The Secret Suprahero Identity of Birdman

In Beastly & Beautiful, Film & TV, Film/TV-Superhero by Louisa Leontiades

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) plays a washed up comic book actor who suffers from delusional episodes. His alter ego Birdman – a role he played on screen over two decades ago – speaks to him at first in his mind and increasingly throughout the film as a visual representation of his madness, angling to be let out of his past and into a new Hollywood Blockbuster. But for Riggan, his comeback must be made through the ‘prestige’ of the stage rather than the ‘popularity’ of the big screen.

For many, the film is an exploration of the descent of a once famous actor trapped in the false identity he abandoned, into the halls of his own insanity… creatively depicted in what appears to be ‘one’ long insane take. The film drives us down the corridors of a backstage theatre jumping between on stage ‘reality’, one where Riggan harbours hopes of a glorious comeback on Broadway through an ‘arty-fartsy’ play of ‘talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit’, and actual ‘reality’ in his ever more delusional state of mind. One where he believes he can fly.

It’s a commentary on the clash between the powerhouse of Hollywood and artistic endeavour, and how one cannot exist without the other. A interpretation of the power of social media where who you are is defined by a Facebook page and your number of twitter followers, as opposed to your relevance as a human being. A dark satire on the ‘destructive force of the celebrity ego‘.

But if that were the point, the film could have ended where Riggan shoots himself on stage unable to reconcile his predicted failure with his desire for validation, a parallel of Edward Norton’s resolution of his two identities in Fight Club. Or later in the hospital where, having only succeeded in shooting his nose off, he is told that the infamy of the opening night has pushed the play to dizzying heights of success thus enabling him finally to kill his cynical Hollywood alter ego – the ultimate villain of this movie.

Instead director Alejandro G. Iñárritu chooses a different more ambiguous and arguably unsatisfactory ending where Michael Keaton flies out of the window thus demonstrating that his superhero abilities might not be the delusion of a madman as we have been led to believe, but real, as his daughter rushes to the window, looks up in pride and smiles… presumably to see her father flying through the air.

In our ensuing dissection of the movie, my boyfriend and I chose to dismiss this last scene as an artistic twist, and we instead discussed, among other things, the obvious metaphor of Michael Keaton’s career rising from the ashes thanks to Birdman which – let’s face it – we’re all pleased about, but which nevertheless leaves him now as that actor who was once famous though Batman and is now famous again because he played a satire of what happened when his identity of Batman was too strong to cast off. Maybe the meta message of the film was after all, that you cannot escape your own reality.

But the question haunted my dreams later that night. What was the point of that last scene when the movie could have ended far better without it? Among all the multi-layered interpretations that can be analyzed in this film, the one examined by no reviewer is this.

What if Riggan were in fact a superhero? What would a superhero do when he no longer wants to be defined by his more powerful identity? Wouldn’t that identity beg to be let out? If there were any superheroes in our reality they would probably like Riggan, be chalked up as paranoid schizophrenics. But if that last scene is the one which reveals the secret of the whole movie, Riggan really would be – as his alter ego says – ‘a global force’, ‘bigger than life’, saving people from their ‘boring miserable lives’.

What if Riggan wanted no longer wanted to be defined by his power as the superhero he portrayed allegorically through a cult character Birdman, but as an actor of ‘worth’ having made it on the Broadway stage? A ‘real’ man in the ‘real’ world and a better father to his daughter. Because Riggan has realised over the years, that the superhero was consumed by his ego and missed out on what was really important in life. And so when Birdman says

We gotta go back! We have to do this. We have to end it on our terms.With a grand gesture.

Riggan finally decides that he that the only way he can live the life he wants is by killing Birdman. Only a hero as strong as Birdman can kill Birdman. But as we at this point believe that Riggan is a mere mortal, the only way he can do so is by killing himself.

Many of the ‘superhero’ aspects of this film can be explained away by mental illness, ego conflict and the illusion of the theatre. But none which satisfactorily explain how the bullet aimed directly for his head manages only to shatter his nose (which is then curiously – or miraculously? – reconstructed/healed, superhero style in less than 24 hours). Nor how Riggan appears to escape his fatal leap, a supposed suicide attempt, off the building in front of hundreds of people. Indeed we are encouraged until the last scene to think that he has simply changed his mind and walked downstairs. Too many convenient coincidences point to his real identity. He was an absent father. An unfaithful husband. He has not been ‘present in [his] own life.’ Was it because he has been playing the superhero, more than acting as one…?

So in the final scene, he’s shown in the hospital wearing bandages in the shape of the Birdman mask, as if what he has managed to do by shooting the beak off is to divest his Birdman identity leaving him flapping despondently on the toilet. A New York Times review of the opening night indicates that we might have been watching ‘supra reality’ where fantasy and reality collide. Have we been watching a superhero in his struggle to lead a normal life? A few minutes later that question is answered. Because Riggan rips off the bandages – the last remnant of who he was – and flies his way to freedom as himself.