In the opening scene of Birdman, the hero Riggan Thomson is meditating. He is also levitating, listening to a voice in his head and in his underpants.
In a series of deft strokes, director Alejandro González Iñárritu establishes some of the main motifs and themes of the film.
One of these themes is the role of underpants in defining a hero. Riggan has played action hero Birdman in a series of Hollywood blockbusters. Birdman comes from a long line of action heroes who were distinguished by wearing their underpants on the outside.
Although, fair to say, Birdman is more of a codpiece kind of guy.
According to Julius Schwartz (famed editor of DC Comics from 1944-1986 who edited the most famous of all external-underwear superheroes, Superman), the underpants thing was modelled on the garb of aerial circus performers and wrestlers of the era in which the first superheroes proudly donned their underpants over their tights. There is no doubt that Riggan wants to become an aerial performer.
In real life and in his underpants, Riggan is no superhero. But he is striving to achieve the popularity and relevance that the Birdman role brought him. But he is trapped with remnants of his former glory draped about him.
In one hilarious scene, he is caught outside the theatre, you’ve guessed it, in his underpants, and has to negotiate Times Square to re-enter the theatre by the front door.
Despite his efforts to achieve recognition through writing, directing and acting in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, it is this incident, which goes viral on You-tube with 300,000 hits in one day, that provides him with his 15 minutes of fame and recognition. Fame and recognition come in the strangest ways and it may not be the kind you want.
But this is one of the many ironies that permeate the film. In the film, Riggan has starred as Birdman and in a quirky parallel, three of the film’s main actors have also taken part in blockbuster action hero movies in real life. Keaton was once Batman, Edward Norton who plays Mike Shiner, played the Incredible Hulk, and Emma Stone, who portrays Thomson’s troubled daughter, is Spiderman’s Gwen Stacy.
It is these wry observations that are at once one of the more entertaining but also frustrating elements of this wonderful film. The casting of the actors is clearly no accident but the viewer is left wandering what the point is.
While Riggan’s role as Birdman is central and integral part of the film, the fact that three of the main actors have played in action hero blockbusters is outside the reference of the film itself. Is the film itself meant to be a commentary on the nature of acting both in films and in the theatre? If it is, then it is not particularly explicit.
Is Iñárritu drawing connections between the real lives of his actors and the lives of the characters in his films? It’s a reasonable question but one which the film does not answer.
In the film, Riggan is seeking both to emulate his success as an action hero and to re-establish himself as a serious actor independent of that role. The film explores the relationship between his action hero role and his role as a serious director, writer and actor. It also explores the difficulty he has in breaking free from the constraints of those early successes. This is shown in a wonderful scene where he reprises part of his life as a superhero, flying around Manhattan, exploding cars and shooting mythical birdlike creatures.
Riggan’s frequent conversations with his alter ego indicate how deeply ingrained the fictional character has become in his conception of himself.
After a disastrous preview season, Riggan’s play is greeted with box office success but it comes for the strangest of reasons. Mike Shiner, who has supplanted Riggan as the star of the show and now appears to be seducing Riggan’s daughter, goads Riggan into making the final scene of the play more realistic by using a real gun.
In final scene of the play, Riggan’s character commits suicide by blowing his brains out. The film audience is not certain whether Riggan’s character will stick to the script or shoot Mike Shiner. He sticks to the script and in one of the few times in the film which is not part of a continuous shoot, we are left with him lying on stage in a pool of blood.
Cut to a hospital room.
He has (inadvertently) shot his nose off and now looks like a bandaged version of Birdman. The reviews of the first night of the play have been rapturous “Tonight blood was spilt for the theatre” writes Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) the acid-tongued critic who had earlier threatened to destroy both Riggan and his play.
Riggan gets up from his hospital bed and goes into the bathroom where Birdman is sitting dejectedly on the toilet. Riggan peals the bandages off his face, symbolically shedding his Birdman persona. He walks to the window of his room and climbs out on to the window sill. And jumps.
Cut to his daughter returning to find the bed empty and the window open. She goes to the window and looks down but sees nothing. She looks up and we know that she can see her father soaring above the skyline of Manhattan, having achieved superhero status in his own right.