Lit + Film

Published on March 23rd, 2015 | by Russ Dobler

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Why Did No One Tell Me “Birdman” Is a Self-Righteous Polemic?

When I first heard about Birdman, the directorial tour de force of critically-acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, I was excited.

Admittedly, that was because I initially hoped it would be a big screen adaptation of the classic [adult swim] series, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, although I wondered how Stephen Colbert would find the time in his schedule to play the main character’s green-skinned courtroom nemesis, Reducto.

But you know what? Michael Keaton as an aging actor, looking to recapture glory after burning out on the superhero role that made him famous? That sounds fun, too. I was again naïve, sadly, as “fun” would turn out to be the film’s main target.

Make no mistake, Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a technical and storytelling masterpiece, with sly editing continually thrusting the audience forward into appreciating great acting performances from the accomplished cast. But that audience isn’t meant to be us. Birdman is a salve for the serious artists that are threatened by us.

You wouldn’t have known that from how the film was promoted.  Just six days before it hit theaters, the Birdman panel was one of the most popular attractions at October’s New York Comic Con. Trust me; I waited in line for an hour and a half and was turned away before I could even see the door to the hall.

Fortunately, Screen Rant was there to get the scoop. Much of Birdman’s plot was kept understandably hush-hush, but Michael Keaton and Ed Norton, who played the film’s antagonist – and, at one time, the Incredible Hulk – couldn’t help but gush over the superhero genre in general. Keaton boasted of his pride in playing the first serious, silver screen Batman, and Norton recounted his childhood obsession with Frank Miller.

This shows some serious geek cred that’s offset by director Iñárritu’s belief that superhero movies are tantamount to “cultural genocide.”

“And then we reveal the whole thing’s bullshit!” Photo from gossip-central.com

Everyone knows he said that, right? In an interview with Deadline, dated just four days after Birdman’s Comic Con panel, Iñárritu remarked:

“I sometimes enjoy [superhero movies] because they are basic and simple and go well with popcorn. The problem is that sometimes they purport to be profound, based on some Greek mythological kind of thing … They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.”

Perpetually oblivious, I wasn’t aware of the comment before I finally saw Birdman a month ago, swept as it was back into theaters after a Best Picture Academy Award victory that surprised many. Nevertheless, the theme was hard to miss.

I wanted to believe the film delivered equal jabs to comic nerds and drama geeks. The petulant critic could easily represent the stodgy establishment, panning anything it doesn’t like before even a viewing. When Keaton’s and Norton’s characters engage in a silly slapfight, a nearby stagehand stands as a sensible observer, reminding us that those crazy acting types often tussle over nothing.

But in the end, the specter of the Birdman character literally haunting the protagonist is too obvious a bludgeon to overlook, as it attempts to drag him back down to an artistic mire that would again give him recognition, at the cost of his soul. Keaton’s reconstructive surgery beak puts the finishing touches on even-handedness, as it feels like an entreaty to actors to avoid superhero roles, because that’s clearly how they’ll always remember you, no matter what.

We get it. Superman isn’t Citizen Kane. But it’s not Under Siege, either. Superhero movies have become the new action movies, and there will always be a place for those. After a steady diet of Schindler’s Lists, I’d bet even the most hardened cinephile would long for a Captain America. So when it’s time to take a breather, do you want a “smart blockbuster” like Winter Soldier or…whatever the hell White House Down is? Take your pick.

Ultimately it’s no mystery why Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture. In the form of a well-constructed film, Iñárritu told the Academy what it already believed, that it’s time for these tights-wearing ninnies to go. Much of the Awards telecast this year seemed like an anti-superhero PSA, although I have no idea how Jack Black thinks he has the right to talk.

All this time, I never realized I was financing the enemy, just because I like seeing colorful characters with cool powers! I mean, superhero movies wouldn’t exist if people just stopped buying tickets to see them. Yes pulp readers, we’re all to blame for the homogenization and franchisery that plagues Hollywood and stifles the last vestiges of creativity. Soon we won’t even have quaint, heartfelt pictures winning Best Animated Feature, like Big Hero 6 did this year.

(Don’t tell the Academy it’s a superhero property. Remember: ignorance is bliss.)

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About the Author

Better known as "Dog" to friends and weirdos, Russ specializes in the intersection between science and culture. He helps promote critical thinking with the New York City Skeptics, blogs at The Thoughtful Conduit and drinks beer wherever he can find a nice tap selection.



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