Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) provides us with characters that are trying to prove something to the world. For example, we have Naomi Watts’s character “Lesley” trying to prove she is a worthy Broadway actress, Emma Stone’s “Sam” trying to show her father that she is no longer an unstable addict, and Zach Galifianakis’s character who is determined to be a formidable theater producer. The most recognizable example of this and perhaps the most important theme of the movie is Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, striving for genuine recognition as an elite actor that can work beyond the limitations of a blockbuster superhero movie character. Inhibited by his past as Birdman, he hopes to gain sincere appreciation from the acting world by returning to its roots, the theatrical stage. By doing so, Riggan Thomson is striving to regain his own genuineness which is embodied by the mental struggle he has with the fictional Birdman character that brought him fame and recognition in the first place. By replacing the movie set with the theater stage, he effectively limits his audience to those who, at least pretend to, care about acting. This cuts out any sort of post-production editing and any ability to overwhelm the audience with mere visuals, allowing the actor to be naked in their form.
Riggan’s struggle nearly causes the play to be cancelled on multiple occasions. These occasions tend to be when Riggan is questioning his ability to maintain himself as an actor as opposed to merely his role as the superhero character Birdman. Riggan is directly affected by the discontent and pressure that critics and peers place on Riggan as an actor. He is surrounded by a variety of positive characters (Lesley, Brandon, Sylvia, and, at times, Mike) who keep the play together throughout its previews. However, key to Riggan’s struggle with genuineness, there are numerous negative characters (Sam, Birdman, Tabitha, and, at times, Mike) that tend to spark the moments in which the play nearly implodes. The negativity and positivity struggle of Riggan with himself and others is an inherent part of his striving for genuine recognition. Per de Beauvoir, “In order for the return to the positive to be genuine it must involve negativity, it must not conceal the antinomies between means and end, present and future; they must be lived in permanent tension” (144). Thus, is the struggle of the genuine Riggan in his attempt to regain his freedom from the grip of the Birdman and whatever past experiences haunt him. We are given little background to Riggan’s life before the movie, however, we know he is divorced with a daughter who didn’t receive enough attention from her father as a child and we can at least assume he was a heavy drinker at some point. Furthermore, the struggle of positivity and negativity in his striving towards his personal goals is most effectively exemplified in his relationship with his producer (positively motivating Zach Galifianakis) and the interactions with the theater critic (the notably negative). Positivity and negativity abound, this idea comes full circle when Riggan Thomson shoots himself in the face on stage. He is finally praised as an actor and receives the positive recognition he had strived for, yet, he still receives a little negative backlash from, particularly, his ex-wife.
The idea of human transcendence, in which de Beauvoir comments “it has to found itself, though it is prohibited from ever fulfilling itself” is also commented on here (140). Riggan’s escape from the Birdman past is nearly transcended in his moment of theatrical greatness, however, he is only to be reminded of his past by the beak-like bandage over his new nose and a urinating Birdman in the hospital bathroom. The outpour of love and recognition from people has his producer reeling, yet, it is unclear how Riggan himself feels. As a sort of toast to ambiguity, we are never given full resolution to Riggan’s struggle thanks to the relentlessness of filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu.