Study Guide

Birdman Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton)

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Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton)


Oh, Riggan.

He's a deadbeat dad who meditates in his undies. He's a talented actor who's more than a bit suicidal. He's an aspiring director who wants to be remembered.

And he's also, of course, Birdman himself.

Birdman makes the relationship between Riggan and the feathery, fictionalized version of his superstar past quite clear when he yells:

BIRDMAN: I'm you, asshole!

And later,

BIRDMAN: You're Birdman.

Call him whatever you like: a mental formation, a manifestation of Riggan's subconscious, a "Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit," but there's no denying that Birdman's an integral part of who Riggan is and how he changes throughout the film. That's why we haven't included a Birdman Character Analysis—there's no need. Birdman is Riggan and Riggan is Birdman.


But let's back up a bit. What else defines Riggan as Riggan?

To begin with: this guy is a hot mess. To say Riggan's "disheveled" would be the understatement of the century. Every time we hear the staccato beat of the drums that punctuates this film, we're reminded of the senseless, chaotic state of Riggan's life. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways in which Riggan's daily life mirrors his inner state.

His dressing room/office looks like the dorm room of a grubby frat boy—and that's before Riggan goes haywire and completely destroys it. When we meet Riggan (in this selfsame dressing room), he's running late to his own rehearsal because he's been talking to Sam about flowers and levitating in his undergarments.

Even when Riggan ventures outside the chaos of the theater, his surroundings reflect his inner turmoil. The New York City that Riggan exists in isn't the charming city you see in rom-coms, or the classy-to-a-fault sitcom version. The city's portrayed as insane, grubby, and teeming with people looking to start a fight. In other words, it's the perfect externalization of Riggan's troubled mind.


New York's also a perfect representation of something else: Riggan's self-centeredness. New York City considers itself to be the center of the world…and Riggan considers himself to be the center of everything.

There are a million and a half examples of Riggan's self-centeredness—remember how he doesn't even take the time to remember that Daniel's name isn't Steve? —but his most painfully narcissistic moment comes during his conversation with Sylvia, when he just can't stop talking about himself.

All Sylvia wants is for him to be there for Sam, but Riggan goes on (and on, and on) about how he's going to end up being the next Farrah Fawcett when George Clooney's plane goes down. He even wants to refinance the Malibu house for money…which sounds like the exact opposite of looking after Sam.

And, in fact, that's really what producing "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is all about. Riggan's not motivated by art or expression or any of that nonsense—he's motivated by himself. Tabitha even tells him,

TABITHA: You don't get to come in here and write, direct, and act in your own propaganda piece.

And she's right. This play is a propaganda piece—not propaganda for an ideal, but propaganda for a person. It's The Riggan Show.

Birdman does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to portraying Riggan's massive ego. He glorifies what he once was and tells Riggan that he could easily have all of the best parts of his past back:

BIRDMAN: You were larger than life, man. You saved people from their boring, miserable lives. You make them jump, laugh, s*** their pants.

Just like in the story of Icarus, we see Birdman flying high above the streets of New York with Birdman, his hubris, telling him:

BIRDMAN: This is where you belong, above them all.



But, if we know one basic rule of physics, it's that what goes up must come down. And it's the same thing when it comes to Riggan's ego. It goes through more ups-and-downs than a yo-yo.

Again, the grunt work of portraying this self-loathing falls on Birdman himself, who asks Riggan what he's doing in a grimy Broadway dressing room:

BIRDMAN: How did we end up here? This place is horrible…smells like balls.

Birdman's constantly poking at Riggan's already waning confidence and reinforcing the feelings of worthlessness and helplessness that have plagued Riggan since he quit acting and fell out of the spotlight. When Mike makes Riggan a laughingstock in his Times interview, Birdman tells him that:

BIRDMAN: [Mike] thinks you're a joke. Now two million people agree with him. Maybe that's what you are: a joke.

And as a manifestation of Riggan's insecurities, Birdman also has some harsh words that we can only interpret as Riggan's own thoughts about the state of himself and his career.

BIRDMAN: You're just a tiny, bitter cocksucker…what are you trying to prove? That you're an artist? Well, you're not.

RIGGAN: F*** you!

BIRDMAN: No, f*** you, you coward! We grossed billions. What are you, ashamed of that? Billions!

RIGGAN: And billions of flies eat s*** every day. So what. Does that make it good? I don't know if you noticed, but that was 1992.

BIRDMAN: You could jump right back into that suit if you wanted to. We're not dead.

RIGGAN: Look at me, look at this, look [opens his shirt and grabs his skin]. I look like a turkey with leukemia. I'm f***ing disappearing. This is what's left. I'm the answer to a f***ing Trivial Pursuit question.

It's ultimately these thoughts that lead to Riggan losing control and tearing apart his room in a fit of despair and rage.


But, as we know, destroying his dressing room isn't the most self-destructive thing that Riggan does. He tries to commit suicide—at least once.

Before he fatefully shoots himself in the face onstage, Riggan becomes eerily calm and placid. Even Sylvia remarks on his mood:

SYLVIA: You seem abnormally calm.

RIGGAN: I am calm. I'm great, actually.

He then goes on to tell her about his love, his failures, his wish to be a better father and person, and even about hearing Birdman's voice in his head. Riggan keeps his serenity through the final scene of the film, when we see him lying in a hospital bed with a very Birdman-esque facial bandage. He seems to receive the news of his play's extreme success with grace, rather than with his usual manic bluster.

Then he exits through the window, leaving the audience to wonder whether he's attempted suicide a second time. Seeing Riggan in a Zen state is eerie.

But there's one aspect in the last scene that gives us hope that Riggan hasn't shuffled off his mortal coil quite yet…and it's not the fact that he daughter seems so happy in the last shot. It's because, rather that acting sweet and calm throughout the last scene, he has one final showdown with Birdman when he says:

RIGGAN: Bye-bye, and f*** you.

That's vintage Riggan, folks; that's the reason we have hope for him still being alive. Maybe, just maybe, Riggan's shaken himself from the talons of his feathery past.

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