Before there was a Birdman, there was a Batman — several, in fact, though the best was played by Michael Keaton in the two Tim Burton films in the late '80s and early '90s. Since then, Christian Bale's somber strutting and muttering, as seen in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, has — go figure — become the gold standard of Batman performances. But there's no vitality in Bale's brooding; he's dark in the way wet coffee grounds are. Keaton played Batman as a hero who, save for a somber twist of fate, might have been mischievous and joyful and confident — he wanted to be all of those things and just couldn't. Instead of stumbling around in his own self-pitying darkness, he kept turning, in futility, toward the light. His suffering had the keen, metallic edge of a migraine.
In Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Keaton pours all of Batman's simmering disquietude into a different form: that of Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor who hopes to reclaim his reputation by staging an ambitious Broadway show, an adaptation — one he's written himself — of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Things aren't going so well. The play is about to go into previews, and Riggan knows that one of his actors is a dud — a replacement, Edward Norton's Mike Shiner, steps in, and while he's dazzling, he also gives Riggan's authority a kick in the pants. Meanwhile, the show's producer (Zach Galifianakis) frets, with a great deal of justification, that he's about to lose his shirt. Riggan's two actresses, Naomi Watts' Lesley and Andrea Riseborough's Laura, flounce about radiating moonbeams of actressy insecurity. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), has just been sprung from rehab and spends her days being bitchy at the world, and at him.
Those are all problems that Riggan perceives and addresses in some fashion, but there are even bigger ones that he doesn't: The movie character that made him famous, a superhero costumed in a breastplate of molded feathers and a beaked mask — the Birdman of the title — has been taunting him in a shadowy monotone that actually sounds like Bale's Batman, pestering Riggan to admit that his theater project, not to mention his whole life, is a sham. This beastly, winged Marley's Ghost urges Riggan to accept that he is Birdman and will never be anything more.
Have I mentioned that this psychically distressing apparition may also have vested Riggan with the power to move objects, Carrie-like, with his mind? There's a lot going on in Birdman, though the somewhat harsh truth is that Riggan's agitation and torment are really just an excuse for the pyrotechnics of the filmmaking. It's novelty: It was shot (by cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki) as one continuous sequence. In other words, the film appears to consist of a single long take, though Iñárritu and Lubezki have done some subtle piecing-together. Not that you're likely to notice the seams, and not that you should go looking for them: Part of the fun is giving in to the illusion, allowing yourself to float and swoop with the camera through backstage corridors, onto outdoor balconies lit with that faux-daytime Broadway glow, and even on a mad dash along a block of Times Square.
The script — by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo — doesn't go as deep as it purports to: Like so many stories about existential crises, Birdman suffers from a kind of generic listlessness. And it whacks a little too obviously at some of its targets — the noisy emptiness of blockbusters and the obnoxious supremacy of social media, for example. But Birdman has humor on its side — it's mischievously, darkly funny, as when Norton's hotshot, loose-cannon scene-stealer literally destroys a stage set after launching into a "None of this is real!" tirade. Just as his tantrum reaches its climax, he throws open the door of a badly assembled kitchen cupboard and the whole thing, dishes and all, comes crashing to the floor. It's an exhilarating bit of slapstick madness. Stone is wonderful, too: Stalking around backstage, running errands for her father and resenting every minute of it, she's like a Dickensian waif with serrated edges, a figurative orphan who finds a scarily true reflection — truer than she wants to admit — in the face of her father.
It's a relief, too, to see Keaton in a role worthy of him. Riggan is haunted not just by a pooped-out career, but by a failed marriage (to Amy Ryan's Sylvia) and by his history of being an absentee father to Sam. As it turns out, the insecurity of aging actors figures in a number of about-to-be-released movies: In Barry Levinson's The Humbling, based on Philip Roth's novel, Al Pacino plays a floundering actor who tries to restore his mojo by kindling an ill-advised romance with a young academic (Greta Gerwig). That movie isn't as technically dazzling as Birdman, but maybe it's the lack of fancy packaging — plus Pacino's eternally woebegone eyes — that makes it more piercing. And in Olivier Assayas' upcoming Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche plays an actress who's haunted by a character she played twenty years earlier. The aging-performer motif takes on a different texture when we're talking about a woman who feels less desirable — or simply feels less and less of something — with each passing year.
Birdman is a marvelously entertaining picture, a work of "look at me!" bravado that's energized every minute. Its proficiency, the mechanically fluid kind, works against it in some ways. But none of that diminishes what Keaton does. His Riggan is like a grizzled nerve ending, frayed and whiskery but alive. Now and then, when we stop to take a breath and look into Keaton's eyes, we can see all the ecstatic anguish there, as if the comedy and tragedy masks had been morphed into one. No wonder he's the darkest knight.