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METAMERICANA: BIRDMAN Is the IRON MAN Finale You’ve Been Waiting For

METAMERICANA: BIRDMAN Is the IRON MAN Finale You've Been Waiting For

Rumor has it that Robert Downey Jr. will appear in Iron Man 4—and probably Iron Man 5—but
surely that particular Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, however
lucrative, has to end sometime. Or does it? Does anyone doubt that Iron Man 10 would still earn its studio backers a truckload of coin? Maybe the question isn’t how many Iron Man
sequels (and, soon enough, prequels) can be made, but how long
the superhero genre Iron Man epitomizes can be the toast of Hollywood.
While it sometimes takes much longer than it should, American art genres do
evolve over time, and sooner or later American arts will evolve such that playboy
anti-heroes with mechanical or innate superpowers will get left behind.
What Michael Keaton’s Birdman makes clear is that even the end of superheroism would be insufficient to end the relentless onslaught of Iron Man
vehicles. This metamodern period in America may tire of
its superheroes, but the real question is when or whether our
superheroes will tire of America. So we can imagine, sometime in 2030,
an Iron Man 11 in which Robert Downey Jr. plays Robert Downey Jr., the former “Iron Man” of ten Hollywood films by that name. Iron Man 11
would be a superhero movie for the Age we live in, a movie in which our
collective exhaustion with spectacle would be conjoined with our
collective boredom at the absence of spectacle; in Iron Man 11
Downey would play both himself and Iron Man simultaneously, and from
minute to minute we wouldn’t know what the point of distinguishing between
the two really was.
But maybe we won’t have to wait that long.
In Birdman,
Michael Keaton—who played Batman in 1989 and 1992 films featuring the
Caped Crusader—plays, more or less, Michael Keaton. Sure, the credits
say he’s playing “Riggan Thompson,” a washed-up celebrity made famous by
playing “Birdman” in three superhero films, the most recent being
(ahem) a 1992 release, but anyone over thirty watching Birdman knows full well this is Keaton-as-Keaton—or at least
a lightly tweaked version of the Keaton we believe Michael Keaton to
be.
Say what you will, Michael Keaton’s career as an A-list actor basically ended with Batman Returns in 1992, a few roles (charitably, 1996’s Multiplicity and 1997’s Jackie Brown)
notwithstanding. So watching “Riggan Thompson” stage a self-written and
self-directed Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway as a way of
“finally doing something honest” strikes about as close to home as it’s
supposed to. In other words, if Keaton’s fictional Thompson was the star
of Birdman, Birdman 2, and Birdman 3, this iteration of the Birdman franchise might as well be titled Birdman 4: Riggan’s Return, or Keaton’s Batman Returns Again, or, twenty years from now, Iron Man 11.
The film asks us to consider what happens when a
celebrity-cum-superhero tries to take off his Lycra jumpsuit, only to
find out that it can’t ever be taken off. Riggan is stuck as Birdman
both figuratively and literally, as playing the role has left Thompson
hearing the hectoring, hateful voice of “Birdman” in his head at all
hours of the day. He even believes himself capable of Birdman’s two
foremost powers: the power of telekinesis and the power of flight. (You
can probably see where that’s headed, though in the end Birdman surprises even on that score.)
But it’d be wrong to call Birdman
merely a “meta” superhero film, just as it would be wrong to call it—as
one might be tempted to do—a “meta” film about actors or a “metamodern”
film about how reality and fiction collide to form a higher order
experience that draws from both reality and fiction but is finally
neither. Like most films that try to capture a cultural moment in which
we’re equally attentive to, distracted by, enamored with, and
distrustful of all manmade stimuli—Birdman
doesn’t want to settle for being any one thing. Much like the Internet,
it has about forty messages it would like to deliver, and also like the
Internet, it would prefer to deliver them all at once.
The
film’s first message is that attention is power. At one point Riggan’s
daughter shows him a viral YouTube clip and says, “Believe it or not, this is power…” Birdman
submits that because attention in a fully networked world is in fact a
substantive good—it can briefly nourish the spirit of the sort of
temperamental, ego-surfing American our present Age has birthed—the
power that comes from being paid attention to is by no means an empty or
merely formal gesture. The second message Birdman
delivers is that admiration is not love, but because so many of us are
unable to make the distinction, it might as well be. A third message is
that choosing truth as an end-game isn’t the same as living truthfully. A
fourth message is that our eccentricities strengthen us in the long
term, but only by weakening us in the short term—thereby forcing a
confrontation, perhaps sooner than we’d like, with how unlivable our
eccentricities sometimes cause our lives to be. A fifth message we
encounter is that distinct artistic genres can never be confused for one
another, except when, paradoxically, they become one another—for instance, by making a film appear (as Birdman
is made to appear) to have been filmed the way a play is performed,
with a single tracking shot and in a single take. A sixth message is
that turning one’s faults into a narrative doesn’t bring one any closer to
transcending them, as all narrative is necessarily a reentrenchment of
archetypes rather than a recasting of terms. And yet another message
available to Birdman viewers is
that there’s a difference between popularity and prestige, between being
a celebrity and being an actor, between knowing how to interpret art
and knowing how to enact it.
There are several dozen more throughlines in Birdman,
all equally close to the surface of Riggan’s interactions with his
resentful attorney-cum-assistant (Zach Galifianakis); his resentful,
diva-like leading lady (Naomi Watts); his resentful, brooding, “purist”
male lead (Edward Norton); his resentful yet strangely hot-and-cold
ex-wife (Amy Ryan); and his stereotypically rebellious daughter—played
as a resentful sort of girl by Emma Stone. The point of all these
disparate messages—some internally contradictory, some merely
contradictory to one another—is that they be delivered all at once, in
an onrushing cacophony, making Birdman
at once a terminal superhero flick, a black comedy about celebrity, and
a metafiction about cross-genre acts of creative narration. It’s a
credit to its terrific ensemble cast that Birdman is a superlative example of each of these cinematic subgenres. 
It used to be the case that someone would say to you, “If you like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you’ll love The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
In other words, if you like a genre you like a genre, or if you like a
movie you’ll also like its tangentially related contemporary update. Now,
a moviegoer is more likely to hear, “If you’re excited about the
upcoming, fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool movie, you’ll like Birdman; also, if you like the hardcore “meta” bent of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Synecdoche, New York;
also, if you admire Michael Keaton’s ineffable, decade-spanning ability
to play Michael Keaton; also…” and so on. It’s fair to say, that is,
that the films that speak most effectively into and out of America in
2014 are those that give us everything we want all at once and with no
clear direction on what to do with it all. Not coincidentally, that’s
exactly how one might feel after having just been granted a superpower; or
having been granted an elongated career in Hollywood; or having just
been made the parent of a someday-to-be resentful child; or–and perhaps
this is really the point–having just been born into our collective
four-dimensional reality as a human. When we say a film is “metamodern,”
as we must certainly say of Birdman,
we are saying that it enacts the joining of Art and Life, or artifice
and authenticity, that all of us inherit merely by virtue of being
alive—and that it performs this elegant symphony of contradictions
without offering us any interpretation or any hope of reducing our
experience to a series of helpfully labeled micro-philosophies.
In
the end, Keaton-Riggan-Birdman gets his heart’s desire, or maybe he does;
embraces the hybridity of his self-identity, or maybe he does; makes good on the
promise of his natural talent, or maybe he does. He looks, in other words, the
way all of us do from the great height of higher dimensions of space and
time: like a simultaneously perfected and imperfect philosophical
vehicle who still has to put his Lycra jumpsuit on one leg at a
time.

Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA,
forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for
Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.

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