In the first years of the 21st century, Hollywood discovered a thirst for male and female characters with superhuman powers. These extraordinary individuals were able to confront the type of modern crime that has progressively rendered the classical systems of state power – the police and governmental intelligence services – helpless. Exploiting the widespread paranoia emerging from the aftermath of 9/11, Hollywood bought the rights to roughly the entire back catalogue of Marvel and DC comics and established franchise after franchise.
These films were not just trivial and mechanical adaptations of hit comics, some aimed for high art. Auteurs were brought in to make the most sophisticated variations on a theme, altering the course of superhero history from the camp humour of its past to the darkened realism of the contemporary scene. As Christopher Nolan began fostering arguably the most intelligent youthful cinematic audience for years, audiences not only sprinted to see films about superheroes, but they also wanted to talk about them in great detail.
Reflecting the recurrent interest in conspiracy that has defined those years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the films were explored and debated relentlessly, fan theories multiplied, every element appeared to have a double meaning. While the first superhero films explored the current anxiety and instability metaphorically, Birdman arrives as the first literally paranoid superhero movie.
Birdman is not only a spin on the superhero genre with Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) delusions of grandeur, it is a variation on the backstage drama, the old Hollywood favourite. Teeming with references to the real world and industry insights, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film depicts the attempt of an actor famous for starring in lowbrow superhero films – as the eponymous Birdman – to rejuvenate his career by tackling the highbrow world of Raymond Carver and Broadway.
Taking on the seemingly gargantuan task of directing, adapting and starring in the play What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Keaton’s Riggan is searching for great success, an ambition matched by Iñárritu and his cinematographer, the remarkable Emmanuel Lubezki. Thwarted by a falling light fitting which knocks out the play’s main star a day before the first preview – an act apparently willed by Riggan due to the actor’s lack of talent – Riggan is forced to find a quick replacement. Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her roommate, the temperamental and bordering insane method actor Ryan (Edward Norton) who as if by magic happens to have memorised all the lines of Carver’s work.
Predictably, chaos ensues, previews are disrupted, Ryan not only gets drunk but sports his erection on stage, while the voice in Riggan’s head becomes more disparaging and his fantasies grow in intensity. Alongside this disorder, Iñárritu moves to attack the critical establishment, portraying the powerful New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) as malicious and despicable, desiring to the kill the play off before she has even seen it, out of hatred for both Riggan and lowbrow cinema.
It was once said that films about theatre tell us more about cinema than any other subject, and Birdman functions not only as a tremendous film about acting but an aesthetically virtuosic comment on cinema in the digital age. The film appears to be shot in one single take, at first glance aiming to rival Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), the first feature film to be shot entirely in one take. However, covert cuts are soon spotted (I counted five obvious ones) and others are apparently there hidden through digital manipulation.
Here Iñárritu and Lubezki have offered us the death of the authentic long take. Once the signifier of realism at odds with editing (editing has created fantasy since the early days of Georges Méliès, the first film magician), the long take is corrupted in the digital age, offering an appearance of the real, a unification of time and space where there is none. Regardless of such active deception, Birdman is a staggering aesthetic display of movement, chaos and disorder, one of the finest displays of visual ingenuity since Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009). The film can be enjoyed on two channels, both through its astonishing camerawork and its content and ensemble cast made up of Keaton, Zach Galifianakis (in a surprising restrained role), Norton, Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan.
The interest in reality/fantasy reflected in the film’s aesthetics becomes progressively central to the narrative of Birdman as the film develops. While its most obvious incarnation is Riggan’s psychosis, the theatre stage increasingly becomes the space where reality exists. As the most obvious guarantor of realism in pornographic film history is the erection, it becomes interesting to learn that the impotent Ryan is able to only get an erection on the stage. In conjunction with his decision to become drunk for the role and Riggan’s concluding suicide attempt, labelled as a new form of ‘superrealism’ by the venomous Tabitha Dickinson, Iñárritu throws up many questions about the nature of reality in both cinema, theatre and the real world.
Aiming for the ambition and spectacle of the films of Orson Welles, Iñárritu and Lubezki have given us the first great film of the year. Avoiding the serious and reflective nature of Iñárritu’s previous films (ranging from Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006) through to Biutiful (2010)), the celebrated Mexican director has made a hyper-active, humorous and thoroughly entertaining satire of the cinematic and theatrical milieu. This is intelligent and stylish cinema, the kind of film that shouts that film is still alive in the era of ubiquitous technology.