A Sprawling Superhero Satire, ‘Birdman’ Dazzles

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We’re currently in the midst of an unprecedented superhero boom at the cinema. While there have been other successful superhero films prior the boom unleashed by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, we’re currently in an era of sustained superhero success that has lasted over a decade with no signs of decline. Some actors embrace their superhero persona while other begrudgingly accept these roles knowing that they’ll afford them greater opportunities to pursue passion projects. The latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance), looks at some of these issues in the broader scope of a caustic satire about showbiz, media, haute and lowbrow culture, and where the two collide.

Once a prominent movie star, the career of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has been on a steady decline since turning down Birdman IV. In an attempt to return to some artistic credibility, Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The problems are mounting for Riggan as opening night draws closer – his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is fresh out of rehab; his friend and producer, Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), is trying to cope with the stress of the production; following an accident during rehearsals, tempermental method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is called in to the cast, but his marital problems with his wife and castmate, Lesley (Naomi Watts) may derail the off kilter production. All of these pressures seem slight when compared to the financial and professional risks that Riggan has taken to stage his vision, and his unstable mental state comes under much duress.

While it’s incredibly easy to draw parallels between Riggan and Michael Keaton – Keaton, of course, being best remembered as Batman – there’s a lot more to Birdman than just the obvious. It’s a dark satire, a showbiz Dr. Strangelove. In its heart is the darkest fears of many an artist – lacking a livelihood and devoid of artistic respect. The film doesn’t hold back on any of its punches, taking swings at the Hollywood model, the biggest stars, the biggest egos, the overanxious junket media, and the critical establishment. Birdman, again like Strangelove, is a laugh riot about a nightmare, though not as terrifying as all out nuclear war.

Along with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu is one of the most exciting filmmakers to emerge from Mexico. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki, the same cinematographer that Cuarón used for Gravity, have created a visually fascinating work consisting of long takes that are cleverly edited together to look like one continuous shot, like Hitchcock’s Rope. Where Gravity employed similar tricks, the fact that there is a lot less digital trickery makes the work here much more impressive. When the visuals are combined with the jazzy percussion, it gives the film this building sense that a big crash is always around the corner.

Birdman is a film that fires on all cylinders – riotously funny, incredibly well-acted, and a visual feast. It’s a great work of satire that is constantly punching up, but also swinging all around. Keaton gives a phenomenal performance, his best in years, and hopefully will garner him some awards consideration. As good as Keaton and the rest of the cast is, the real thing to watch is the collaboration between Iñárritu and Lubezki. The unique manner of presentation at work here isn’t a gimmick or an experiment, nor is it distracting in any way. It keeps the film always moving, be it to another room or towards another joke. In another year where the top 2 grossing films (before the next Hunger Games hits) are comic book movies, Birdman is the satire that superhero cinema deserves.

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