“How did we end up here? This place is horrible. Smells like balls.”
So asks Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 90s. Thomson is now trying to break into Broadway with an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but everything’s going wrong and someone won’t lay off the fucking drums.
Birdman, from director Alejandro Iñárritu, is a disorienting satire that takes aim less at Hollywood blockbusters than at the pretentious elites who ignore them. Most of the film consists of a single, more-than-hour-long tracking shot, winding around Thomson as he stumbles through his tiny Broadway bubble in a drunken haze.
The film contains no real superhero action, but the genre itself looms large over proceedings. Keaton himself played Batman in 1989 and 1992, and opposite him is Edward Norton, who once played the Incredible Hulk (with a lot of CGI). Robert Downey Jnr appears on TV screens to promote the new Iron Man, and there are casual references to Jeremy Renner (“he’s an Avenger now”) and Michael Fassbender (“he’s shooting the X-Men prequel-prequel”). Sometimes, it’s hard to think of a Hollywood A-lister who hasn’t played a superhero, and Iñárritu drops plenty of hints why. Whenever Thomson leaves his theatre, he’s met with swarms of adoring fans. People loved those movies. Who watches plays?
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The humour in Birdman is wickedly funny and sepulchrally dark. Thomson acts out What We Talk About…’s final scene, in which the lead shoots himself in the head, what feels like a dozen times. In another scene, Thomson stands on the edge of a building as a crowd gathers below. “Is this for real or are you shooting a film?” a woman calls out. “Shooting a film,” he shouts back.
“You people,” the woman replies, “are full of shit.”
It’s a line that sums up much of the film. Thomson, trading in his cape for a stage wig, trying to buy legitimacy through his pretentious show, is full of shit. Thomson’s co-star, Mike Shiner (Norton), whipping his cock out between soliloquies about how he owns New York, is also full of shit. And so is Thomson’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), hiding behind her generic fucked-up teen schtick.
But Iñárritu reserves special scorn for the theatre critic, a snobbish ice queen whose New York Times column wields the absolute power to make or break a play. She is most definitely full of shit. Her power, in turn, is an implied dig at New York’s moneyed theatre-going set, who apparently possess no critical faculties of their own and are themselves full of shit. Yet it is these cultured sheep whose approval Thomson desperately craves, even as his fame with the unwashed masses—those privileged enough to decide what they like, and they like Birdman—is a source of embarrassment.
Birdman is a fantastically subversive film, full of contradictions: a film about the stage that doesn’t seem to care for it, an art film that champions mass tastes, an anti-elitist film set in the middle of New York with an all-white cast. With its innovative direction, genius script and universally strong performances, it’s also one of the best films so far this decade. Beat that, Marvel.