Post #32: Of Birds and Bats, or, Michael Keaton Goes Meta-Superhero
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.
--Raymond Carver, Late Fragment, quoted as an epigraph to Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Iñáritu 2014)
Michael Keaton has now played every role in the superhero genre: the titular protagonist in Batman (Burton 1989); the actor Riggan Thomson, who played the superhero Birdman three times but now hates the character in Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Iñárritu 2014); and Adrian Toomes, AKA the Vulture, an antagonist in the recently-released Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts 2017) (see header image). In this post, I’m going to look closely at the depiction of art in Birdman. While often interpreted as an acidic take-down of the superhero genre, I will argue that the film is attacking all of the elements it contains, from literature to theater to blockbuster cinema, and is ultimately saying that there is no hierarchy of art.
I don’t think it’s an accident that many of the primary actors in Birdman were main characters in superhero flicks as well. Michael Keaton played Batman twice, Edward Norton played the second version of Marvel’s Hulk in The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier 2008), and Emma Stone played a version of Spider-man’s crush Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb 2012). When one of the actors in Thomson’s production is hit by a falling stage light, Thomson and his agent brainstorm other actors who might fill in:
RIGGAN: Just find me an actor, a good actor. Get me, uh, Woody Harrelson.
JAKE: He’s doing the next Hunger Games.
RIGGAN: Um, uh, Michael Fassbender.
JAKE: He’s doing the prequel to the X-Men prequel.
RIGGAN: How about, uh, Jeremy Renner?
RIGGAN: Jeremy Renner. He was nominated. He’s The Hurt Locker guy.
JAKE: He’s an Avenger.
RIGGAN: Fuck! They put him in a cape too? I can’t believe this!
The three actors Riggan thinks of are tied up in (super)hero franchises. Especially telling is Jeremy Renner, whom Riggan identifies as a “good actor” because of his role in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film. That film won six Academy Awards. Superhero films are “low” art because they’re popular and spawn sequels; The Hurt Locker is “high” art because it’s a one-off film about the traumatic experiences of soldiers in the Iraq War. The irony is that Riggan is trying to escape his “low” art past as an actor who starred in two superhero films, and that Keaton is for the audience of Birdman a “low” art actor for his roles in Batman and Batman Returns.
It is perhaps too obvious to be stated that one of the primary targets of Birdman are Burton’s Batman films. Both personas share the typical superhero suffix “-man”, and both names have two syllables. The Joker calls Batman a “flying mouse” in Batman. Riggan’s experience as Birdman parallels Keaton’s as Batman: both actors have starred in several films starring their respective superheroes. Riggan starred in three Birdman films before abandoning the franchise; Keaton starred in Batman and Batman Returns before refusing to take part in a third outing. Keaton’s experience as Batman informed his construction of the Birdman persona: in a March 2015 Fresh Air interview Keaton said that he developed the Birdman voice from what he did in Batman and that his Birdman costume had the same dimensions as his Batman suit.
What’s more, Keaton was a controversial choice to play Bruce Wayne and his alter ego at the time, as revealed in this Variety article. The scene that showcases his unconventional approach to Bruce Wayne/Batman is when he talks to Vicky Vale in her apartment (see figure 1). Bruce struggles (unsuccessfully) to tell her about his alter ego, but is interrupted by the entrance of the Joker and his henchmen. He provokes the villain by breaking a vase with a poker, shouting, “Now you wanna get nuts? C’mon! Let’s get nuts!” We might also think about the two actors who put on Batman’s cowl after Keaton’s departure: Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Both were “heartthrob” actors, known for their charismatic personas on-screen, as opposed to Keaton, who was primarily known for his comedic talents in films like Night Shift (Howard 1982) and Beetlejuice (Burton 1988). This unconventional performance allowed Michael Keaton to deconstruct the superhero genre even better than other more typical choice to play superheroes on screen--and he was already doing it to a degree in Batman.
Although Birdman mercilessly criticizes and pokes fun at superhero films, it also makes it clear that Riggan’s superhero role has given him abilities. While preparing for his Broadway role, Riggan hovers in mid-air (see figure 2). In other scenes, Riggan uses telekinesis to destroy items in his dressing room, to open a door, and to turn on a TV. At the same time, it’s not clear how much of this is in Riggan’s head and how much of it happens in reality.
