Study Guide

Birdman

Birdman Summary

What We Talk About When We Talk About Levitation

Meet Riggan.

He used to be the star of a big superhero movie franchise, where he played a Batman-like character called…Birdman. But the dude is now a washed-up fifty-something, trying to write, direct, and star in his own play. (The play's an adaptation of the short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," btw. And it's super-thematically important.)

When we first see Riggan, he's in his tighty-whiteys and floating a couple feet in the air. This is our first clue that something is, um, off…but whether it's the movie or Riggan himself that's screwy, we're not quite sure.

Riggan leaves his comfy levitation spot and heads down to the stage, where rehearsals are in full swing. Then—kablammo—his costar Ralph is hit in the head by a light fixture that falls from the ceiling. This is good news and bad news. The good: Ralph—who's talentless—won't be acting anymore. The bad: they need a new actor. Luckily, Lesley, one of the play's four actors/actresses, says her lover Mike wants the part. Everyone's excited.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Dysfunction

And, at first, Mike's great. Okay, maybe he doesn't wear underwear and is pretty incredibly crude, but he's already improving the play's writing and proving to be a very talented actor. But Mike's really into authenticity—when the character he's playing is supposed to be drunk, Mike figures that the best way to get into the role is to actually get tanked. Then, when Riggan replaces his gin with water during the first preview, Mike throws a hissy fit and the preview ends early.

It's too late to let Mike go, so Mike and Riggan have a talk where they debate the various merits of popularity and respect and prestige and truth. (This movie gets deep, guys.) We also meet Tabitha, a snobby critic whose reviews will make or break Riggan's play.

Later, Riggan runs into his daughter Sam. Cute family moment ensues? Hardly: Sam, who's barely out of rehab, is smoking some pot. Drama ensues. She yells at Riggan and tells him he is irrelevant, which hurts Riggan a lot because being irrelevant is what he's most afraid of.

The next preview is better, but during the sex scene Mike wants to actually get it on with Lesley…who definitely doesn't want to have sex in front of eight hundred strangers. The audience laughs at Mike's erection but Lesley doesn't think it's funny. She and Mike break up and Laura, our fourth actor, comforts her in their dressing room. Laura and Riggan are dating and Laura's upset that Riggan is, well, kind of jerk.

  

What We Talk About When We Talk About Breakdowns

The next morning, Mike and Riggan get in a fight because a) Riggan is a little unstable b) Mike is a little arrogant and c) Mike went behind Riggan's back and did an interview that wasn't too kind to Riggan.

Still upset, Riggan goes back to his office and destroys it with his telekinesis. Yep, you heard that right. Oh, and Birdman, a deep voice in his head, tells him he never should have left the movie business because now he's a joke. Birdman also encourages him in the whole room-destruction thing.

Meanwhile, Sam and Mike meet on the balcony and play some Truth or Dare. Sam maybe wants to fool around, but Mike is worried he won't be able to perform (unlike on stage, where he didn't have any problems).

But the next day Sam tries again and seduces Mike. Riggan sees them kissing and steps outside to cool off. But he gets locked out of the theater with his robe caught in the door and has to ditch the robe and walk through the streets in his underwear to finish the final preview, which actually ends up working out except for the unwanted popularity of Riggan's mostly naked body.

That night Riggan talks to Tabitha in a bar. She tells him she's going to destroy his play. Riggan's upset and gets totally drunk, passing out on the street.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Flying, Shooting Yourself In The Face, And Rave Reviews

When he wakes up, Birdman is there. He's not a voice anymore; he has a physical form: a dude in a bird suit. Riggan maybe-almost jumps off a building, flies around town (like, he's literally flying through the air), and somehow makes it back to the theater in time for the first real show.

Was that a dream? Is he still drunk? We don't know.

At any rate, everything goes well, even the talk with his ex-wife where he apologizes to her for everything bad he's done. Then it's time for the final act. Riggan's character in the play is supposed to pretend-kill himself to end the play…but the gun Riggan loads beforehand definitely isn't fake.

