Irony is not lost on Birdman. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former Hollywood actor, pin-up and household name thanks to a multi-billion-dollar superhero franchise. He was Birdman, and everybody loved him. 20 years later he’s broke, and resorts to directing, writing and starring in a Broadway play as part of an attempted comeback.
Throughout, it feels like Birdman is simultaneously saluting the superhero genre and ripping it apart.
There’s the eternal running joke about Keaton and Batman, meta references to actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Robert Downey Jr and Jeremy Renner, and appearances from such past Marvel aficionados as Edward Norton and Emma Stone, during which it retains the sense of wonder and excitement you get from the best superhero movies. As a satire it’s critical and darkly cynical, but that’s all buried beneath buckets of magic and fun.
As a piece of art – which is what it is – it’s stunning. The amount and quality of craftsmanship that has gone into it is astounding. Whether or not you like the actors, the characters or the story, Birdman is a triumph.
The combination of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is of the highest order. Most of the film was filmed to look like one long, continuous shot, in the tradition of the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Of course, it’s not one shot – that would have been next to impossible, what with some of it being set in Times Square and the story taking place over several days – but the end result feels just as seamless.
Likewise, the score is phenomenal. The camera follows Riggan through the winding corridors and deepest bowels of New York’s St James Theatre like we are walking with him. All the while, Antonio Sánchez’s strut-inducing jazz drumming plays over the picture. It really gets under the skin, being simple but powerful, and has all the subtlety of an ambulance siren. If everyone had that playing as the soundtrack to their lives then the world would be a much better place.
Everything else – the sets, the lighting, the costumes (Birdman’s super-suit in particular) – is perfectly executed, and comes together to make a film so deliciously crafted that you’ll likely be salivating just watching it. It is clear that a huge amount of hard work and talent went into Birdman, which very obviously paid off.
If there’s any justice in the film industry, Keaton should pretty much have his Academy Award nomination in the bag. Watching him play off the rest of the cast is engaging and entertaining, but he also transfers those qualities to an empty room when he’s acting by himself, which happens alarmingly often.
The first time we see him, he’s sat in thin air in his pants, levitating, just chilling out and getting ready for rehearsals for his play – a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Though not much happens in those first couple of minutes – besides inexplicable levitation – it proves near-impossible not to stick with Riggan and root for him for the duration.
Iñárritu set out to make a great film, and achieves what Riggan Thomson had been aiming for his whole life. Birdman may not change the word, but people aren’t going to forget about it.