Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman Or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) is a film about Riggan Thompson’s struggle to truly succeed in acting as a man who looks exactly like Michael Keaton.
We find Thompson, late in his career, in New York City, a real city that exists in the real world, where Michael Keaton is a well-established and very recognizable actor. We’re told he made a name for himself as a star of a superhero movie in the 1980s and is now trying to make another go of it to attain some higher degree of success. So think about it. The young Thompson, realizing he has a passion for acting, is immediately confronted with the dilemma that would define the rest of his life: I’m going to be constantly reminded that I look like this guy Michael Keaton no matter what. Is it better to go into some other field and be, say, the locksmith who looks like Michael Keaton? Or, the actor who looks like Michael Keaton?
On the surface it might appear that this conflict is man vs. man. But it’s not. It’s man vs. self. Ultimately the movie has nothing to do with Michael Keaton - that’s why he’s never explicitly referenced. But his presence is felt in every frame. Riggan Thompson, faced with the choice of whether to compromise his dreams because of arbitrary external circumstances, decides to double down and push himself in spite of those circumstances, and does, with some luck, clear the first huge hurdle.
Riggan Thompson’s breakthrough into acting stardom was as the superhero Birdman, a character that wore a mask, allowing him to obscure his face. Imagine: the one loophole, the one chink in the armor of all these odds against him, this good fortune comes his way. A once-in-his-lifetime chance to prove his acting skills on their own merit, totally divorced from his appearance. It’s like he was playing with an incomplete deck all those years and now finally the playing field is level.
And I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t audiences be able to recognize him despite the mask? I mean, the entire bottom half of his face is still visible. To the viewer he still very much registers as Michael Keaton. Maybe so, but filmmakers have been asking us to suspend our disbelief in this way for decades – Superman is just Clark Kent without the glasses, the Hot Girl is just the nerd who takes out her ponytail and shakes her hair around in slow motion, Batman is Bruce Wayne with the exact same mask Birdman wears. Iñárritu is commenting on how silly this is. Genius on his part; and frankly, genius on the part of whoever directed the Birdman within Birdman, casting the Keaton-esque Thompson for their movie, which ostensibly went up against Batman.
So anyways, things are going swimmingly for Thompson. He’s a giant movie star. One suspects he might even have been a little surprised at his own good fortune, or possibly felt like he was in over his head. Be careful what you wish for, etc. Because right about that time, he’s struck another blow: he has a daughter who looks exactly like Emma Stone. Now while she’s obviously very accomplished and beautiful in her own right, the inescapable truth is she looks exactly like a well-known actress. Sam Thompson decides to have nothing to do with acting, but of course she can never escape it. Her father’s in the business. That’s probably why she smokes so much weed. That’s why their father/daughter relationship is so strained. Again, Emma Stone is never explicitly mentioned in the movie, but she is on screen every time Sam Thompson is on screen. It’s not her fault. It’s not his fault. They both know it, but neither can do anything about it. Trapped in this prison they didn’t ask for and don’t deserve.
Of course, we have to imagine things got especially bad for Riggan Thompson when Emma Stone broke through as a mainstream household-name celebrity in 2007’s hit film Superbad. Again, he’s reaching a breaking point. Should he give up and give in? He could always cash in as some kind of weird sideshow act: “look at the amazing freak family, you’ll never believe it: the father/daughter duo who look exactly like Michael Keaton and EmmaStone!” Imagine the reality show possibilities. Could he put his daughter through that? Could he put himself through that? It would be easy after all, and possibly lucrative.
No. Again, Riggan Thompson doubles down. He owns his shit and plows ahead. He hires a lawyer/producer who looks exactly like Zack Galiafinakis, who had just become a household name himself in the record-breaking blockbuster The Hangover. What better way to send the message to the world “I get it, I know we look like celebrities. That’s the elephant in the room here, we’re both thinking it. I’m cool with it. Now let’s get down to business.” than associate yourself with a guy whose face is on every billboard in New York City. (We never see these billboards, of course. They’re implied.)
Riggan Thompson is pushing all his chips onto the table. This is make or break time, and there’s no turning back. He’s going to prove himself as a Serious Actor without that mask, Michael Keaton be damned. He is basically screaming at the world, “You’re gonna do this to me? Bring it all on, motherfucker, I can take it!”
And then, of course, the universe does give him more. Edward Norton shows up. Or, not Edward Norton, but Mike Shiner, another actor who looks exactly like Edward Norton. To fuck it all up. They should get along. After all, they have the most important thing in common: they’re both actors who look exactly like other, already-famous actors. But Shiner doesn’t want to play nice. He wants to steal Thompson’s spotlight.
This is the tipping point for Thompson. He’s had enough. His mind starts going, he doesn’t know what’s real anymore. He wanders around Times Square in his underwear, he imagines two women kissing for no reason in the hallway, he starts acting out during performances of his play, he starts hallucinating the Birdman character he played 20 years ago talking to him. Riggan Thompson starts thinking he’s a character in a movie.
How does it end? Well he shoots himself. He uses a real gun for his character’s suicide attempt in the final scene of the play. In the resolution of the third act of the movie. And what’s the result: he shoots his nose off. When he wakes up in the hospital, he doesn’t look like Michael Keaton anymore. He’s finally free.
And then he jumps out the window or flies away or something? I didn’t get that part. Oh, spoiler alert, sorry.