It’s only after Birdman’s finished that you realize something; only one story ends. The entire movie is built on the spiky, frantic ensemble and their desperate attempts to survive long enough to finish the play but, in the end, the only story we see conclude is Riggan’s. That’s both immensely frustrating and completely intentional. Here’s why.
First off, Birdman is a film whose entire fictional topography is based on conflict. Carver’s characters infamously talk around and over each other and the subject. That nervy, tense approach is mapped onto both the struggle to put the play on and the film itself. The actors barely get on, the play is barely financed, Riggan’s barely sane. This is a story, or perhaps a nested series of stories, about the unbridled horror of seeing anything creative through to the end. Sacrifices are certainty. What sacrifices you make and what sacrifices you refuse define the outcome and your future. The movie and the play alike are long dark nights of the souls.
So, tension is baseline here, but there’s also Birdman, and the shape of the stories he brings with him to consider. Superhero fiction and blockbuster fiction have one common factor; a fundamental refusal to end. It’s the same constant struggle soap operas face; begin new stories, carry them on, bring them in to land and then repeat the process. You have to provide enough closure to keep people satisfied but you also have to keep enough in reserve for more.
It’s why superhero comics in particular can become a loveless trudge for everyone involved as stories are endlessly recycled. Worse still, many books fall victim to the push me pull you of trying to attract new readers without alienating older ones. Blockbusters are just as bad. Michael Bay’s become the, often deserved, whipping boy for mindless cinematic excess and he’s certainly referenced in Riggan’s fantasy action sequence here. All these story forms are worlds apart from the polite, clearly defined world of the theatre but all of them have far more of an impact on the film’s structure than the theatre ever does. In fact, the clean lines and instant gratification of the play is the destination the film struggles towards but never quite reaches.
Instead, it becomes a loose collection of stories all orbiting Riggan. Mike Shiner, for all his endless flamboyance is, ultimately, an actor hired to do a job. He hates that so much he can’t acknowledge it but it doesn’t change the truth. Mike may be twice the actor Riggan is but he’s an employee. He’s risen as far as he can, whereas Riggan still has places to go.
Likewise Zach Galifanakis’ Jake is a man whose sole job in the movie is to keep Riggan together long enough to get the play finished. Amy Ryan’s Sylvia, whose role seems limited to being one of the few sane people in the cast and showing Riggan just how far he’s come. Even his daughter, Sam, is defined first by the absence of her father, then his presence, then by pushing against him. Her relationship with Mike is the most interesting idea the film does the least with. It remains unclear as the movie closes whether they’re involved as a means of getting at Riggan, or if they’ve simply drifted together. In the end, it doesn’t matter because, like everyone else in the play, their job is to push Riggan over the edge and force him to fly.
In that way, the total lack of closure in every other plot is, if not excused, then at least explained. The entire film is about the play not just as a destination but a crucible. The process of making the play breaks Riggan apart to rebuild him and every other cast member is part of that process.
But the biggest reason the ending is unsatisfactory is much simpler; this is a superhero story. More importantly, it’s a superhero story set at the precise moment the status quo shifts. Just like in comics when a new creative team brings a new direction, the play’s success throws Riggan onto a new path. When he steps out of his window we don’t see him fly and we don’t see him fall. All we know is he’s on his way to a new story. Just enough closure to keep people satisfied. Just enough closure to leave them wanting more.