‘Birdman’ aims for the nuts

Superhero movies are the fat kids in dodgeball. They’re easy targets and everyone aims for the nuts.

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a well-made superhero crotch shot, given a few extra mph by the fourth-wall-bending, wink-wink, nudge-nudge gravitas that comes with everyone knowing that star Michael Keaton was twice Batman.

The film is, of course, other things too, but the plot’s motor is the superhero genre, its perception, and what it may do to actors who agree to wear tights and CGI their souls.

It’s filmed inside the characters’ personal bubbles, documenting them with invasive closeness through the backstage warren of a Broadway theater, between the scenes of a Raymond Carver play and Keaton’s schizophrenic telekinesis. The movie is designed to feel as if it’s done in one continuous take.

The thrust is Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, seeks professional and personal validation, with the professional validation, he hopes, leading to the personal validation. He’s trying resuscitate his reputation in the opinion of those who keep and rule on high art. More importantly, he’s trying to fix relationships with his daughter and ex-wife. The two problems, in Thomson’s mind, are not mutually exclusive.

Nobody respects Thomson (or so he thinks) because he thrice played a superhero named Birdman — not this one, or this one — in a superhero-movie franchise. He is tempted with Birdman 4.

Superhero films, we’re told, aren’t real cinema. They’re two-hour plus commercials for their sequels, action figures and Slutty Thor Halloween costumes. Superhero actors have no place in the theatre. A newspaper critic in Birdman tells everyone this with blunt language while being un-journalistic and cruel. She is a stock character and meant only to antagonize for the sake of justifying plot.

Superhero movies are the low-hanging fruit that keeps Birdman from being great. Everyone dumps on superhero movies. Shared universes exhaust and disgust them. But what else is Marvel Studios going to do? It’s easier to blast Sony and Warner Bros. for launching their own greedy stabs at universe-building — although WB does own DC — but superheroes are all Marvel has, and Marvel does them well.

Comic-book movies are easy, obvious targets. Birdman just goes after the fat kids, chop blocking their chubby knees with the most no-duh kind of criticism, then using it to prop up a movie. And it’s not even fair criticism. Superhero actors have real careers, and the ones who didn’t or haven’t are just one Quentin Tarantino movie away from being trendy again. Val Kilmer is still waiting for that phone call.

This year, Scarlett Johansson did Under the Skin (which RogerEbert.com named 2014’s best film) and Her. She also did Captain America 2. All three are excellent movies, just in different ways. The two worlds, comic-book adaptations and “real” art, can coexist. Saying they can’t or criticizing them for what they are is just lazy.

Birdman is still good a movie, even with the shallow superhero-movie critiques and despite the over-choreographed first ending. And the second ending, which submarines the mystery of Thomson’s psionic powers. But Keaton is fun to watch. So are Edward Norton and Emma Stone, who have a side plot that’s unfortunately aborted. You want more of Norton and Stone. You want more of Norton and Keaton.

It’s just that the superhero genre is well-shat on, and Birdman doesn’t riff on that derogation in an original way. Still, there is the fun jazz-drum soundtrack and the auteur-level use of tighty whities.

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