Modern audiences may not realize it, but there exists an entire generation for whom Michael Keaton is the definitive Batman. Tim Burton’s 1989 classic may be overlooked today in the wake of 21st century superhero flicks, but there was a time when Keaton’s soft-spoken portrayal of the caped crusader was the coolest thing on screen.
The years, however, have not been kind to Keaton, an actor defined by the hero he made famous, who has been almost entirely forgotten and must revitalize his career with a brand new project unlike anything he’s ever done. It is no accident that the story of Keaton’s life as a celebrity is a direct mirror to his character’s in “Birdman.” In fact, it is undoubtedly the reason his performance feels as raw and lifelike as it does, and makes itself one of the many highlights in a darkly funny and masterful work of art.
Instead of a movie, Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is throwing everything he has got into mounting a play on Broadway. He is a deeply disturbed, but entirely sympathetic character. As the various opening week catastrophes unfold around him on and off stage, it is very clear that the play is stripping away what is left of his dignity and sanity.
This is not helped by his quite severe schizophrenia. Riggan is constantly haunted by his inner spirit of Birdman continually calling on him to forget the play and return to the iconic superhero role he would like nothing more than to shed from his image entirely. Keaton’s performance in these battles ranges from powerful to funny to heartbreaking. Birdman may be a hero on screen, but he’s Riggan’s own archenemy.
The always-fantastic Edward Norton leads a stellar supporting cast including Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. Norton plays an acclaimed stage actor with an attitude problem called into Riggan’s play at the last minute. Stone is Riggan’s estranged, recovering addict daughter with utter contempt for her father and what he’s doing. And Galifianakis is his producer and best friend doing his best to keep the play from closing before it opens.
All three of these actors are terrific. Particularly Norton, who may very well have an Oscar nomination coming his way. Stone also gets an exceptionally explosive scene where she tells her father the brutal truth he has been trying to deny: “You’re only doing this because you’re afraid you don’t matter anymore. And you’re right.”
While the story is brilliant and the acting superb, none of it compares to the film's cinematography and editing. The entire film is arranged in extremely long takes and seamless cuts to make almost the entire two-hour movie appear like one continuous shot. It creates a very immersive effect, making the movie almost feel like the play within it.
The real magic lies in the moments where the perspective seamlessly shifts between characters in the middle of it. It is an incredibly bold choice worked tirelessly to perfection that makes the film downright Shakespearean.
If “Birdman” has a flaw, it would be that it is rather pretentious. While dressed up in a wonderfully crafted story and characters, the dialogue suffers when it delves into clichéd observations on human nature and the uncertainty of life. The moments between Stone and Norton are particularly guilty of this, even if their chemistry as brief friends makes it enjoyable to watch.
“Birdman” is one of a few films in a long time that can truly call itself art. Everything from its culturally relevant observations on superhero culture to its ambiguous finale demands hours worth of analysis and post-credits thought on its meaning and purpose. It is a movie that knows what it wants to be about and exactly how to get there. Keaton is absolutely remarkable and the movie has done its job in making him more than just Batman. If the best picture comes from October for the third year in a row, this is the film that will do it.