Warning: Spoilers for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ahead.
Birdman begins with text from Raymond Carver’s poem “Late Fragment,” presented alongside the gloriously unpredictable drumming of Antonio Sánchez:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
This quote is the heart and soul of the 2015 Best Picture winner. From start to finish, in what is presented as one continuous shot, Birdman explores several sophisticated ideas like reputation, love, existence, and how we perceive those ideas in the real world. Our protagonist is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who used to be an action star in his fictional superhero Birdman movies. But it has been years since he found success, and he’s desperate to get back on his feet to prove to everyone if not himself that he can be a real artist. And so, when we are introduced to him, he is in the middle of directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Carver’s series of short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Along the way, however, Riggan is constantly tormented by uncontrollable forces that converge in the form of rival actors, family problems, and even the constant scolding voice of Birdman himself.
This torment can be easily relatable, for it boils down to a key human element of wanting respect and a good reputation. Riggan wants to do a piece of work that finally means something, but above all, he wants to be treated as a respected individual. But nothing works out for him, and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu finds creative ways throughout the film to balance Riggan’s suffering with humor. Riggan never gets the kind of flowers he likes. He preps for multiple interviews, only for the questions to be about Birdman 4 and whether or not he injected baby pig semen to rejuvenate his face. His co-star in the play Mike (Edward Norton) doubts his acting talent. The notorious theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) wants to kill his play before even seeing it. He’s divorced from his wife (Amy Ryan) and has a strenuous relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who’s recovering from drug addiction.
From a certain perspective, the world is against Riggan. But maybe Riggan is responsible for some of his own victimhood. In his ex-wife’s eyes, for example, he wants more than respect. He wants to be admired long after he’s gone, to be rendered immortal because his work lives on. One cannot blame Riggan for this desire. We glorify artists all the time in the real world. But Riggan wants immortality to the point where he’s mentally hurting himself and hallucinating about having supernatural powers. He wants to fly close to the sun and stay there without ever having the fear of dying. That brings to mind Henry A. Murray’s analysis of the Icarus complex, which describes a personality type of extreme narcissism and an endless desire to ascend. If you don’t buy the connection, the film even references Icarus at least twice, including an easily-to-miss moment in the interview scene where Riggan says Birdman is like Icarus and when Birdman himself suggests the title for Birdman 4 as Birdman: The Phoenix Rises.
II. Love & The Icarus Complex
But there are further clues that highlight Riggan’s Icarian nature and self-destruction. Like the Carver quote that started the film, Riggan wants to “feel beloved,” but the film proves time and time again that Riggan struggles in accepting love or conveying love to others. This struggle clearly stems from his narcissism, in that he gets in his own way. He disrespects people who are not in his central focus. He doesn’t show attention or humility to his ex-wife for visiting him behind the stage. He fails to connect to Sam and criticizes her addiction at something she should not do “to him,” as if he’s the one suffering and not her. This behavior is a confusion between love and admiration (it is even said out loud in one scene). Riggan thinks he can find love through people admiring him and his work. However, unlike love, admiration can be done through an objective achievement, like a successful movie, or in Riggan’s case, a successful play. Ironically, his play, especially the scene he rehearses the most, talks about how love is absolute and unconditional. It is Riggan’s nature preventing him from connecting with the people around him, and in the end, preventing from ascending. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is the little quote card in his dressing room, which reads, “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” It’s the one thing he follows only halfway in his mind. He believes Riggan Thomson is Riggan Thomson, not Birdman, like the world says he is. However, he doesn’t live a life that’s in his control because he is still caught up in being at the top of the world. He claims throughout the film that his play is to show he can produce true art, when really it’s a desperate attempt to re-ascend to greatness and be relevant again in the world. That tragedy is what makes Riggan a flawed but still sympathetic character – a real human being suffering from the Icarus complex.
With this kind of mentally ill personality shown under brighter light, other small details throughout the film carry a much heavier weight. One of Riggan’s lines in his play is asking why his character always has to beg people to love him. Riggan calls Robert Downey Jr. a clown who has only half his talent, even though he’s making so much money from the Iron Man films. He shares his paranoia to his ex-wife about being on a plane with George Clooney and that if the plane crashed, the newspaper would only report on Clooney’s death. And according to Sam, he does not have any social media accounts, going so far as to mock bloggers and criticize society for finding the cheapest ways to gain popularity (through viral videos). Or how about the irony of Riggan becoming famous again because of his embarrassing walk through Times Square in his underwear – the very thing he was against? Or… how about the opening titles of the film? As the Carver quote (in red) disappears letter by letter while the word “Birdman” (in white) appears, we get at least a full second where the only red letters left diagonally spell out the Spanish word for love, “Amor.”