Riggan shoots himself onstage…

…but misses his brain and hits his nose.

He wakes up in the hospital with a new nose and a whole ton of buzz. Everyone—critics and theater-goers alike—loved the play. It's a huge success. Alone in the hospital room, Riggan says goodbye to Birdman and climbs out his window. When Sam comes in she doesn't see him anywhere, but finally she looks out the window and looks up. She smiles.

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    • After the staccato beat of the opening, we cut to a silent, serene shot of Riggan floating in his office. Like, literally levitating. In nothing but his undies.
    • He has some depressing things to say about "this place" whatever and wherever it may be.
    • He talks to Sam about getting him flowers. She's not having a good time.
    • He's called down to the set of a play; apparently he's a director.
  • Scene 2

    Scene 2

    • Riggan gets to the stage and three people are in the middle of a scene of what appears to be an adaptation of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a Raymond Carver short story.
    • Ralph, one of the leads, can't act. Riggan is mad at him.
    • Then, Ralph gets hit in the head and knocked unconscious by some sort of light fixture.
    • Everyone freaks out. Riggan leaves.
    • He's followed by his lawyer, producer, and best friend, Jake. He tells Jake to find another actor but all of his suggestions—Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender, etc—are in the middle of blockbuster superhero movies.
    • Jake is worried about Ralph suing him but Riggan just tells him to do what he was born to do and make it all go away.
  • Scene 3

    Scene 3

    • Riggan hears a deep voice talking to him. The voice is coming from inside of his head and is telling him that he could have had it all.
    • This is the voice of Birdman, the character he used to play. He's berating Riggan for giving up a life of stardom and money and fame to become a nobody director.
    • Riggan tries deep breathing but it doesn't help the voice go away.
    • So instead he uses his telekinetic powers to smash Sam's vase of flowers against the wall.
    • In the next moment he's in the middle of a media interview where he's being questioned by a tabloid woman wondering about the pig semen he may or may not inject for its facial rejuvenating properties, a theater critic who suggests the play is an attempt to not be a washed up movie star, and a Chinese reporter who's really excited by the idea of a new Birdman movie.
    • Jake comes in and these people go away. Jake has the Ralph situation under control but now they're stressing about finding an actor.
    • Lesley, one of the actresses, comes in and says her lover Mike, a famous theater actor, wants to do it. Everyone's excited.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    • Riggan meets Mike on set and they start going over some lines. Mike apparently already knows all of the lines because he's been helping Lesley (and because he's Mike).
    • He starts making suggestions about writing and delivery. Riggan is a little thrown off but when the lines turn out way better, he's into it.
    • Sam walks out onstage and walks Mike to the dressing room. He compliments her butt and she doesn't take it well.
    • Mike takes off his clothes to get fitted and isn't wearing any underwear. Sam stays to watch.
    • Lesley comes in and makes fun of Mike while taking shots at Sam, calling her creepy.
    • Sam leaves and Lesley is really embarrassed and then upset at Mike because this must be his fault.
    • His response to the situation—pulling Lesley close and asking her to fondle his testicles—doesn't help.
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    • Laura, the other actress in the play, pulls Riggan aside. She tells him she's missed her last two periods. She thinks she's pregnant.
    • Laura's very excited and happy about this. Riggan says he is too, although he's not very believable. (Isn't he supposed to be an actor?)
    • Then it's first preview time. Just before Riggan walks out on his cue, he's told that Mike might be drinking real gin.
    • Riggan replaces the gin with water and begins to deliver his monologue when Mike interrupts him.
    • Mike's upset about how fake everything is—the set is fake, Riggan's acting is fake.
    • Mike's totally wasted. But he says he's supposed to be drunk, and so is Riggan.
    • The audience boos Mike when he interrupts the play, but by the time Riggan orders the curtains to close, they're clapping. It's not clear at what or whom.
  • Scene 6

