, presenting us with a behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway play.
Birdman is a difficult film to classify as there are a lot of ideas at work in Iñárritu’s exploration of identity, legacy, relevancy – and to a lesser extant our fascination with the superhero and the wildly imaginative and bombastic films they inhabit. It surely won’t break any box office records or earn anywhere near a billion dollars, but Birdman is a must-see film for creators and appreciators of the performing arts.