The Unexpected Virtue of Resonance

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate thing with comicbooks for most of my life. Batman was pretty huge even before Nolan (both due to the gritty animated series and the grittier things Moore and Miller did in their turn), but there wasn’t much else in either DC or the MCU to attract me.

Discovering Deadpool was a happy accident – an irreverent abomination built from spare parts, painfully aware of the fourth wall, his only source of solace a hallucinatory courtship of Death. What was not to love?

I thought about the ‘Pool more than once while watching Birdman last night, except the word dangling from the tip of the protagonist’s tongue was not Death but Disaster. Dialogue ebbed and flowed like everyday speech, people were as profound (or silly) as you’d expect from real life, and a single, continuous shot lulled us into suspending disbelief before gathering momentum and plowing into a brick wall.

The cinematography is done well enough to steal the show. You can’t help marvel at the absolute nightmare it must have been to choreograph.

Michael Keaton pulling a Matthew McConaughey in that Lincoln ad a scene from the film.

The premise: a washed-up old actor who first got famous playing an over-the-top superhero in the 90’s decides to win the admiration he thinks he deserves by writing, directing, and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. What follows is an uninterrupted, 115-minute sequence of the actor passing through three nights of previews and the opening night as his supporting cast flirts with implosion and his life unravels both inside and out of his head.

The actor playing the actor who played the eponymous Birdman is Michael Keaton – who acted in Tim Burton’s dark, noir-infused Batman movies and inspired the animated series as well as a revival in popularity of dark, noir-infused comics. Keaton’s Birdman still speaks to him in a guttural monotone from time to time, but it wasn’t Batman I remembered so much as Deadpool’s little yellow speech bubbles, peppering the runtime with ironic commentary even as the production faces one insane hurdle after another.

None of the other characters seem aware of the writhing mess inside Riggan Thomson’s head – in fact, they’re all leading their own games of brinkmanship whenever they flit through the frames. “I am the one keeping this boat afloat,” says Zach Galifinakis in one of the film’s most memorable scenes (although technically, do they qualify as separate scenes if it all plays like a long, uninterrupted shot?).

It is a testament to the strong writing that you almost believe him as you’re laughing out loud.

Speaking of laughs, Edward Norton brings both impeccable comic timing and an intimate knowledge of theater to the table. He goes toe-to-toe with Keaton in many of their scenes, and his firm grip on his on-stage persona contrasts wonderfully with his co-star’s ticking time-bomb. He also shares some dreamy sequences with Emma Stone which are shelter from the constant upheaval – and engaging enough to carry another whole movie all by their lonesome.

On second thought, how effective could that other movie be?

I find myself less and less inclined to share details as we go on – the actors all seemed so lifelike, so stripped of artifice, that picking up individual facets seems to do injustice to the whole. Most of the other characters were given less to do than Norton or Keaton (apart from Stone, maybe, until social networking screencaps ruined some of her best lines) but they came across as real and unstudied as the central performances.

Then again, since a misstep probably meant starting from scratch, the actors must’ve had to sync up their tempos sharpish.

The film targets everything from Hollywood’s self-absorbed ignorance to Carver’s alcoholism to the cutthroat road to success (or acceptance) on stage. The humour is bleak for the most part, and the denouement is both surprising and executed well enough to live up to goddammit, I was going into plot points again.

Disappear into their characters, etc etc. Lindsay Duncan, etc etc. Delectable percussion etc.

Since I have just shut myself off from the movie being discussed, I guess we’ll have to conclude with another comicbook anecdote (tl;dr version: watch the film).

Soon after I got into Deadpool, Marvel did yet another sprawling crossover. This one was called Dark Reign and dealt with Norman Osborn (the original Green Goblin, as portrayed by Willem Dafoe in the first Maguire flick) gaining control of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and by extension the world’s superheroes).

Arcs like this end, sooner or later, with the heroes rising triumphant while some less-known dude from some obscure franchise is sacrificed. It took two years before they got around to killing the Sentry and deposing Osborn, who was thrashed by the Avengers and yanked from the suit of armor he’d stolen from Iron Man – revealing on national television that he’d been wearing Goblin makeup underneath.

Watch Keaton in the final act of Birdman. Pay special attention to his last line of guttural invective.

There is no facepaint here, no striped suits or leering rogue gallery, but he brings alive a soaring, mythic creation in a soaring, mythic film. This might be the most important role of his career.

Which almost makes up for the butchering of Carver.

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