    Scene 6

    • Jake grabs Riggan on the way to his room. He says they can't get rid of Mike no matter what. He's already doubled advance sales.
    • Jake gets emotional and talks about being respected and validated through the play; after all this respect and validation is how Riggan sold him on doing the play in the first place.
    • Riggan promises to get Mike under control, but first he has to talk with Sylvia, his ex-wife, who's waiting for him unexpectedly in his office.
    • She tells him he needs to be there for Sam, who just got out of rehab. Riggan doesn't seem as concerned.
    • Riggan talks symbolically about his desire for fame and prestige, which upsets Sylvia.
    • She rehashes that they broke up when he threw a kitchen knife at her one minute and the told her he loved her the next minute.
    • Whoa. Riggan doesn't seem too stable.
  • Scene 7

    Scene 7

    • Riggan takes Mike on a little stroll for some coffee so they can talk things out.
    • They talk about popularity and respect and prestige, but they never see eye to eye. Both have a lot at stake in the play but they think the other is self-centered and full of ridiculous sentimentality.
    • Instead of coffee, Mike walks into a bar where they drink some whiskey as the conversation continues.
    • Just as Mike says that no one cares about Riggan, a family comes up and asks for a picture. Mike takes it for them, very begrudgingly.
    • Then Mike walks over to Tabitha, the only New York theater critic that matters. Her review can make a play sink or swim.
    • But Mike isn't scared of her. She'll only give him a bad review if he gives her a bad performance, and he's confident that won't happen.
    • Riggan walks back to the theater where he finds Sam. He starts by being nice, thanking her for everything.
    • Then he smells pot. Then he finds pot. He gets mad at her, thinking that she'll be too high and ruin the play for him.
    • She tells him that his play doesn't matter and that he doesn't matter; he's irrelevant and so is everyone else.
    • She stops but it's too late. She leaves and Riggan is left, alone and sad. He picks up the joint and smokes what's left.
  • Scene 8

    Scene 8

    • There's another preview going on: Laura's onstage during the play's dream sequence, giving a monologue about her lover and her baby.
    • Behind the set, Lesley and Mike get into bed for the upcoming sex scene.
    • Mike has an erection and decides he wants to actually have sex with Lesley, who's definitely not having it.
    • When Mike has to hop out of bed, the audience laughs because his erection shows through his pajama pants.
    • Oh—important plot point: in the play, when Riggan's character finds his wife in bed with her lover he commits suicide by shooting himself in the head.
    • The play's preview night ends and Lesley is really upset at Mike. Laura comforts her in her dressing room and Riggan comes in and does the same.
    • This makes Laura sad because he's never sweet to her, even though they've been together for two years.
    • Lesley and Laura smile about how pathetic they are—and then make out.
    • Mike interrupts them but Lesley throws a hair dryer and an expletive his way so he leaves, muttering "actresses."
  • Scene 9

    Scene 9

    • Mike heads to Riggan's office where he tells him that his prop gun is too fake and he doesn't feel threatened enough on stage. Other than that, fun crowd tonight.
    • Mike heads out to a balcony overlooking the main street.
    • Sam is there, sitting on the edge. This gives her an adrenaline rush, which is the closest thing she can get to a drug.
    • They play a game of Truth or Dare where Sam spits on a dudes head, finds out why Mike said she has a nice butt ("because you do" is his approximate answer), and learns that he doesn't want to "fool around" with her because he's afraid he won't be able to get it up, even though that was obviously not a problem on stage.
    • Then Mike says that, if he weren't afraid, he'd pull out her eyes and look through them to see what it's like to be young again. Ooh. Romantic.
  • Scene 10

    Scene 10

    • The following morning Laura shows Riggan the paper. Mike has a huge front-page interview feature in which he says some not-so-nice things about Riggan.
    • Riggan's mad and kicks Mike out of his tanning bed to yell at him for trying to upstage him in his own play.
    • Mike isn't sympathetic and says mean things back, but when Riggan starts talking about his hateful drunk of a father, Mike is remorseful.
    • But it's not true. Riggan was lying just like Mike lied in the interview. The two have a bit of a tussle and Riggan storms off, back to his office.
  • Scene 11

