How does ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ examine the commodity of franchised storytelling?

‘Birdman’ or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance) (Iñárritu, 2014) follows ex super hero movie star Riggan Thompson, played by ex-Batman Michael Keaton, through his attempt at repurposing a short story by Raymond Carver for Broadway. Although this brief synopsis sounds relatively simple on paper, the reality of Birdman is anything but. The film employs a range of re appropriations and technical skills throughout its 119-minute duration to wage a battle between contemporary spectacle and art that can be both critical and ignorant, but is always purposeful.

In 1989 Ronald Perelmen, an American investor, and the 69th richest person in the world, bought ‘Marvel Entertainment Group’ after realizing its potential for marketable characters;

“It is a mini-Disney in terms of intellectual property, Disney’s got much more highly recognized characters and softer characters, whereas our characters are termed action heroes. But at Marvel we are now in the business of the creation and marketing of characters.” (Shanken, 1995)

Despite Perelmen’s efforts his vision ended up in bankruptcy in 1996, but due to his spectacular wealth he was able to redeem the company through an array of complex business deals involving bondholders and stock sharers. In 2009 Marvel transformed from mini-Disney into actual Disney when ‘The Walt Disney Company’ purchased ‘Marvel Entertainment’, the parent company of ‘Marvel studios’ along with it’s other subsidiaries, for $4billion. Since 2012 to date (April 2015) Disney has invested a further $930 million into the budget of it’s first 5 Marvel films, creating revenue of 3.7 billion so far, but has further investments planned up to 2028.

The release of ‘Birdman’ coincides with the recent birth of Marvels newest franchisee film concept; ‘The Avengers’ (Whedon, 2012). Here we witness all of Marvels most marketable characters crossing universes in an abundance of films and products that simultaneously advertise both franchise and individual super hero. For example, fans of Iron Man will now go to see an Avenger’s film and leave with not only satisfaction from experiencing the development of their favourite character, but with an interest in newly developed characters such as Captain America.

‘Birdman’s cast reflects this recent history of Blockbuster comic book adaptations. Firstly acknowledging the success of Michael Keaton’s role in both ‘Batman’ (Burton, 1989) and ‘Batman Returns’ (Burton, 1992) as the birth of the comic book franchise into franchised film. Emma Stone who plays Sam Thompson, the daughter of Riggan in Birdman came to celebrity status because of her role in Marvel based ‘The Amazing Spiderman’ franchise films in 2012 and 2014. Sam’s love interest in Birdman is the erratic theatre actor Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton who is known for his one time super hero role as ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (Leterrier, 2008). This was one of the last Marvel films made before Disney’s purchase of the franchise the following year. Despite being the most recent actor to reboot the Incredible Hulk franchise, the actor Mark Ruffalo was chosen over Norton for the role in the Avengers films. Norton has expressed that this was a “business decision” of Marvels, rather than a creative risk. (NPR, 2014)

Our Introduction to Shiner’s character in ‘Birdman’ mimics this decision making of employing certain actors to play certain characters as a means of advertising the production itself. Riggan uses his ‘magical powers’ to get rid of an actor that he describes as “the worst actor I’ve ever seen” (Riggan, page 7), who is then just as magically replaced by Mike Shiner, known for selling “a shitload of tickets.” (Jake, page 16) when it comes to the theatre. This shows the business arrangement of artistic value, where Shiner’s popularity with the critics helps advertise the play and Shiner can use the play to advertise himself further. This financial benefit for both the play (and therefore everyone else in the play) and Mike Shiner perfectly reflects the arrangement of Marvel and Sony’s shared rights to Spiderman. “Sony needed to breathe life into its “Spider-Man” franchise; by lending its character to Marvel, it has a way to generate more exposure for its bigscreen hero.” (Lang, 2015). This complicated arrangement means that when Spiderman is used in a film produced by Sony it will simultaneously advertise Marvel’s Avengers franchise and when Spiderman is used in an Avengers film, it advertises Sony’s films.

This use of appropriation echoes what Roland Barthes talked of the sign, the signifier and the signified in his book ‘Mythologies’ (1957). Here Mike Shiner (or Spiderman) is employed by Riggan (or Marvel) as a sign of previous success, signifying to potential consumers that his adaptation of Carver (or the Avengers franchise) shall also be a success. Our culture has developed into a hyper commodity that no longer just commodifies the objects that Barthes talks about; “Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion” (Barthes, 1957:221), but now reduces humans, in particular celebrities, to signs and symbols of western culture with actors on contracts that employ them 3 films at a time. This hyper commodified reality means that characters no longer have any structural relevance to the story line, but are instead employed as signifiers to consumers that generate profitable margins for the companies that created them.Untitled

Throughout ‘Birdman’ there are references drawn between Birdman and the mythical Icarus with the only few cuts in the film dedicated to a shot of a fireball ripping through the sky, visually representing Icarus’ infamous fall (see fig. 1). This comparison between historical mythology and superhero characters reflects the reality of Marvel’s ‘Thor’. Thor is one of the most interesting of all the Marvel’s products, originating from the Viking age, he is one of the oldest European myths, now turned super hero. Thor is a myth that is so deeply historical in the English-speaking world that a day of the week, Thursday, is named after him. As Barthes explained in ‘Mythologies’; “it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone that rules the life and death of mythical language.” (Barthes, 1957:218).

Perhaps even more interesting is Marvel’s concept ‘Captain America’. This character embodies the strength of the American army in the Second World War with the super hero famously defeating the Nazi’s. This appropriation of recent historical fact simplified into a battle between superheroes and super villains transforms our cultural history from the real into the commodity of myths that Marvel creates. This story re writes factual past into a hyper commodified myth that consumers cannot learn from but companies can profit from.

The self important power and immortality of these super hero characters is referenced in ‘Birdman’ with Sam’s toilet roll that uses dashes to “represent the 6 billion years that the earth has been around.” (See Fig. 2) One small sheet of of toilet roll holds the whole of human history and with it “all our ego and self obsession is worth.” Riggan ignorantly wiping his mouth on this metaphor signifies humanities faith in the power of the myth being able to transcend human history and reason. It also reflects how the self-importance of these Marvel myths ignorantly diminishes and undermines our historical and cultural past with its toilet roll worthy wipe.bman

Along with other appropriations this physical representation of humanity in ‘Birdman’ helps us to deconstruct the myth of the super hero. By parodying the same tactics as Marvel it exploits the fact that Western myths, passed down from ancestors through story telling spanning over human history, have now become products of commodity. In the film itself, an interviewer recites “As you’re probably aware, Barthes said, “The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry detergent commercials and comic strip characters.” (Gabriel, page 11).

Our cultural myths have developed to a point where they no longer concern themselves with the rules of society but instead save society from unrealistic threats. Comic book characters initially only saved cities, for example Michael Keaton’s Batman was employed to save the fictional Gotham city. Over time this concept has developed where once fictional super heroes were saving fictional cities now ‘The Avengers’, or, the mythological God’s of Western culture, save our universe. 30 years before Disney purchased Marvel Jean Baudillard wrote; “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyper real order and to the order of simulation.” (Baudrillard. 1981:12). This franchise is ultimately made up of “post-apocalyptic porn” (Birdman, page 95) that save us in our ‘real’ world from incomprehensible CGI monsters. Each film concludes with the declaration that the world will never end so long as super heroes are here to save us. These characters and their plots make us feel as immortal as we believe the myths to be. It seems that Western society will feel safe for as long as it can spend money in exchange for super heroes on our cinema screens.

imagesAs what is at stake to us (as inhabitants of the earth) within the films increases, it seems that the audiences’ attention span has decreased. The contemporary and controversial film director Peter Watkins studies the effects of ‘standardized Hollywood film making’ through his own works and reflects that;

“Its reliance on speed, fragmentation and hierarchical structures, the deceptive illusion of ‘reality’ it imparts has created over the years an increasingly powerful tool of global mass manipulation, with long-ranging social and political consequences.” (Watkins, 2012).

‘Birdman’ was able to avoid these editorial techniques that Watkins critiques by designing the films cinematography, script and sets so that the film would appear to have been taken in one shot. This creates a continuous performance on screen that feels truthful and allows the audience space for reflection as well as outstanding performances from its actors.

This artistic critique of creativity and talent that Watkins talks of is embodied in ‘Birdman’ by the critic Tabitha Dickinson, who explains to Riggan that; “I hate you. And everyone you represent. Entitled. Spoiled. Selfish. Children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography.” (Tabitha, page 90). It also occurs when Mike disregards Riggans previous work as Birdman as “cultural genocide” (Mike, page 42). Therefore strongly implying a distaste toward the “billion-dollar Iron Man franchise” that is referenced earlier on. (Blonde woman on TV, page 9).

It seems though that Marvel is aware and happily complacent with their standardization of cinematic techniques. Marvel’s Producer and president, Kevin Feige was awarded the ‘Motion Picture Showman of the year’ in 2013. Despite this, an article in Bloomberg Business described how; “Feige’s films aren’t groundbreaking-they rely on epic showdowns at major landmarks,” but overlooked this to congratulate the fact that because of this “Marvel’s sequels make progressively more money.” (Leonard, 2014).

