‘Birdman’, Superhero Films and Spectacle
Riggan: How about Jeremy Renner?
Riggan: Jeremy Renner. He was nominated. He was the Hurt Locker guy.
Jake: Oh, okay. He's an Avenger.
Riggan: Fuck, they put him in a cape too?
One of the best and most inspired films I’ve seen recently is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a fantastic multi-layered meta commentary on hollywood and the creation of art. It features Michael Keaton as an middle-aged actor struggling to make what he sees as ‘real art’, after playing a superhero called ‘Birdman’ twenty years ago. This superhero, or possibly his diseased mind, torments him throughout the film. It taunts him about his perceived lack of talent and asking why he’s bothering to attempt a serious play on Broadway. Near the film’s climax, the Birdman appears and directly taunts the audience, showing them explosions and fast action, before turning directly into the camera and saying:
'That's what I'm talking about. Bones rattling! Big, loud, fast! Look at these people, at their eyes... they're sparkling. They love this shit. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.
With it’s strange direction and constant drumming soundtrack, the film is the complete antithesis of the modern superhero blockbuster. Those films aren’t clever, but they are fun, popular and commercially successful. Birdman on the other hand is a full frontal attack on the modern ideal of superheroes. Why bother with proper art, the film seems to be saying, just settle for the safe, popular and commercial. In this way, the film provides a commentary on itself, but also challenges Hollywood’s lust for popularity and money and films made solely for profit. The film argues that film-making has become all spectacle with no content or philosophy to back it up
Coincidentally, in the last couple of weeks I also watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ant Man. Both are pretty decent films in their own right. Ant Man is a fun little heist flick that happens to star superheroes. Captain America is probably one of the better Marvel films, a political thriller with superheroes being hunted by the government across the United States. But after watching Birdman they seem quite forgetful and hollow. They are popcorn films, not designed to linger long in the mind. Captain America in particular raises lots of interesting points about the abuses of power, how far the government can go in keeping the population safe and questions about the pervasive role of surveillance in the modern world. However, instead of interrogating these questions in the drama, it seems to discard them in favour of spectacle.
Before I saw Birdman, I was growing increasingly dis-satisfied with the modern blockbuster. Jurassic World was one of the final nails in the coffin for me. The issue is not that these films are loud or full of action or even that they mostly deal with superheros. Instead, it is a problem that they all have a homogeneity of tone and theme. It is possible to create interesting, different stories with superheroes, the graphic novel of Watchmen is clear proof of that. What we seem to be getting in the worst cases is spectacle with nothing to back it up, no interesting character motivation or plot twists, just the same story.
I’m not a massive fan of the Heroes’ Journey, but it can be used as the underpinning of a huge variety of stories. Increasingly though, there is a lack of imagination in translating this monomyth to the screen. It has become a straight jacket instead of a suggestion for structure. We end up with endless variations of one man overcoming the odds to become a hero, a disappointing villain and a big fight at the end where everything is resolved. One man against the odds, fighting evil to bring order to a chaotic world. Good wins out. No consequences. This is completely in line with the underlying myth, but it feels hollow because it’s too much of a rigid template. There are no lessons to learn or consequences to the actions.
The big studios keep going though, because it works. It sells and is incredibly successful. For all the humour, the Birdman is right. People don’t want to see “talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” They want explosions and action, simple answers and spectacle for a chaotic time.
Birdman also spends equal amounts of time attacking the pretentious bollocks that actors think are important. Arty side projects and self important vanity projects all come under the satirical gaze of the film. Sometimes these end up touching upon exactly the same themes as the big commercial blockbusters. Sometimes they also focus on spectacle and have nothing underpinning them. But I think it’s important to not just develop films as commercial enterprises. These arty side projects are required for a diversity of stories, that don’t just support the status quo and tell us everything is alright. We need films like Birdman to shock us out of our complacency.
I’ll probably still see Marvel films. I still enjoy spectacle in cinema, which even Birdman has in spades, with it’s showy ‘one take’ style. It’s just refreshing to see a film that backs up the spectacle with imagination and which takes the extra effort to explore ideas. Perhaps that is why I am so frustrated with modern blockbusters, as they seem to lack imagination and consequences.
But hey, as Riggan says in Birdman:
What has to happen in a person's life to become a critic anyway?