Angela Watercutter, Wired
Superhero movies have that name for a reason: They feature people who win, who conquer, who use their super strength to do super things and save days.
Birdman is about the rest of us—the schmucks who don’t have power, or who had it and lost it and are now wondering if we’re relevant at all. And because of that, it rises above.
In Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s newest film, which expands to a wider theatrical release this week, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an actor in the third act of his career. Riggan once donned a cowl on the big screen as the hero Birdman and while it made him rich and famous, it also drained his credibility as a serious thespian. Now, in one last attempt to prove his legitimacy, he’s exhausted nearly all his finances to write, direct, and star in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Watching Riggan fight for redemption is like watching bald eagles fight in mid-air: either he’ll pull it off and destroy his demons, or he’ll crash trying, and the uncertainty is riveting.
But even more compelling than Riggan’s troubled quest is how his life is a commentary on our celebrity-obsessed—and presently superhero-obsessed—world. In a twist on Tyler Durden’s lamentation in Fight Club that not all men will one day be “millionaires and movie gods and rock stars,” Thompson was all those things and it brought him no joy. He’s still haunted by the Birdman voice in his head telling him he’s better than Robert Downey Jr. (the movie’s full of these au courant references), and he’s looking for a way to prove it to anyone who’ll listen.
We don’t get a lot of that nowadays; we don’t think too deeply about why our idols are our idols—and what happens when they’re last year’s model. We see a smiling Chris Pratt joyriding around space and remember fondly the Instagram of his Guardians of the Galaxy body makeover. The line between actor and character is often blurred, but we’re meant to admire both equally. Birdman looks at what could happen to stars 20 years after their Marvel/DC franchise, and it finds both depth and humor in asking why we so value such a narrow concept of artistic quality.
And this is exactly what makes Riggan a hero—not because his persona saves cities, but because he manages to redeem his irredeemable true self in tiny measures. (Washed-up stars: They’re just like us!) Iñárritu, who also co-wrote the movie, films everything in long, weaving Hitchcockian takes (he’s also said in interviews that he would kill himself if he had to make actual superhero action sequences). It traps you in every awkward moment, every time he talks to himself about his insecurities, every confrontation with his daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone, who like most of the movie’s stars is a supercinema vet, thanks to the Amazing Spider-Man flicks), every fight with his Broadway hotshot costar Mike (a scene-stealing Edward Norton, The Incredible Hulk), and every step he takes towards total breakdown. Frankly, it’s more thrilling than watching any R&D-enabled warrior or irradiated ectomorph. Deep down we know caped crusaders win; has-been actors offer fewer guarantees.