Birdman, (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Superhero Hate)

I walked into Birdman accidentally and apprehensive. I had planned on seeing Whiplash but there’s only one theater playing it and because of traffic, my friend didn’t make it in […]

I walked into Birdman accidentally and apprehensive. I had planned on seeing Whiplash but there’s only one theater playing it and because of traffic, my friend didn’t make it in time. In order to save the night, we decided to watch another movie. It was a choice between Birdman and something I don’t remember. The reason I was worried I was wasting my time and money was Scott Tobias’ review for the Dissolve, which makes a pretty comprehensive case against the movie and my own personal conflicted feelings about the Marvel and DC empire.

See, I love superhero stories. They’re powerful, meaningful operatic depictions of humanity’s best virtues put on the microscope so that they can be observed at their grandest and yet experienced at their most nuanced. This could be said of all genre fiction, but DC and Marvel’s spin is filled with an idealism and a humanism unparalleled in my experience consuming all sorts of media. I always point to the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie that ends literally with five friends holding hands to vanquish the antagonist…  As many problems as that movie has, the good moments feel so sincere that I could not look away.

But then there’s the business side of things, Marvel’s current film universe has stuck to a very specific formula and tone. While the films have been wildly varied in milieu, everything about them feels factory made. Taken on an individual basis and when we had few releases, this was tolerable because the outings were still fun. But by the time we reached a mediocre Thor 2 and a flawed Guardians, it was quite easy for me to jump off the bandwagon (and occasionally laugh whenever the train went off the rails) while mourning the death of my love for the genre.

At the same time, I’m very against the idea of dismissing superhero movies in and of themselves. I think there’s still a creative space we haven’t found and stories we can tell with them that can be emotionally and visually compelling in a way that expands the cinematic landscape and enriches it. I mean, I feel that way of all film genres, really. Not to mention that a lot of cinematic critiques of the superhero genre often simplify the genre to its most superficial characteristics while forgetting what makes it tick and whether said ticking gives it value.

Birdman Ed Norton

I think the second I realized I would enjoy Birdman would be when Riggan Thompson (played magnificently by Michael Keaton) begs Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his assistant to find an actor and Jake brings out names. Woody Harrelson? No, he’s stuck with The Hunger Games. Michael Fassbender? Nah, he’s doing the prequel of the prequel for X-Men. Renner who? (He’s an Avenger)

The potshots in Birdman at superhero movies and our current love for them are not really aimed at superheroes. They’re about something bigger and harder to quantify: the product film. When Steven Soderbergh retired from film, he mentioned in his speech that he often made product films and artistic films. That is to say, movies that were meant to attract an audience and make money and movies that were first and foremost trying to say something. Obviously product films try to say something and artistic films try to make money. The difference is which is the higher priority. When Riggan can’t find the right actor for his play, he is being restricted by a business that gives paychecks to a lot of actors who are demonstrably uninterested in the material, like Jeremy Renner in The Avengers.

At its best, Birdman’s sniper rifle is not aiming at Marvel Entertainment. In fact at its best, Birdman’s not wielding a sniper rifle. It’s wielding a rocket launcher and its attacking a business that grinds the voices of our creators unless they learn to adapt. Riggan did not learn to adapt and could not create his own space where he could redefine himself for years. Now he finally has the one chance to do just that. But he’s a man haunted by his neuroses and his motivation is constantly in question, and probably the film’s most fascinating puzzle. After all, every aspect of the film easily points to the fact that Riggan simply can’t live without being popular, but the movie constantly ponders the sort of popularity Riggan wants. Does he want artistic distinction or simply for his name to be known and beloved?

In its experimentation, Birdman decides to become a hybrid of theater and film by deciding on doing a long-take-style story where we constantly follow the characters with no (discernible) cuts. Much like in theater, scenery changes are signified by pauses in the pacing and obvious pans into darkness. However, the film is so gleefully oppressive (in the best way possible) that the pauses are often appreciated. The flip side of all this is that when it comes down to it, Birdman does away with subtext. It’s not hard to dissect Birdman because it spills its guts all over the theater, with big monologues about how much critics suck and can’t do anything but apply labels or about how we’re unimportant in this world and struggling for meaningless relevance. Not only that but most of its theses can come across as strongly bullheaded and, yes, pretentious. Its determined to show itself as anything other than the spectacle it mocks but its best moments are when it strips down its characters to spectacle-style archetypes, such as Naomi Watts’ Broadway ingenue (In a clear nod to Mulholland Drive that will just make you think ‘Oh man David Lynch would be a much better director for this’) or Edward Norton’s (probably the cleverest casting choice) abrasive method actor or simply when it becomes an over the top blockbuster movie, filled with special effects.

One of Birdman’s virtues however, is that it doesn’t take itself seriously for much of the running time. Sure, there are anti-critic screeds and insults lobbied at some of Hollywood’s biggest actors, but there’s a constant sense that the movie is not trying to provide an answer to the problem it has encountered in a world where business has taken over art so completely it has stifled the artists out of it. It instead dedicates itself to examining what art is, which is probably the strongest aspect of the film.

Birdman Naomi Watts

In Birdman, art provides the ultimate transformation. However this transformation is not an improvement. Both Riggan and Shiner are discernibly flawed human beings who are slaves to the art they so love to the detriment of their human relationships. Shiner in particular tries to have sex with Lesley, her girlfriend and fellow actress, in the middle of a preview with his reasoning that it’d be “so real” while Riggan seems incapable of distinguishing between personal love and the adoration that comes from being a public figure.

In fact, it’s the women who are new to the art or just peripheral, like Naomi Watts’ Lesley and Emma Stone’s Sam, who feel more like actual human beings rather than damaged and broken puppets. In fact, Lesley’s passion for the craft of acting shows as something non-toxic and beautiful, from her teary thankful speech to Riggan for giving her a chance to her future relationship with Laura (an element the movie sadly doesn’t elaborate much on) and Sam, Riggan’s daughter and recovering addict, proves that you can live close to art and toxicity and still rebuild yourself from the ashes. While her relationship with Mike seems to be poised for disaster, the argument could be made that they understand each other in a way that nobody else does.  Admittedly, I think this is all very incidental to Birdman. Lesley’s plot is very peripheral and Sam doesn’t get much elaboration on her character as anything other than “Mike Shiner’s future girlfriend” while the third lady, Andrea, doesn’t even get anything resembling an arc.

Birdman has many problems: when it comes down to it, its ending is ambiguous in a way that doesn’t fit the rules the movie establishes for itself early on and its nihilism is in active tension with its celebration of theater and film. Not to mention that its celebration of theater and film is in active tension with its criticisms of the business itself and the characters’ inability to distinguish between the two. But in juggling all of this, Iñarritu still manages to create a wonderfully unique film, that feels vibrant and lively. For sure, it’s not subtle, but it’s strong, bold and honest, yet self-effacing and human in ways that most movies of its kind simply are not.