By Michael Callari
Superhero movies, for all their domination at the box office, seldom take flight during awards season. Nonetheless, the winner of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography at the 87th Academy Awards was a film called Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Its secret? Well, despite the title, it’s not a superhero movie in the traditional sense. The protagonist, Riggan Thompson, is an actor whose career has never been the same since he turned down the lead role in a fourth Birdman movie in the early nineties. He’s attempting to make a comeback with a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in which he is the writer, director, and star. Playing him is Michael Keaton, an actor whose career has never been the same since he turned down the lead role in a third Batman movie in the early nineties.
Riggan’s demons are plentiful as the play staggers towards opening night. His relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is strained. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), his talented co-star, is on the verge of sabotaging the entire production with his over-the-top method acting. His two characters are starting to mirror his life in unsettling ways. Oh, and Birdman himself has taken up residence in his head, encouraging him to quit the theater and appear in something with more mass-market appeal. As a result, he’s starting to hallucinate that he has the same powers of flight and telekinesis as the superhero he once played.
Though the clearest representation of Birdman’s theme of art versus commerce is the heated argument Riggan gets into with the New York Times theater critic determined to thrash his play before she’s even seen it, Carver and a lawyer-friendly version of Batman help set up the framework. Superhero movies are handy emblems of commerce, with their reliable box office success and relentless release schedule (five productions based on Marvel Comics characters alone are planned for next year). Riggan, still interchangeable in the public’s eye with the costumed do-gooder he played two decades ago, cannot escape them. Before Mike Shiner accepts the part, Riggan’s first three picks to replace an injured co-star are Woody Harrelson (busy with the Hunger Games franchise), Michael Fassbender (busy with the X-Men franchise), and Jeremy Renner (busy with the Avengers franchise). But Mike himself is played by an actor who once portrayed an iconic comic book character (the Hulk); so is Sam, for that matter (Gwen Stacy).
Riggan tries to use the work of Raymond Carver, a respected poet and short story writer, to rebrand himself as a serious actor. Though he respects Carver (whose encouragement was the reason he decided to become an actor), his adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” switches around events from the story, changes the setting, and gives his characters the best lines. Also noteworthy is the version of the story that he adapts. Carver’s original manuscript wasn’t published until 2009, twenty-one years after his death. The version published in a 1981 collection of the same name was heavily altered by Carver’s friend and editor Gordon Lish, who made the story shorter and the characters closer to each other’s throats. Riggan’s script draws upon the Lish-edited version only. Perhaps he is, as his critic nemesis charges, “blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art,” using the ideas of others to put on a personal “propaganda piece.”
However, Riggan has one last alteration to make to his script, which I dare not spoil. Whether it succeeds in returning him to stardom is left open to interpretation.