Explaining the Birdman Ending

As Michael Keaton's Birdman lands on HBO, we look back on the Oscar winner's wonderfully weird ending. Does it really fly?

***This article contains Birdman spoilers.

Living again like the eternally foul superhero himself, Birdman has found life once more for audiences who missed this glorious oddity in theaters. Fresh off its premiere on HBO last week, viewers are increasingly tuning in to a movie so bizarre that the biggest twist remains how the Academy Awards picked it as Best Picture of year. Indeed, how fitting is it that this narrative mosaic now receives the accolades in reality that fictional Riggan Thomson always dreamt of before he died. Because he died die…didn’t he?

The irony about such an artistically frustrated conflict being awarded with the biggest mainstream commercial prize of the industry is a perfect final ambiguity added to a film that enjoyed clouding everything in front of you, including whether its protagonist lived or died when he went out that window. Left with seemingly only the two choices of going splat or flying, the fate of Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman is a narrative Rorschach Test worthy of Frank R. Stockton.

Personally, I don’t think audiences are supposed to ever know whether Riggan Thomson flew or died, in the same way that it is up to you whether the male hero of “The Lady or the Tiger” became kitty chow or not. This seems doubly true since the ending was a last minute rewrite during production, intended to replace the far more satirical (and faintly smug) original ending, which would have seen Johnny Depp repeating Riggan’s footsteps while staring at a talking Jack Sparrow poster. Still, even I have my own theory about what Birdman really means in the end…

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The actual beats of the Birdman finale are deceptively straightforward. After a long night of soul searching and a quick morning of mental breakdown, Riggan (Michael Keaton) returns to work at the St. James Theatre for opening night, seemingly invigorated by his latest brush with his imaginary Birdman alter-ego. Following a superb Act One, Riggan reveals to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) that he has made peace with his vanity, and how he once failed to commit suicide years earlier. And to prove the point, he does so again when he literally bleeds for his art by taking a loaded gun on stage for Act Two where his character blows his head off; Riggan, conversely, succeeds only at shooting his nose off his face.

Waking up the next day, Riggan has all the artistic success that he ever wanted, a glowing review in The New York Times, and even a massive Twitter following. But perhaps best of all, he has his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) back in his arms, finally embracing her crappy father in the way that he always wanted. As an actor and a creator, Riggan Thomson has flown to heights that even the 20-year-old box office glory of playing Birdman could never capture. So Riggan, seemingly convinced that he can fly, continues that ascension by climbing out his hospital window to meet the clouds. In the closing image of Birdman, Riggan’s daughter runs to the hospital window, worriedly scanning the New York sidewalk below to see if her father made a crimson mosaic, but then looking up and smiling.

So did Riggan fly? I think not.

While there is intentionally no clear cut answer, I contend that by accessing Alejandro González Iñárritu’s presentation of the supposed magic realism, as well as Riggan’s internal conflict, we will find that there was no place left for him to go but down.

Magic realism, by its very nature, is a literary genre where fantastical elements are blended naturally into everyday life and occurrences. However, not once before that enigmatic shot of Ms. Stone’s parting face do we see the “magical” elements of Riggan Thomson’s possible superpowers blend with the actual everyday minutia of a washed up movie star mounting a Broadway vanity project.

Every time that Riggan or “Birdman” causes a supernatural occurrence, Iñárritu casts heavy doubt on its plausibility. For example, the first major unleashing of inner-squawking happens once Riggan has been sabotaged for the umpteenth time by his co-star and creative superior, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). In a collapse of ego, Riggan channels the bird to magically decimate his dressing room, beginning with a Birdman 3 movie poster, but moving on to his mirror’s lights, and a host of glass frames. This reflects an earlier moment where he destroyed Sam’s intentionally wrong flower selection. However, this time we see the direct aftermath with Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts walking in: when Galifianakis enters the scene, he sees only the physical acts of Riggan’s breakdown where he is ripping up paper and wooden props with his bare hands. Then, after Watts gets closer, Riggan reveals that he has cut his hand on a piece of glass.

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The only glass handled in that breakdown was that of exploding light bulbs and crashing poster frames, all of which Riggan seemed to do with his magical powers. This suggests that Riggan did not use superpowers to destroy the glass around him, but his bloodied palm.

Later, during Riggan’s penultimate collapse on the streets of New York, he imagines himself flying from the gutter of 44th Street to the top of a brownstone. Yet, the gathering crowd depicts no knowledge or awe of the flight Riggan appeared to take—rather, they fear he’s a crazy guy about to kill himself. Or worse: he’s an actor. Finally, Riggan takes a circular flight around Midtown Manhattan, landing magically at the threshold of the St. James once more. But we are quickly cued in that nobody saw him flying, and that he arrived at the theater by taxi (which probably drove around as aimlessly as Riggan’s commanding “flight”). Riggan is too lost in his own fantasia to accept this and fails even to pay his ignored cab fare.