In the second half of the film, Riggan suffers a psychotic break when a harsh Broadway critic promises to give a play-ending review of the Carver adaptation. At this point, Riggan embraces Birdman in a scene that caricatures the worst excesses of cinematic blockbusters of the early twenty-first century:
BIRDMAN: That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Bones rattlin’! Big, loud, fast! Look at these people--look at their eyes. They’re all sparkling. They love this shit. They love blood. They love action, not this talking, depressing, philosophical bullshit!
This scene demonstrates beyond all doubt that the Birdman films were ludicrous and bombastic. On the other hand, the Birdman role does enable Riggan to further his acting and to re-invent himself, as the two shots of phoenix imagery demonstrate (see figure 3). The proceeds from those films allow Riggan to bankroll his own Raymond Carver adaptation in St. James Theatre, a prominent Broadway venue that has hosted the likes of Marlon Brando (obnoxiously name-dropped in the film).
Another scene takes aim at the desire of some who work in the superhero genre to elevate comics to “high” culture by comparing them to mythology, especially Greek mythology:
JOURNALIST #1: Why would somebody go from playing the lead in a comic-book franchise to adapting Raymond Carver for the stage? As you’re probably aware, Barthes said the cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now being done by laundry detergent commercials and comic-strip characters. This is a big leap you’ve taken.
RIGGAN: Yeah, it is, absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, like you said, that Barthes said, ah… See, Birdman, like Icarus--
JOURNALIST #2: Okay, hang on. Who is this Barthes guy? Which Birdman was he in?
JOURNALIST #1: Roland Barthes was a French philosopher, and if you knew anything about the history of--
JOURNALIST #2: --now is it true you've been injecting yourself with semen from baby pigs?
RIGGAN: I'm sorry, what?
JOURNALIST #2: As a method of facial rejuvenation?
RIGGAN: Where did you read that?
JOURNALIST #2: It was tweeted by @prostatewhispers.
RIGGAN: That's not true.
JOURNALIST #2: I know, but did you do it?
RIGGAN: No, I didn't do it.
JOURNALIST #2: Okay, I'll write you're denying it.
RIGGAN: Don't write anything. Why would you write anything? Don't write what she said. I didn't put any baby pig--
JOURNALIST #1: Are you at all afraid that people will say you're doing this play to battle the impression you're a washed-up superhero?
RIGGAN: No, absolutely not. That's why, twenty years ago, I said no to Birdman 4.
JOURNALIST #3: Birdman 4? You do Birdman 4?!
Simultaneously, this scene also skewers the sniffing journalist who pretentiously name-drops the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes, the journalist who only cares about getting a dirty People Magazine-style scoop, and the foreign journalist who jumps the gun and assumes Riggan is announcing another Birdman entry. The scene is all about misinterpretation, and none of the characters is able to finish a thought.
Birdman’s characters put live theater on a pedestal. But the Mike Shiner character is pretentious too: he is such a Method actor that he performs a Carver scene drunk, with disastrous results (“Yes, I'm drunk. I'm supposed to be drunk! Why aren't you drunk? This is Carver! He left a piece of his liver on the table each time he wrote a page!”). In another scene, he proposes that he and the actress who plays his lover actually have sex on stage to make the drama more believable (see figure 4). When he confronts Riggan’s character on stage, his erection is so visible that the audience laughs derisively. Only when Riggan nearly commits suicide, shooting off a large part of nose in the process, does his adaptation receive rave reviews and audience acclaim.
Riggan’s daughter Sam has the final word on the pretentiousness and irrelevance of all art:
SAM: Nobody gives a shit but you! And, let's face it, dad: you are not doing this for the sake of art; you're doing it to feel relevant again. Well, guess what? There's an entire world of people who fight to be relevant every single day! And you act like it doesn't exist. Things that are happening in a place you ignore that has already forgotten about you! I mean, who the fuck are you?!…It's you who doesn't exist! You're doing this because you're terrified, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right! You don't! It's not important, okay? You're not important! Get used to it!
In the end, the virtue of ignorance in Birdman’s title refers to the pretentiousness of art, that humans create a hierarchy of artistic expression when it is in fact, in the end, all the same. Yes, superhero films can be excessive and silly, but so can Broadway drama and the petty high-mindedness of journalists and critics. In the end, Riggan embraces his superhero persona and leaps out of his hospital window to soar above the city as he did in an earlier scene (see figure 5).