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What’s “Birdman” Really About? Is it Critiquing the Dominance of Comic Book Films in Hollywood?

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Many critics believe Birdman (2014) is a critique of the current dominance of comic book films in Hollywood. However, the film is not a simple anti-Hollywood screed. Rather, it acknowledges the conflicted ideas and contradictions within its characters.

Birdman tells the story of washed up movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who stages a Broadway play in the hopes of resurrecting his career and gaining artistic respectability. Riggan is best known for playing the film’s titular comic book character in a highly successful film franchise that all of the characters view as crudely commercial broad entertainment. The actor attempts to shake his identification with Hollywood superficiality by writing and starring in self-consciously high-minded and literary play, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story staged as an uncompromising domestic drama.

After one of the actors is harmed in a freak accident during rehearsal, the producer brings in critically worshipped stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who seems to the perfect model of a serious actor. However, the film rejects the easy binary of the crass movie star and the genuine artist - though Mike may be a genius, he is also volatile, ludicriously unprofessional (he often drinks on the job and attempts to have real sex onstage), and egomaniacal. Beyond the character’s instability, the glimpses we see of the play itself look intentionally dubious. Comic book movies may not be high art, but even the most serious-minded play might simply be bad.

Critic Glenn Kenny writes, “While its incidental observations on fame and craft and superhero movies all land in various sweet spots throughout, I perceive Birdman’s theme as not so much about the arts as such but more the extent to which the human need/desire for love is linked to vanity, and whether the two can ever be wholly distinguished and/or untwined from each other.” Riggan Thomson’s reasons for staging the play are constantly defined by how he wants to be appreciated by the public and what he believes he’s capable of becoming. It’s notable that he’s employed his daughter as his assistant on the production, someone who clearly has a strained relationship with him but has taken on a position that requires her to remain close. It’s basically an attempt to repair their relationship while exposing her to an endeavor that Thomson probably hopes will lead her to perceive him as an accomplished, successful, substantive artist and person. The same dynamic is even more overt in Thomson’s conversations with his ex-wife, who visits him periodically in the dressing room.

This egotistical need for love is not simply a quirk of Riggan’s personality. Even Mike’s relationship with his co-star and girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), humorously plays his ego up against his desire to satiate her - not only is he thrilled to be able to get an erection for the first time in six months, he’s ecstatic that it’s happening in the middle of a performance, right when his character is caught in bed with a married woman.

While the Birdman is hardly complimentary towards empty, commercially-minded comic book franchises, it finds equal fault with overly serious, self-regarding “Serious Art.” Ultimately, however, the art versus commerce conflict is not the film’s central concern. Instead, Birdman finds explores its characters’ competing impulses and the often-ugly reasons we long for love.