    Scene 11

    • Birdman is at it again, berating Riggan for leaving the movie industry to become a washed-up actor holding onto the vestiges of his once-illustrious career.
    • Riggan tells Birdman to shut up and go away, but he doesn't.
    • So Riggan starts throwing things around with his telekinesis, breaking just about everything in (or out) of reach.
    • He feels like he's disappearing, both physically and in terms of relevance. He's worried that Birdman is right and he's nothing more than a joke.
    • Jake comes in and it appears that Riggan's yelling at nobody and throwing things with his hands. Hmm. Seems like those telekinetic powers and Birdman are both figments of Riggan's fevered imagination.
    • Riggan cools down and both Jake and Lesley comfort him, telling him their final preview is going to be great.
    • As Lesley leaves, the camera pans to Mike. He comes out of his room and walks to the balcony, where he finds Sam.
    • Mike spends a while talking about how special she is, even if she's a mess. She kisses him but Mike isn't having it.
    • Then she walks away, asking "Truth or dare?" but not taking truth for an answer.
    • She leads him to the catwalk where she kisses him again. Finally, he concedes to making out with her.
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    • Riggan's suiting up for the final scene of the final preview. He apologizes to Laura for being a jerk. They laugh about it.
    • Then he sees Sam kissing Mike and decides to take a little smoke break to cool down before he does something rash and stupid.
    • But when he steps outside the door closes on him, trapping the bathrobe he's wearing.
    • Unable to get back in and unable to pull out the robe, he has to walk around the block to the theater entrance in his underwear…carrying his wig.
    • People immediately notice him and begin asking for autographs and pictures and start filming.
    • When he gets in the theater he throws on the wig and gets right into the scene.
    • At first people laugh but then everyone is quieted and wowed by his performance—even though he's almost naked and using his hand for a gun.
    • The camera pans away and follows Jake who's still, somehow, dealing with Ralph.
    • We hear clapping and then Riggan comes down the hall, still wearing his wig. He sits down and starts dipping some lunchmeat in mustard. Yum.
    • Sam's there and asks how he's doing. Turns out that Riggan's not doing so well. We know: shocker.
    • He's feeling particularly meek today and apologizes to Sam for being a "fine" father.
    • She shows him her project: a toilet paper roll marked up with dashes. Each line represents a thousand years in the history of the universe.
    • Then she shows him the video of him running around the streets of New York in his underwear. He's already started racking up the views.
    • This, she says, is power.
  • Scene 13

    Scene 13

    • Riggan's having a drink at the bar when he notices Tabitha is back. He decides to go talk to her and show her his Carver memorabilia.
    • This was a mistake: she doesn't care about it and she doesn't care about him. She hates him and the entitled celebrity that he is.
    • He thinks he's an actor that can somehow write and direct his own play? With no prior experience? She says she's going to pan his play…even though she hasn't even seen it yet.
    • This makes Riggan (understandably) mad. He smashes a glass and tells her she's nothing but a labeler. There's not substance in anything she writes.
    • He tells her there's nothing at stake for her but everything at stake for him. She still doesn't care; his play is as good as dead.
    • He buys some whiskey and gets drunk, passing a guy reciting a scene from Macbeth.
    • Then Riggan sits down and goes to sleep on the pavement.
  • Scene 14

    Scene 14

    • What do you know: Birdman wakes Riggan up and starts talking to him. And it's not just the voice—this Birdman is the real deal, a dude in a big, black, bird suit.
    • He follows Riggan around, walking or flying behind him. He talks about what they used to be together and how they should go back to being movie stars.
    • Everything around Riggan erupts into action: the swat team rolls up, missiles are shot, helicopters wheel overhead with guns blazing, a giant robotic bird appears out of nowhere.
    • "People love this shit," Birdman tells him.
    • Riggan begins to levitate up to the top story of a building and Birdman tells him they need to go out on their terms, with a bang.
    • People below are worried he will jump; they know it's Birdman up there.
    • On the roof, a man helps him away from the ledge, but Riggan suddenly turns and leaps off the building…and starts flying.
    • He flies above the streets and Birdman tells him he belongs here, above everyone else.
    • He lands in front of the theater and walks inside. The day fades to night.
  • Scene 15