Magic realism traditionally is about a specific impossible occurrence happening within the confines of a “normal” fictional scenario that is otherwise unimpressed by random bouts with the occult. Woody Allen is one of the American filmmakers enamored by this concept and he uses it quite often. But whenever it does occur in his films, it is always presented as part of the broader aesthetic of the film.

In The Purple Rose of Cairo, there is no doubt that a movie character played by Jeff Daniels has stepped off the silver screen of Golden Age Hollywood dream-making into dreary Depression era New Jersey. Nor do any of the characters take it as a miraculous or impossible event—rather it is merely a minor annoyance or inconvenient business hurdle for the local movie theater. Similarly, there is no doubt that Owen Wilson is spending his Parisian nights partying with Ernest Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris, which is confirmed when his snooping detective also time warps (accidentally) into the more distant past.

Birdman always offers an alternative to its “magic,” making the single time another character besides Riggan witnesses the “flying” at the end instantly suspect.

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But perhaps most telling of all is why Riggan feels the need to step out onto that ledge in the first place.

Before Riggan very consciously took a real gun on stage to forevermore obliterate his sense of smell, the actor had just experienced possibly the worst day of his life. After learning that his professional enemy was sleeping with his daughter, Riggan became an instant Internet meme by running outside in his underwear and later found his life summed up as a failure by what Alejandro González Iñárritu might surmise as the most malicious force in the universe: a culture critic. The Times’ Tabitha Dickens (Lindsay Duncan) dresses Riggan down as a “child” that hands off awards for cartoons.

When Riggan goes on that stage and more or less commits suicide, he does so with the intention of proving Tabitha wrong and, more importantly, “Birdman” wrong. He is an artist, dammit! He does matter! And now, he will die to prove it. But when he wakes up to discover that he has had his cake and ate it too, nothing has really changed for him. Sam is finally idolizing her dad with the kind of love he always dreamed about—but she is also expressing it by turning him into a Twitter star, which is part of a social media bubble he has never cared about or understood.

Meanwhile, Tabitha has written the most fawning and complimentary review imaginable, crediting Riggan with inventing a new form of theatre. But for all its worth, nobody cares what she has to say after the first paragraph. This is not a vindication of Riggan’s artistry, but rather just another favorable piece of press that his business partner points out will “open [the play] in London and Paris, and the studio’s going to call again, and we’re going to get some book deals.”

For all of his achievement—awarded to him by a critic he and Mike Shiner earlier dismissed as lazy and worthless—more dramatic success has not changed the mundane commercialism of the form. Riggan is still a product, only now he is best known for being an eccentric artiste, as opposed to being the guy in a bird costume at fanboy conventions. This point is finally driven home when he’s left alone again (and thus again to his own head), Riggan still sees “Birdman” in his life, taking a crap all over everything.

Movie star or a living theatre legend, it is all the same for Riggan, who then promptly opts out the window. He might have convinced himself that he would fly, just as he told himself previously that he could soar when he hailed a cab, but his “ascension” follows the same emptiness he felt when he put a gun to his head.

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As for why Sam thought she saw her father fly? Well, as Mike Shiner already explained to her, she’s “special.”

Obviously Sam has had her own coping issues before Birdman begins since she spent months in rehab. However, her reaction to her father is hardly so banal. Rather, Sam spent the entire movie trying to smother artistic pretensions and angst with cold hard logic; if Riggan had listened to her, as she so clearly had convinced herself, his superpowers could have been snuffed out by harsh reality. But Riggan’s desire to create greatness out of essentially useless things (for, to quote Oscar Wilde, what else is art but useless?), keeps him from accepting that “he’s not special.” He’ll prove otherwise, even if it kills him.

Deep down, Sam has inherited her father’s specialness, which is implied when Mike Shiner, the purported authority on creativity, picks her up. She has that special kind of madness that Mike views as magical. But lest we forget, he’s also a guy whose idea of romance is to bang his girlfriend in front of 900 strangers. Unlike Mike’s ex whose sole dream is to be on Broadway, and thus simply a star, Sam suffers from the same loftier affliction of her father and even Shiner—she wants to be noticed for her uniqueness. After all, she already has her daddy’s penchant for sitting on high ledges and looking down with a sense of magic.

So the “magic” continues after her father makes sidewalk spaghetti, and Sam sees him flying. She has been lulled into accepting things from his perspective.

As Keaton has suggested, all the characters are variations on Iñárritu, and so his maddening battle of art and commerce, creation and fame, continues on in a very special daughter, indeed.

In the end, however, this is just my theory. Another might be that since Sam finally sees Riggan as the father he always wanted to be, that Riggan hallucinates himself flying in front of her. Or another still might be that 60 is the new 30, motherfucker, and Birdmen really can fly! But this was my takeaway from an ending that is intentionally left open to interpretation. What’s yours?

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