But what Iñárritu does with Birdman is even deeper than reputation or love vs admiration. He tackles these relatable themes in the foreground, yes, but they all sit on top of a grander exploration of existence. Is there even a point in Riggan’s struggle? Well, the bitter answer is no, and Sam dumps it all to his face in one amazing monologue and one fascinating scene involving toilet paper. But she’s right. Humans are just tiny specks in an infinite universe. Our time in this world is so temporary. We’re not important. But the film’s thesis seems to be a matter of perception. All that matters is if you find the thing important, which is delightfully contradictory to the quote on Riggan’s desk. Perception is what makes Birdman such a challenging but deeply rewarding experience for any type of moviegoer. What you get out of the film depends on what kind of life you live and what perspective you are coming from. For a film that’s a series of wacky events and surreal images, Birdman consistently invites interpretations.
IV. Perception & The Ending Analyzed
Which brings me to the most widely debated topic in the film: The ending. There seems to be two camps in this discussion. Either you believed Riggan died or you believed he lived and continued on his life. Again, it depends on your perception and beliefs, whether you thought Birdman had a depressing ending or an uplifting ending. What’s fascinating about these interpretations is that they can all be valid. I have seen and felt both thematic endings in Birdman, depending on what mood I was that day. Like I said, the film is delightfully contradictory.
There is a lot of support both physically and thematically that Riggan is dead by the end of the film. To start, his death was constantly foreshadowed throughout, from his fear of dying while the press is focused on George Clooney’s death to his character in his play committing suicide. But a big clue is the story Riggan tells his ex-wife, about the one time he tried to kill himself by walking into the ocean, only to retreat because of being repeatedly stung by jellyfish. In the film’s opening titles, there is a split-second appearance of a shot that shows jellyfish. That shot appears again after Riggan kills himself on stage, only this time the shot lasts five seconds instead of less than a second. In the shot, several jellyfish are washed up on a shore, likely dead. Does this signify the ocean is now “clear”?
This is where I should step in and add that there is a subgroup of people who think Riggan died on stage from his gun and another subgroup of people who think Riggan died by jumping out the hospital window. The stage theory can be supported by the surreal shots of the Times Square performers performing on Riggan’s stage, almost as if those were his final thoughts as he dies on-stage. The latter theory, however, holds more thematic power. You can argue that even though his suicide attempt on stage didn’t go as planned, and it propelled him to success again, that success is still temporary, like an unavoidable fall due to the nature of Western celebritism. The bandages wrapped around his nose have an eerie resemblance to Birdman’s mask. Falling out of relevance is something Riggan can never avoid. If it doesn’t happen now, it’ll happen a few years later, and so his leap from the hospital window can be interpreted as the only way of escape.
But then, you look the other way, and you will find an ending that is uplifting, darkly comedic, and moving.
Even though Riggan’s bandages look like Birdman’s mask, there is definitely meaning behind him taking them off. He sees Birdman for the final time, sitting on the toilet, or rather, on the shitter. The key takeaway for me is Birdman didn’t speak, with a rather disappointed face. Riggan then turns around, leaves the bathroom, and whispers, “Bye bye, and fuck you.” To me, that brief moment is when Riggan finally says goodbye to Birdman. He now understands that he no longer needs Birdman to be happy or relevant or self-important. The scene of him leaping out the window is merely a metaphorical expression of him finally being free, like a bird flying away to join the other birds. And for the first time in the entire movie, something physical interacts with one of Riggan’s hallucinations: Sam can see him flying in the air. For the first time, Riggan and his daughter have bonded, but most of all, Sam finally sees Riggan the way he sees himself, as an artist, as someone reborn.
The two interpretations are almost polar opposites of each other, only separated by the difference of the viewer’s perception. What Iñárritu technically showed on screen, however, was the same thing. It reminds me of Yasmina Reza’s French play “‘Art’.” Yes, the title has a pair of apostrophes around it. In that play, a group of friends debate over what constitutes “art.” Meanwhile, the white painting they bought is still sitting there, being its own thing, only changed because of perception.
In other words, a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing. And yet, Birdman shows credibility in both propositions.
In the end, whether or not you believe Riggan died, there is one single truth that both endings come up with: Riggan, for a while or forever, finally found what he was missing, which was a life in his control, a life where he is happy. He has finally ascended. His daughter finally appreciates him for who he is. The Birdman has been silenced, cast aside, forever muffled by the new Riggan Thomson. In the end, going back to Carver’s text in the beginning of the film, Riggan does finally get what he wanted out of his life —to call himself beloved and feel beloved. The only argument is whether he ascended in life or in death. And that constant shift in perception is what gives Birdman, as a film, everlasting life.