Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Magical Realism and Cinematic Sorcery

By Leslie C. Halpern

This black comedy, in which a former superhero movie icon hopes to reinvent his floundering career through adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway play, presents truths at different levels of reality.

Faced with mounting costs, a vicious theater critic, temperamental actors, a pregnant girlfriend, and an angry daughter just released from rehab, washed-up-actor-turned-Broadway-director Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) has difficulty facing these truths. As the pressure mounts and his play seems less likely to revive his career, he gets closer to a complete break from reality.

Off-Screen Reality

First there’s the off-screen reality. Michael Keaton, who stars as washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, portrayed superhero Batman in the first two movie versions directed by Tim Burton. He declined future films in the series when Burton left for other projects. In Birdman, Riggan had previously played a telekinetic winged superhero named Birdman in a popular movie series, but declined the fourth installment to the detriment of his career.

Other actors in the current play (an adaptation of the real-life 1981 short story by Raymond Carver titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) are also actors portraying actors with their need for approval, frail egos, and emotional instability.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman.

Camera as Character

Director of Photography, Emmanuel Lubezki used Steadicam and hand-held cameras to achieve an extended, nearly seamless narrative through Riggan’s backstage dealings and on-stage performances. Peering from behind, entering through doorways, zipping down the halls backstage, and peeking in through windows, the camera’s sorcery simultaneously becomes a behind-the-scenes insider (with the right people at the right place at the right time to capture the action) and an outsider (an observer without a voice).

The frantic camera pace provides a dizzying look backstage where the drama eclipses what happens in front of the audience. Whether pompous actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is posing naked in front of the costume designer, Riggan’s unstable actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is causing commotion backstage, or his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) is sneaking a toke, this insider view provides a different kind of reality – a voyeuristic look at the often-ugly scene behind the beautiful red velvet curtain.

Magical Realism

As popularized by Nobel Prize in Literature-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died earlier this year at the age of 87, magical realism is the genre where magical elements are woven into an otherwise realistic work of art, whether literature, film, or visual art. Other films, including Groundhog Day, Donnie Darko, Life of PI, and Midnight in Paris, have effectively used this device.  In Birdman, Riggan’s alter ego, a gravelly voiced critic in the Birdman costume, undermines his efforts to go beyond the iconic character and become a Broadway sensation.

While himself, Riggan suffers bouts of self-doubt and desperation. When under the spell of his alter ego and believing himself to actually be the iconic superhero, he has telekinetic powers, the ability to fly, and, mostly importantly, widespread approval. As his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) informs him, he has always confused love for admiration. Lost in his magical world of Birdman, Riggan enjoys the “love” he could never give or receive as an individual man.

Hailed by critics for its amazing camera work and in-your-face acting, Birdman may well be art imitating life imitating art, if Keaton’s career soars to new heights from this role.


  • A man once known for his role as The Birdman superhero in the movies now hopes to make a comeback directing a Broadway play despite ongoing calamities in his personal and professional life.
  • Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
  • Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • MPAA Rating: Rated R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence)
  • Run Time: 159 minutes
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