The first movie I saw for the first time in 2015 was Birdman. It’s a really, really odd piece following a former superhero actor trying to stage a self-penned adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s also directing and starring in the play which, inside the first ten minutes of the movie loses one of its other leads and constantly teeters on the line between genius and catastrophe.
Oh and he might actually be a superhuman.
Also Riggan, a man whose career as a superhero actor peaked in the ‘90s and is painfully aware of the vast success of the genre in the 21st century is played by Michael Keaton, a man whose career as a superhero actor…
You get the idea.
It’s a fascinating, occasionally massively irritating movie and it’s impossible to cover all the ground in it concisely. So I’m going to cheat. There’ll be essays about Birdman scattered throughout this week as I try and pull apart everything I find interesting about it. None of them are especially long and all of them will focus on a specific aspect of this weird, spiky little movie. This first one deals with one of the biggest issues of the movie; what superhuman actually means.
In Birdman it has two definitions; the traditional costumed superhero that Riggan is best known for playing and the idea of the actor as an ideal This being a movie that runs headlong from the simple, both those definitions are themselves split into two. Riggan’s personality in particular is bisected along temporal lines; his past is embodied by Birdman, the younger, more vital, more unbalanced version of himself that he carries on an unwanted Socratic dialogue with. The older Riggan wants his King Lear moment, wants the respectability not just of Carver but of the stage. The younger Riggan wants Michael Bay-hem, explosions and action, death and sacrifice, sweeping horror and spectacle like only blockbusters can deliver. Neither man is entirely functional without the other; ‘Birdman’ is a flapping shadow tied to his older self by frustration and memory while Riggan is only able to make a try for respectability because of the career he built on Birdman’s wings. They both hate each other, they both need each other. Neither are happy about that.
What’s really interesting about the movie’s portrayal of the two Riggans is how that duality’s meaning shifts as the movie goes on. It begins as a postmodern and borderline smug criticism of the current superhero movie genre given an added intensity by the casting of Keaton. As the movie goes on it evolves into the conflict between popular and high culture and, finally, a fight between impulsiveness and maturity. Riggan desperately wants the second but, inadvertently, gains it only by giving into the first. Or to put it another way, he tears his shirt open to bear his heart on stage and finds the Birdman costume instead.
Mike Shiner, played by Ed Norton, is a different kind of superhuman. Shiner is an instinctively brilliant theatre actor brought in at the last minute. He’s everything Riggan isn’t; comfortable on stage, secure in himself, young. The first scene between the pair of them doesn’t so much see Mike wrest power from Riggan as effortlessly pick it up and spin the older man around in a way that’s simultaneously intimidating and oddly reassuring. You, and the film, breathe out; an Actor is here.
But this is Birdman and no one gets off easy. Shiner is revealed, in short order, to be as much of a parody of the man playing him as Riggan. Norton’s mercurial, occasionally confrontational reputation is taken to magnificently ludicrous extremes. Shiner derails a preview performance because the real gin he’s been drinking has been swapped out, he orders a sunbed because ‘he feels his character is a redneck’ and prowls the theatre like a man searching for the grandest of all possible grand entrances. He’s a maniacal dervish, endlessly demanding, endlessly hypocritical and ultimately, endlessly terrified.
Mike has completely embraced the impulsiveness that Riggan has fought against. There’s no room for anything else in his head and as a result, he’s impotent. The colossal, towering presence of The Actor is powerless in the one way that masculinity is traditionally measured. Riggan at least has a codpiece on his superhero uniform. Mike can only get an erection when he’s on stage.
His entire life is filtered not through that stage but the experience of being the Star. He’s Riggan without the decades of bad choices but he’s also Riggan without the decades of experience. Mike has reached the level he wants to reach and has no idea how what to do about that. He’s impotent because he’s won and he’s mercurial because he’s so uncomfortable having won he’s trying to sabotage the career his entire life has been aimed at.
Both men want success. Both men are prepared to sacrifice almost anything to get it. But where Mike is already successful and realizes he has nothing else to prove, Riggan literally destroys himself in order to be metaphorically reborn. The final scenes imply a unification of his past and his future and in doing so show him to be the one thing both men want and neither one is; a mature intelligence balanced by the impulsiveness of youth. A superhuman.