Few film narratives operate quite so symbiotically with their stars as Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s pretty impossible to imagine Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s black comedy working at all without Michael Keaton in the lead role. Crafted in the early days of the modern box office takeover by the superhero genre, the film manages to examine the effect of capes and tights on its stars’ sense of ego without looking down on those who fuel their popularity.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is not a particularly good man, forever haunted by an internal voice that manifests itself in the form of his most famous character. The entirety of Riggan’s public legacy can be summarized in that one single word. Birdman. A life defined by three blockbuster popcorn flicks.
Riggan seeks to seize control of his own narrative through a stage production of a Raymon Carver short story, financing the project in addition to starring and directing. The theatre world has its own collection of neurotic egos, none more tedious than famed method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the boyfriend of lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) brought in as a replacement after an accident incapacitated the original actor.
Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki both won Academy Awards for their efforts in shaping Birdman’s unique aesthetic, which gives the appearance that the entire 119-minute feature was recorded in a single take. Iñárritu has a keen sense for the claustrophobia and loneliness of theatre life, small crews sequestered from the madness of downtown Manhattan all around them. While most of the narrative takes place indoors, the film uses the city wisely to capture its gravitational pull on the stars in its orbit.
While the film’s technical prowess gives the audience much to digest from scene to scene, Birdman largely succeeds on the strength of its cast. Keaton gives the best performance of his career, eliciting ample sympathy for the fairly odious Riggan. On the surface level, the two have a bit in common, both known by the public at large for their superhero franchise work. Keaton isn’t keen to coast off his well-deserved reputation, instead transporting the audience into the mind of a man grappling with his own crumbling ego.
Riggan is not Michael Keaton, but the character can’t exist outside the aura of a man who Hollywood never truly trusted as a lead talent, writing him off as a comedic actor when directors such as Tim Burton and John Hughes first saw the genius of his abilities. To some extent, it can be tedious to listen to a big name talent whine about their conflicted sense of perception, with 99% of actors never even coming near that level of fame. It is hard to listen to Riggan speak about being forgotten without feeling compassion for the man. No one wants to be forgotten.
Iñárritu does not spend much time talking about what the superhero genre has done to the industry, but his few bits of wisdom hold up in the years since 2014 even as the environment has evolved. Films like Birdman have a harder time breaking through well before the pandemic changed the way we engage with the medium. Riggan’s inner-Birdman voice isn’t inherently misguided in lobbying for him to return to the cape. The public wants the cape.
Keaton himself has returned to the superhero genre twice since Birdman’s release, first in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and next in 2022’s upcoming The Flash, where he’s set to reprise his role as Batman for the first time in thirty years. While Riggan resisted the allure to return to the role that put him on the map, Keaton demonstrates no such inhibitions.
The superhero genre has permeated into more of the public consciousness than even Birdman could have predicted in 2014. Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards just four years after the former took home the top prize. Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor at the following year’s ceremonies for The Joker, further solidifying the comic book villain’s status as an awards show kingmaker. The 2021 Emmy Awards saw Wandavision competing for Best Drama, a far cry from the days when so-called prestige dramas ruled the world.
This reality has fundamentally changed the way we look at Birdman, particularly the relationship between Keaton and Norton. Within the film, Riggan envies Shiner’s ability to generate publicity, revered for his outlandish behavior operating under the guise of “method acting.” Shiner is everything Riggan wants to be, above all else, respected.
Like Keaton, Norton has a history in the superhero genre, starring in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Norton’s Bruce Banner remains the most high-profile recasting case in the history of the MCU. Even putting Keaton’s subsequent superhero work aside, it’s hard to line up their post-Birdman filmographies and not give him the upper hand over Norton in terms of career success. Just as audiences initially went into Birdman thinking of Keaton’s past with Batman, it’s hard to revisit the film without thinking of Norton and Keaton’s inverted fortunes as of late.
If there’s one primary flaw of Birdman, it’s that the film didn’t heed its own advice with regard to its ending. An early scene between Riggan and Shiner showed the latter urging some script revisions, arguing redundancies in the former’s prose. The same does hold true for Iñárritu, who crafts a climax that repeats itself multiple times through a few unnecessary closing scenes.
Iñárritu’s work is a rich film to revisit. Keaton’s scenes don’t carry the same sense of melancholy as they once possessed, a reality manifested to existence by the film itself. Birdman isn’t just a case of art imitating life, but art changing the realities of the industry. Hollywood’s obsession with sequels and nostalgia make it likely that we would have seen Keaton as Batman again, even without Birdman, but Iñárritu’s film makes the prospect all the more satisfying. Doctor Manhattan’s seminal lines in the closing pages of Watchmen come to mind. Nothing ever ends.