We suspect that every superhero has an internal voice raging at all times, expressing conflict and doubt while their external actions bravely save the day. Yet, this contradictory side usually remains hidden to sustain the pureness of the mythology. Aside from Christian Bale's mumbling caped crusader in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, emotional cracks aren't that appealing to the fanboy masses yearning for simplistic idols. America likes its tights-wearing titans to be surefire and strong, not self-loathing and complex.
Alejandro González Iñárritu flips these expectations on their head in Birdman, creating a post-comic-book film that features nothing but dialogue sequences and internal monologues that spew out into a world strafed with superhero blowback. Set entirely in the cavernous confines of a Broadway theater district, the film follows actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) as he tries to transcend his status as a B-movie burnout and adapt a Raymond Carver play for the stage. Like with many behind-the-scenes tales, nothing goes right: Riggan battles casting disasters, tyrant critics and his own crumbling ego.
Iñárritu traces his protagonist's every move with a roving camera perceived to look like one continuous shot, thanks in large part to the skill and creative dexterity of master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Aside from showmanship, this for mal choice is also meant to convey the omnipresence of Riggan's nasty feathered alter ego, Birdman, who growls self-righteous misinformation and skewed logic into the ear of a desperate artist already on the brink of selfdestruction. Together, they plunge into the abyss, hoping to remain relevant, but to whom exactly?
Much of Birdman's domineering opening act grapples with this question in interesting ways, shoving Riggan from one demoralizing pissing contest to the next, the most volatile of which involves a critically lauded method actor played to the hilt by Edward Norton. It's here that the film's themes regarding panic, performance and pain are most expertly conveyed. The two actors square off like two raging bulls ready to clash horns. Iñárritu often complements these showdowns with a clamoring drum score that becomes a kind of jazz-like white noise.
Still, Riggan perseveres because this is his "chance to do something right," as Birdman states in one of his heightened orations. He doesn't necessarily gain strength from these one-sided conversations; it's anger and self-delusion that feed his auteurist drive. This invariably impacts Riggan's already strained relationship with his recovering drug-addict daughter (Emma Stone) and girlfriend (the underused Andrea Riseborough).
As a black comedy about legacy, Birdman eventually turns more grueling than pertinent. While often impressive as a satire of our 21st-century obsession with self-importance, the film's extreme stylistics turn redundant very quickly, no matter how impressive the technical feat. More egregious is Iñárritu's desire to engage the polemics of modern-day superhero culture with the same grandstanding and megalomania that brought it into fashion in the first place. Riggan's tortured experience turns into a surrealist fairy tale about the dangers of believing in fairy tales.
By the end of Birdman, Riggan enters a broken psychological state that affords the viewer a window into nifty dream sequences that, for the first time, reveal a bombastic sensibility that the film's been desperately lacking thus far. Known for being a deathly dour filmmaker, Iñárritu displays a wonderful absurdity that finally matches Keaton's in sane performance. The actor who once donned the black mask of Batman in Tim Burton's gothic films here relishes the chance to deconstruct his own cultural persona.
In today's Hollywood, films like Birdman—which opens Friday, Oct. 24—counter the stagnancy brought on by too many Marvel movies and the like constructed purely for capitalistic reasons. Yet despite this ambition and vitality, Iñárritu's film doesn't risk a whole lot by simply subverting our meta-obsessed world with more of the same. It shrieks the same song again and again, sound-and-fury style.