The sensational draw of Birdman may not be what sticks the most from the film. While the film dips its toes into the superhero world, most of the film is a dramatic story about everyday human characters trying to find their way. In a lot of ways, Birdman feels like the antidote to the superhero film but muddles this by also trying to give itself moments of superheroism.
Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up actor recovering from his days playing Birdman, the titular character from one of the most popular superhero franchises. He’s attempting to put on a serious play in New York alongside actresses Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Risenborough). When the other male lead ends up in an accident, the famous Mike (Edward Norton) joins the production. Riggan is caught trying to balance rehearsal night with a tenuous relationship with his straight out of rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and an affair with Laura.
A core mystery of the film is whether or not Riggan really has superpowers. In several moments of the film, he’s shown floating in the air or using telekinesis. It’s uncertain whether or not these abilities are real as it’s suggested that they might be delusions. Riggan also hears a voice in his head which is suggested to be Birdman. He also sees Birdman at various times throughout the film.
However, as the story develops, the answer to this question doesn’t appear to be important to what this film is about or what it is trying to say. The pop-culture obsession of superheroes and the representation of Birdman as a sort of superego of Riggan are two threads that the film never develops into anything interesting. They function little more than set-dressings for a more intimate and grounded story.
As the actors of the play interact backstage, a common thread is revealed: each of them are in the play because they are searching for some sense of worth and significance. Riggan struggles with the feeling that he’s a has-been, someone past his prime who no longer has anything to offer the world. By trying to do something with artistic weight, he’s trying to gain some sort of validation. His ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), shows up at one point and reminds him that he’s quick to confuse love with adoration.
Lesley’s dream is to make it on Broadway and now that she finally is on the verge of realizing that dream, she’s worried that she isn’t good enough and that she hasn’t made it. Laura is looking for some worth in the relationship she has with Riggan which she hopes to further solidify with a family when she reveals she thinks she is pregnant.
Mike is a veteran broadway performer who continues to work in the medium because it’s the only place where he can be honest. His quest for truth is consumed in the art, but he fails to translate that authenticity over to real life. His sexual impotence is cured when he’s on stage, but in real life he can’t get it up. He begins a relationship with Sam, but she keeps challenging him to a game of truth or dare and calling him a chicken for only picking truth. He can say the truth, but he can’t be true. That only happens on the stage.
This common search for significance creates for a much richer and more interesting film than the Birdman subplot. At best, the Birdman stuff is a commentary on culture and art, but the universal themes of a desire to prove self-worth through performance and relationship resonates far more than the flash in the pan superhero elements.
Perhaps the only way in which this might work is in the idea that the superhero elements are feeding Riggan a delusional sense of worth and purpose, that the things he is looking for to validate him are ultimately absurd and not meaningful. They too are flashes in the pan, here today and gone tomorrow.
Birdman works best at its simplest. The more complexity added to a given scene, the less interesting Birdman becomes. Sure, there’s an initial air of intrigue by added in the subplot of superhero powers, but by the film’s end, none of these contribute in any meaningful way to what the film is about. As a quest for significance, the film shines as an exploration that we’re all searching for a sense of worth, but not in the right places.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing