There’s a uniquely delicious scene about halfway through Alejandro González Iñárritu’s most recent film, “Birdman: Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a washed up former action hero film star trying to gain respectability on Broadway, lays into a cold-blooded theater critic from the Times deadset on torpedoing his play before she’s even seen it. Riggan explodes: “everything is labels to you,” he spits out, denouncing the safety and shallowness of her erudite hit-piece. Too many adjectives, not enough nouns, Riggan asserts. This disdain for “labels” is a theme: one of the first things the audience sees in the film is a placard on Riggan’s dressing room mirror that reads: “A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing.”
This preoccupation with what is real lies seemingly at odds with the film’s most conspicuous feature: Riggan’s unexplained superpowers, including telekinesis and the ability to fly. Riggan keeps these powers hidden, only unleashing them in private moments of intense anger or joy. There is a sort of irony to the plot, then, since the fame-chasing Riggan possesses supernatural powers that, if disclosed, could instantly earn him godlike status. This irony is meant at times to imply uncertainty: Do these powers only exist in Riggan’s mind, delusional fantasies left over from his days playing a superhero? Or could they possibly be something less than metaphorical? The film slyly leaves room for both possibilities, knowing that the sophisticated thirty-somethings who frequent independent theaters are likely to balk at forthright metaphysicality. But the importance of these powersreal or imaginedis apparent: They are for Riggan the thing beyond the labels, the kernel of his genius and, because he sees drawing upon them as selling out, the source of his great angst.
Anthony Lane’s review in the New Yorker deems Riggan’s supposed powers “shameless . . . promise[s] of escape,” while Xan Brooks at the Guardian dismisses them and much else as mere “figments” of a self-obsessed mind. The bland literalism of a commentariat that sees such flights of imagination as the pretext for more “labels,” however, says more about those critics than about the thing itself. The film is realistic, if eccentric. In fact, it is so realistic precisely because it dares to imbibe of the supernatural in a way that is both organic and heartening. There are many good reasons to see “Birdman”: a crackling script; gorgeous and innovative cinematography; and thoroughly splendid casting (particularly the triumphant return of Michael Keaton after years away from the limelight). But the quirky profundity of this film is in how it dares the viewer to consider the everyday magic that we tend to ignore, repress, or resent.