    Scene 15

    • People have come out of the first act for intermission. They're all full of praise—apparently the play is a big success so far, and we haven't even gotten to see it.
    • We pan up into Riggan's window just as Sylvia comes in to find him lying on his desk, unusually calm.
    • She talks about how wonderful the show is. He wants to tell her a funny story that starts on the night of their last anniversary, when he was caught in bed with another woman.
    • Sylvia doesn't like this but he presses on.
    • He went to Malibu and tried to drown himself in the ocean. But the water was filled with jellyfish and he ended up screaming, rolling around in the sand.
    • He tells her he loves her and he feels like he lost the life he was supposed to have. He wishes he was there for Sam's birth and for the rest of her life.
    • It's time to get going for the second act, so Sylvia leaves and Riggan practices his tongue exercises and loads his pistol.
    • It's most definitely a real pistol, not a prop.
    • He goes down and ignores any kind of makeup, just puts on the wig and bangs on the set's hotel door.
    • He enters and delivers his lines to Lesley's character about wanting to be loved by her. Mike's character, on cue, tells him that it's over.
    • When Lesley's character confirms, Riggan does a bit of improve. He says, "I don't exist," and walks toward the audience, almost in a trance.
    • Suddenly he points the gun at Mike, who jumps. Apparently this one is threatening enough.
    • Then he points it at the audience, "bang."
    • Then he points it at his head. Bang.
    • Riggan collapses and, after a moment of stunned silence, the audience erupts.
    • It's a standing ovation…and we see Tabitha sneaking out of the theater.
  • Scene 16

    Scene 16

    • We cut to a different scene. Yes, you read that right; there's a cut. The single enormous tracking shot that is this movie has finally completed.
    • We see the marching band that was playing in the street when Riggan was in his underwear, except now they're on the stage of the theater. Also there? Spiderman fighting a Transformer.
    • There's a shot of light coming through the window in Riggan's office.
    • There's the shot of a light in the center of the stage.
    • There's a shot of a comet or missile streaking through the sky above the city.
    • There's a shot of dead jellyfish stranded on the beach, seagulls flocking around them.
  • Scene 17

    Scene 17

    • Riggan's in a hospital bed and we look at the room from his POV. Sylvia's standing by the window as Jake comes in.
    • Jake's ecstatic. Tabitha wrote the best possible review—Jake is going on and on about how they show will sell out every night, run forever, and there will be a book deal.
    • Sylvia's not amused. She thinks Tabitha's review is nonsense and slaps Jake.
    • Riggan has a mask over his face. He apparently missed his head and shot his nose off.
    • Jake says he'll get charged with carrying a firearm and to tell anybody who asks that it was all an accident. Sylvia definitely isn't buying the "it was an accident" line.
    • Jake leaves to hold back the tides of reporters as Sam comes in carrying flowers. Her mother leaves and she tells Riggan about the Twitter account she created for him. He has lots of followers already.
    • He holds her for a moment before she leaves to get a vase for the flowers.
    • Then he goes to the bathroom where he takes off his mask, shocked by what his new nose looks like (and also the rest of his face, which is bruised black and blue).
    • Birdman's there. Yup, our friend in the bird-suit is back…and using the toilet. But he doesn't say anything.
    • Riggan leaves with a "Bye-bye, and fuck you." It's the last we see of Birdman.
    • Riggan goes to the window and looks out at a flock of birds. He opens the window and leans out.
    • When Sam comes back with a vase she can't find her dad. Suddenly she sees the open window and freaks out.
    • Running to it, she looks out and down, but there's no sign of him.
    • Then she looks up. She stares for a second in disbelief, and then smiles…just as the movie ends.