As the opening lines from Raymond Carver's Late Fragment suggest, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is about characters who want to feel "beloved on the earth" and will go to extreme lengths achieve a sense of self-worth.
60-year old Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), once famous for having played the "Birdman" in a Hollywood blockbuster, is now adapting and acting in Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for Broadway. Right from the beginning of the movie, we know that life is not going well for Riggan; his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), was not able to get him the lilac flowers he wanted, he is struggling with anger management issues and the deep, taunting voice of Birdman continues to haunt him by reminding him of what he is "capable of" but not achieving. Indeed, Riggan is years beyond his prime. The contemporary allusions drawn throughout the film, such as the mentions of Fassbender, Renner, Twitter and Facebook, plant the film in a modern-day context to further emphasize the fact that the world is moving on without him. All of a sudden, there is so much fuss over "trending topics" and "action" movies that no one, as Riggan's hallucination of Birdman sneers in his face, cares about "talky, depressing, philosophical bullsh*t" anymore. In this way, the film is a powerful commentary on the modern-day film industry and its audience.
But the biggest question in the film, reiterated so often by Riggan as he plays "Eddie" in Carver's play, is this: What is love? What does it mean to feel "beloved?" It seems that all characters in Birdman share the desire to feel loved. Lesley (Naomi Watts), for instance, wonders why she does not have any "self-respect;" Riggan's compliment makes her feel better but Laura (Andrea Riseborough), overhearing it, laments that Riggan has never said anything like that to her in the two years during which they have been together. No degree of professional acting can mask the pain she feels when Riggan very obviously seems less-than-enthusiastic at the prospect of having her child. When Laura and Lesley kiss, they seem to be searching for the answer to Carver's question; finding some way to feel loved when the men around them disrespect them. Even Mike Shining (Edward Norton), who smoothly lies to the media and seems to have a self-inflated ego on the surface, struggles with his self-worth because of his inability to "get it up."
Yet the character that struggles most with love is, of course, Riggan. As his ex-wife reminds him, he even struggles with the definition itself by confusing "love for admiration;" this is why he incorrectly assumed that constantly telling his daughter that she was "special" would substitute for his lack of parental presence. Thus, as Sam yells at him in her speech, he is not producing Carver's play "for the sake of art." He is doing it to "feel relevant again" and thus represents the "entitled, selfish, spoiled children" that the critic Tabitha lambastes. When striding naked through the streets of New York City to get back on stage, Riggan only seems to confirm the media's opinion that he is nothing but an attention-seeking, ego-inflating "celebrity" trying to make a comeback as an "actor." As Sam's therapeutic drawing technique teaches her, the brief time that humans have spent on the earth serves to "remind us that that's all our ego and self-obsession are worth.”
Yet what the public eye and Tabitha don't see is that Riggan, despite his ego, is risking everything for the play - putting his self-worth on the line to once again become a "superhero". "Why do I have to end up begging people to love me?" he asks. "I spend every f*cking minute praying to be someone else." This line echoes Sam's question to Mike about how he can "go out there and pretend to be someone else in front of all those people" as an actor on a daily basis. Yet Mike - who drinks real gin on set and even wants to do "it" for real with Lesley in their motel scene - claims that he is not pretending when on stage.
The blurred lines between performance and life are quite telling in the film and are made even more realistic by the visually astonishing and extraordinarily captivating one-take (well, almost) shot. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love indeed directly reflects the characters' lives, especially when Laura recites her monologue about pregnancy and when the characters sit around the table talking about love. It is fitting, therefore, that Lesley (in character as Terri) says that Eddie "shot himself in the mouth" and "screwed that up, too." All this foreshadowing culminates as Riggan, after eerily walking down the hallway with his loaded gun and passing an extra dressed like the Grim Reaper, attempts suicide by shooting himself. Iñárritu also foreshadows this by mentioning "Icarus," the Son of Daedulus from Greek mythology, twice in the film (in one scene, Mike is even reading Labyrinth, the maze in which Icarus was trapped). Icarus, driven by his own hubris, flew too close to the sun and perished.
In the end, however, Riggan survives - with a distorted nose that makes him actually look like a birdman. In the final moments of the film, Riggan seems to have everything he originally wanted - Sam was finally able to buy his lilacs, he is front-page of the Times and Tabitha has given his adaptation a stellar review. But there is no sense of ego here and the voice of the Birdman has indeed vanished. As Tabitha remarks, Riggan has finally demonstrated the "unexpected virtue of ignorance." Like how Icarus, ignorant of his weak feathers, flew up to the sun to achieve greatness, Riggan risked everything and spent all his energy for his play, "willfully" ignoring "a place" that had already forgotten" him." In the end - he flies.