Study Guide

Birdman Themes

  • Respect and Reputation

    Everyone wants to be respected, but the people who put their lives out there for pop media consumption have even more at stake than the rest of us.

    Here's Riggan's problem: he's been glorified as an acting superstar, but he doesn't exactly get respect. All the critics think Mike is a fantastic actor who has real talent; Riggan's just the dude inside the bird costume.

    The Birdman franchise has left Riggan in a pickle—he doesn't want to be Birdman anymore. This is why Riggan writes, directs, and stars in a Broadway play: he has to earn the respect and rewrite the reputation he has lost as a celebrity.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Is Birdman right? Would Riggan be able to regain the respect and admiration of the country if he hopped back in the bird suit?
    2. Why is Riggan so concerned about being remembered by the world? Is this something his life of celebrity has taught him or is it an innate desire we all feel?
    3. Is all respect made equal? Compare the respect Riggan wants from critics or the media to the respect of his family.

    Chew on This

    In today's world of mass media consumption and social media connectivity, prestige has taken a backseat to popularity. Being popular is just so much more valuable and easy to monetize.

    The battle between prestige and popularity is that of internal and external worth. Being popular means knowledge of you is valued by many people, but being prestigious means you have truly accomplished something worthwhile regardless of acclaim.

  • Truth

    Birdman is full of contradictory opinions about truth. Mike is truthful onstage and a lying liar offstage. Riggan believes that social media is all fakery, while Sam believes it's how you achieve true power. Lesley thinks that the offstage world is inherently more honest than the onstage one.

    So what's the truth? How can you define real authenticity in a world where everyone's pretending all the time, either for the sake of a good selfie or just because society demands a certain amount of artifice?

    These are deep questions, y'all. And Birdman grapples with all of them.

    Questions About Truth

    1. Do you think that the digital world has brought with it a lack of authenticity?
    2. How does truth tie into reputation? Can someone's reputation be a lie, or does someone's reputation inform the person they are?
    3. How easy is it for people to lie to themselves? Are there things that Riggan's not honest with himself about?

    Chew on This

    An honest performance is actually the furthest thing from the truth. The most honest performance is actually just the best lie.

    An honest performance is created when an actor fully connects with the persona they're playing. Mike's method acting is an act of authenticity that allows him to give such powerful performances.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    To bird, or not to bird, that is the question that Riggan keeps asking himself.

    Even though he threw away the bird suit long ago, a part of him still wants to hop back in and regain his former glory as the high-flying superhero on the big screen. But why did Riggan give it all away? What's not to like about being a movie star?

    Well, the problem starts when the movie stops starring Riggan Thomson and starts starring Birdman. As Riggan runs mostly naked through the streets of NYC, what are people yelling at him? "Mr. Thomson, may I make an inquiry for an autograph"? No; it's "Birdman," this and, "Birdman," that, until Riggan Thomson is no more than the fleshy filling stuffed behind those big wings and bronze beak mask.

    Riggan doesn't just want to do the play to prove his worth as an artist; he needs to do the play to prove he even exists apart from the thing that made him exist in the first place.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Why does Ed (from the play) say he doesn't exist? Lost love? Lack of self-worth? Psychosis?
    2. What does Riggan mean when he says he wasn't present in his own life?
    3. Why is Riggan so afraid that he might literally disappear?

    Chew on This

    Social media presence is the equivalent of existence in today's connected society. If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? If you live your life but nobody knows about it through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, do you really exist?

    Social media is the antithesis of existence. People spend all their time creating and sharing their digital life that they forget to live in the first place.

  • Love

    Did you make it through Birdman and still have no idea what people talk about when they talk about love? Yeah, us too.

    Love seems like it would be a good thing to talk about when talking about love, but love is also a big, scary word that people don't like using too much. Plus, it's just so hard to define.

    In the play, the characters argue about whether Ed's violent love is really love, whether love is absolute, what it means to not be able to physically see the person you love, and no one can seem to agree on what love is or how it manifests itself in people's thoughts and actions.

    So instead of talking directly about love, we can talk about things like infidelity-induced drownings gone wrong, or we can mistake love for other things like praise and admiration. Unlike Carver's short story, Birdman never directly asks us what love is, but it sure provides a lot of examples that make us ask ourselves that very question.

    Questions About Love

    1. Sylvia doesn't think love and admiration have to go together, so what's the difference between the two?
    2. How about love and respect? Can they be mutually exclusive as well?
    3. Does Riggan love Sylvia? What does throwing a knife at them have to do with love?

    Chew on This

    Ed couldn't have loved Terri. If he did he never would have beaten her that one night and dragged her around the room by her ankles. This violence is incompatible with love.

    Love isn't an absolute; it takes many forms, some more violent than others. Ed may have been crazy but his feelings for Terri were real, even if he was unable to consider how much his love was hurting her.