What Does “Birdman” Have To Do With Michael Keaton’s Past Role as Batman?


Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) is a self-aware behind-the-scenes narrative about washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, once the lead of an enormously successful superhero franchise, who stages a Broadway play in the hopes of resurrecting his career and rebranding himself as a serious artist. Much of the film’s humor derives from its self-referential winks at the audience; these are not just superficial jokes, but fundamental aspects of the film, like casting choices. Consistently throughout the work, casting takes into account the actors’ career histories and public personas – comedian Zach Galifinakis, for example, consciously plays against his typical wild type as the main character’s subdued literary agent, while the notoriously serious and controlling Edward Norton plays a self-involved, committed Serious Actor.

The most pointedly self-aware casting, however, is Michael Keaton in the leading role. Though the part was not written for Keaton and there are distinct differences between the successful actor and his unhinged character, the film inevitably brings to mind the reality of Keaton’s life and career. In the late ‘80s, Keaton was the star of Tim Burton’s highly successful Batman (1989) movie, which made him one of the most successful and visible stars in Hollywood at the time. While the actor continued to work regularly in the subsequent years, he was unable to maintain the level of stardom and the quality of projects he achieved with Batman and that lasted through much of the ‘90s. Herbie Fully Loaded (2005) was certainly no Jackie Brown (1997).

Birdman, then, was itself the shot at a career Renaissance for Keaton that the play is meant to be for Riggan within the film. Much as Riggan’s performance finally earns him a coveted rave review, Birdman catapulted Keaton back into the cultural consciousness and even earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Luckily, Keaton managed this while keeping his nose intact.