We haven’t had a Hope for the Genre in ages, so it’s obviously time to bring it back into the repertoire.


Genre: Superhero? Superhero commentary? Mild magical realism? Psychological spec fic?

Medium: Film

The premise: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu–tells the story of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a washed-up Hollywood actor who is trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” And before you ask what the hell that has to do with any kind of speculative fiction, Riggan formerly played Birdman, a superhero character in big budget films. Riggan is haunted–or possibly hounded–by his alter ego, who voices all of his dissatisfaction with the world around him. He descends into more and more elaborate fantasies in which he is telekinetic, can fly, etc. Meanwhile, the play is under constant threat of failure as it finishes its week of previews before opening. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Andrea Riseborough play Riggan’s malcontent cast; Zach Galifianakis is his neurotic producer, lawyer, and best friend, Jake. Emma Stone co-stars as his daughter, Sam, recently out of rehab. The story is a twisted mess of relationships and affairs haunted by the specter of more grandiose dreams.

Why it’s awesome: This movie has earned every ounce of praise it’s received from critics and audiences. It’s fantastic, in every sense of the word. Keaton (formerly Batman) kills it as Riggan Thomas. I loved Birdman’s raspy, Bale-in-The-Dark-Knight-esque voice, evoking the entire genre. The commentary on superhero culture was fabulous without sucking all the fun out of it. And for a movie that is largely psychologically driven, the action never lets up. There’s constantly another turn or altercation that keeps you engaged and often anxious about the movie’s outcome. Norton makes a hilarious douchebag stage actor; Watts kills it as his insecure girlfriend who just wants to be on Broadway. It was incredibly rewarding, too, to see Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis break out of type. Not to mention one of the best instrumental soundtracks (Antonio Sanchez) I’ve heard in years–the drums are practically their own character in the film.

Why it’s hopeful: We can debate a bit about whether this qualifies as pure speculative fiction or whether it’s merely reflecting on a particular subgenre. There is a certain amount of ambiguity at the end about the nature of Riggan’s fantasies (not unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, another movie I adore). But does it matter if what Riggan experiences is real? Isn’t the point that all of us long for big explosions and fame and incredible heroism? The film connects these desires to social media in a beautifully subtle and smart way that feels current. And although the story certainly highlights the tension between works like Carver’s short fiction and the comic book genre (echoed in the tension between Broadway and Hollywood), I don’t think it comes down neatly on one side or the other. We see the inherent flaws in both groups of people. After all, Norton’s character Mike is incredibly pretentious and narcissistic as much as Riggan is egomaniacal and delusional. Besides, the film relies on elements of both to succeed–each genre has something to lend to the story. Ultimately, whatever the reality of Riggan’s situation, Superhero culture feeds Birdman, much in the way it feeds Kavalier and Clay, which is likewise an incredible work of art.


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