Last night as I sat down to ink a page of Pantheon, I watched the latest and greatest from wunderkind director, Innaritu, Birdman. Suffice to say, I had to hit pause every now and then – between dipping the nibs in the fountain inkwell – to reflect on the just-witnessed intense scenes. At the end of the film, it all clicked – it was, indeed, a critique of the superhero genre – but at a cost.
The film works on several levels: the satirical level, the meta level, the tragic, and best of all, the self-referential absurdist level. The naked misanthropy was delicious – each character kept creating fresh delusions in the process of shattering their older delusions. Riggan (Michael Keaton) is your classic failed narcissist – shallow, self-centered, but self-hating and caustic – while being constantly plagued by the Birdman, a hilariously macho superhero he used to play in the distant past. Casting Keaton as a former superhero reinforced the ironic metatextual sentiment – and no doubt this also applied to Ed Norton as the deadly serious veteran of method acting.
Several times, some character condemns the superhero genre as some pathetic wish-fulfillment, but the film successfully drew us into the exact same trappings of the genre with spectacular magic realism. The dichotomy between entertainment and art – between the comic book superhero Birdman and the hard-boiled truth of theater - is mere artifice, a house of cards that eventually exposes theater as just another escapist fantasy.
Inarritu's attempt at the critique of the superhero genre reveals a level of maturity he did not achieve in his earlier films (21 Grams, Babel, or Biutiful) because he managed to sublimate his moral vision (which is prone to fatalism) with cinematic and narrative devices. The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki unleashes his full talent with long takes of unbearably intense scenes. As the film barreled to a hyperrealistic climax, I'm left wondering whether this paralleled Inarritu's own sense of directing, whether Birdman is the confession that Inarritu was always already the superhero director he wanted to be.