Film Review: Birdman | What We Talk About When We Talk About Superheroes

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In many ways, being an actor and being a superhero are the same thing. There’s a public demand for your service, you have to completely assume a role different from who you are, you are judged on your ability to perform, you are forced to keep your public and private life separate, and there’s always a chance that you will fail greatly and people can suffer because of that. The giant robot can destroy the city, or your poor box-office returns will cost people their jobs. Either way, it’s a path that can lead to greatness or failure, and the burden is placed on the hero in question.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is about a movie in which the superhero is an actor, but this time, what’s at stake is not just his livelihood and the livelihood of those around him, but also his own sanity and his own sense of importance. It’s about Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor who is starring in a Broadway play he directed and adapted from the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan was most known for playing the titular superhero in the first three Birdman movies in the 90’s, and now that he’s pushing 60, the play is his chance to reclaim his glory and prove what he is capable of.

This is not an easy task. The film follows the days leading up to the play’s grand premiere, with several preview shows suggesting that the play can be a wild success or an unmitigated disaster. A crazy method actor (Edward Norton) is brought in to fill a part, and in his attempts to be truly in character he gets drunk on stage and nearly rapes his co-star (Naomi Watts). Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), acts as his assistant, trying to bounce back after a stint in rehab. She comes to represent the mistakes and choices Riggan made in life, and his failure as a father is shown in how she tries to function as an adult.

As you can tell, Birdman is a very meta film. It’s clear that Riggan Thomson is supposed to be a thinly-veiled stand-in for Michael Keaton, what with the career that peaked in the early 90’s and the desperate attempt to reclaim his career now that he’s past his prime. Heck, even Norton is playing someone who is very similar to the persona he has built on the sets of films. There’s a moment in the film where a character talks directly to the camera about the kind of movie you have been watching and what kind of movie you really want to watch (Hilariously, even though I was trying so hard to not be the viewer they wanted me to be in that moment, the film made it difficult for me to not enjoy explosions and CGI insanity). However, what Birdman does really well is not get too concerned with making connections, but using Riggan as an example we see often in stories about actors.

Riggan’s trying to prove something. He’s trying to prove he can adapt Raymond Carver, that he can be respected if he’s not in latex, and that there is a meaning to his life. It’s clear from the beginning that Riggan has little to make up for his life. He lives in his dressing room, and he often fantasizes that he has telekinesis and levitation powers to make himself special. When he moves something with his mind, it’s his attempt to say that he is different than everyone. Like a superhero, he has a gift that can be used for the benefit of the masses, but it also means that he himself has to balance his gift with his own identity.

Iñárritu is a director I haven’t seen a whole lot of, but after seeing this movie, I think I should see more. I saw Amores Perros in college and found that to be a really good film. With films likeBabel and Biutiful under his belt, and with the added prestige Birdman is giving him, he’s a director who will hopefully find more work outside of Mexico. He’s got such a great imagination and style, and it’s all crazy enough to work. When you hear the idea of this film, you don’t expect it all to look like it was all done in one take, but it was, and it looked incredible.

It’s fair to say that Birdman is one of the best films of this year’s Oscar pool. It’s very well acted, has a great story, and is such a technical marvel. When I think about this year’s crop of movies and how they’ll last in the years to come, I think Birdman is one that will probably have the greatest staying power. It’s a superhero movie that’s light on action, but makes up for it with heart and humor. It’s a drama, but it’s also got a bit of an epic feel to it. We’re watching a different kind of hero’s journey, and while it never goes the way you expect it to, you’ll still be gripped to see what happens.

And after all, isn’t that a great feat in of itself?

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