Michael Keaton (And Edward Norton) Agonistes: Another Look At Birdman


That’s what I’m talking about. Bones rattling! Big, loud, fast! Look at these people, at their eyes… they’re sparkling. They love this shit. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.

About 5 minutes into 2014’s Birdman, you realize that this is all really a narrative about Michael Keaton turning down Batman Forever. About 15 minutes in, you also realize that this is all really a narrative about Edward Norton getting essentially kicked out of the Marvel movie franchise. Keaton and Norton: “heretics” of the modern Age Of The Capes and Masks.


But if these two actors ostensibly rejected their continuing superhero destinies for the sake of “artistic integrity,” perhaps they were ignorant of an important aspect of these comic book narratives…their essential shamanic and eternal nature. For, in a world where the metaphysic is merely a treatable mental disorder, what else do we have?

The figure of the Birdman–and/or, the Batman–hearkens back to that of the shaman donning animal skins to acquire the power of these creatures. That, ultimately, is the primal appeal of the Batman symbology; he plays the shamanic role for an era devoid of outright shamans. And our collective subconscious desperately needs such active symbology in order to stay healthy.


But the “twist” of Birdman is that the film itself is also playing the role of shamanic life-review/vision-quest for actor Keaton. It serves as catharsis for him, relieving some of the lingering psychic baggage of portraying such a symbolicly/archetypally charged icon as Batman.


Even more intriguingly: the film also prefigures where Keaton’s career will take him next…literally as the “bird-man” Vulture in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. After this extended metaphor about “Marvel” movie culture (RDJ explicitly held up as its tres successful spokesman)…Keaton ends up in said Marvel cinematic universe, playing, essentially, “Birdman.”


But perhaps this surprising turn in Keaton’s career was also foretold by the scene at the end of the movie where a number of costumed street performers take the stage…including, most notably, Spider-Man.

And so we must also regard Birdman as an overall shamanic tool, of sorts…perhaps even a divinatory one. But it feels like director Alejandro González Iñárritu is quite aware of what he’s doing…the uncanny metatextuality of the entire enterprise. Birdman is ultimately a shamanic ritual, and the character of Riggan Thomson very concretely taking the Hero’s Journey per Campbell.


Despite his “high art” intentions, Riggan is forced to return to his Birdman role in order to access the root of its formidable shamanic power in ancient passion plays of still-warm animal skins and bloody sacrifices. This is why he shoots himself with real ammunition at the end of the film, spraying the audience with his blood…in the current jaded era robbed of the supernatural, the only thing left to jostle the public into an altered state of consciousness is, to put it bluntly, blood n’ guts:


And the next time you screech, it’ll explode into millions of eardrums. You’ll glimmer on thousands of screens around the globe. Another blockbuster. You are a god. See? There you go, you motherfucker. Gravity doesn’t even apply to you. Wait till you see the faces of those who thought we were finished. Listen to me. Let’s go back one more time and show them what we’re capable of. We have to end it on our own terms… with a grand gesture. Flames. Sacrifice. Icarus. You can do it. You hear me? You are… Birdman!

Is it a coincidence that the voice of Riggan’s pooka-like alter ego sounds like Keaton’s other most famous role…Beetlejuice? The “shadow-self,” indeed!


In the end, Riggan survives but suffers a facial deformity…that renders his nose almost like a “beak.” He has now transcended mere metaphor and has become the symbol. The symbol and him have become One. And so, of course, he flies off.


Birdman is a prophetic work prefiguring the current era, not just of Trump but of Zack Snyder DC films and any number of maniacs vying for their 3 minutes of internet fame with a manifesto and a boomstick of their choice.

Give the people what they want… old-fashioned apocalyptic porn. Birdman: The Phoenix Rises. Pimple-faced gamers creaming in their pants. A billion worldwide, guaranteed. You are larger than life, man. You save people from their boring, miserable lives. You make them jump, laugh, shit their pants.