The spectacle of location is another of the Hollywood Blockbuster techniques that ‘Birdman’ avoids using. Although it is set in New York, which is a favourite Blockbuster setting for its panoramic city scape shots, very little of the city is shown, with almost all of the scenes taking place within the theatre. The only scene where we are exposed to the commodities of New York is when we see the creation of the most modern form of Mythology. A video recording of Riggan’s embarrassing walk through swarms of people in Times Square in only his underwear and a wig is turned into an online hit, racking up “350,000 views in less than an hour. Believe it or not, this is power.” (Sam, page 89). Here, and throughout the rest of the film with its constant references to social media, ‘Birdman’ acknowledges that the rise of the Internet, especially social media means that; “consumers today participate directly in the creation of culture.” (Anderson, 2012). So ‘Birdman’ not only critiques the companies producing these Blockbusters, but also the audience that consumes them.images (1)

There is only one moment in the film where the audience is addressed directly, Birdman the superhero looks down the camera during a CGI scene that would be more at home in a Marvel film and exclaims; “Look at these people…They love this shit… Not this talking, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Directly confronting the audience for our support of these franchise films. This scene is the pinnacle of re appropriation. The soundtrack changes drastically from the percussive beats that vibrated through the rest of the film, to the familiar sound of a choir chant being mutilated by CGI explosions that we find in many super hero films.

This commodity that evolves over Marvel’s cinematic experiences is not just contained by the films themselves. The franchise of the characters transcends far beyond the films into their merchandise, as is demonstrated in this same scene where success is measured by “Magazine covers and billboards. Happy meals with Birdman dolls.” (Birdman, page 95). In present day fans can connect with the hyper reality of these films through products that will further simulate and connect them to this hyper real world. The costumes, video games, toys and key rings that pay tribute to the characters super powers are just as important as the films themselves, they are the physical by product of commodified story telling. (See Fig. 3)

Ultimately, ‘Birdman’ tells a story that demonstrates the negative effect that commodified story telling has had on society. Where Riggan confuses “love with admiration” we in society confuse value for wealth and myth for immortality. Our cultural stories no longer teach us about the human experience as the subtlety and reflection in Raymond Carver’s story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ does. Our story telling creates hyper realities that distract us from the mundanity of the everyday instead of reflecting it. Saying this, it is interesting to note that the version of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ or ‘Beginners’ (Carver, 1981) that is used in Birdman is not Carvers original writing. Instead it is the version published by his editor (Gordon Lish) who changed it for a more dramatic, crass read. It is known that “Carver disdained cheapness and vulgarity, and he profoundly resented Lish’s sensationalistic rewriting.” (Leaf, 2015). Knowing that the version of Carver’s story used in the film is not the original allows the film to further manipulate a piece of art that has already been altered in order to make it sellable, reflecting the appropriation of ancient myths as super heroes in comic books.

Aside from the tributes to Carver and Barthes, the appropriations throughout ‘Birdman’ are immediate, with references to modern Western cultural figures ranging from Justin Beiber to Hallmark. These appropriations reflect and critique society right now, whereas Marvel’s franchises have lost themselves in a hyper commodified non reality that no longer reflects culture or society but invents it whilst simultaneously destroying the value of it, which is echoed in the conclusion of ‘Birdman’s story with Riggan’s suicide at the end of the film.

References in chronological order:

Birdman or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance) (2014) Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu [Cinema] United States: Regency Enterprises

Shanken, Marvin (1995) [Interview by Author, Spring 1995]

The Avengers (2012) Directed by Joss Whedon [DVD] United States: Marvel Studios

Batman (1989) Directed by Tim Burton [DVD] United States: Entertainment

Batman Returns (1992) Directed by Tim Burton [DVD] United States: Entertainment

The Incredible Hulk (2008) Directed by Louis Leterrier [DVD] United States: Marvel Studios

Leonard, D. (2014) ‘The Pow! Bang! Bam! Plan to Save Marvel, Starring B-List Heroes’ In: Bloomberg.com 03.04.14 [online] At: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-04-03/kevin-feige-marvels-superhero-at-running-movie-franchises#p1 (Accessed on 04.05.15)

Inarritu, A.G. et al. (2014) Birdman or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance)

Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies (2012 edition) New York; Hill and Wang.

Lang, B. (2015) Spider-Man: How Sony, Marvel Will Benefit from Unique Deal At: http://variety.com/2015/film/news/details-spider-man-appear-in-sony-and-marvel-movies-1201429039/ (Accessed on 05.04.15)

Baudrillard, Jean (1981) Simulacra and Simulation (1994 edition) University of Michigan Press

Watkins, P. (2012) The Media Crisis: A Perspective by Peter Watkins At: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/eventseries/peter-watkins-films-1965-99/media-crisis-perspective-peter-watkins (Accessed on 02.04.15)

Anderson, S. (2012) ‘How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap’ In: nytimes.com 25.06.12 [online] At: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/magazine/how-roland-barthes-gave-us-the-tv-recap.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& (Accessed on 15.03.15)

Carver, Raymond (1981) ‘Beginners’ In: newyorker.com 24.12.07 At:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/24/beginners

Leaf, J. (2015) How ‘Birdman Betrays Raymond Carver: An Untold Story At: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanleaf/2015/01/04/how-birdman-betrays-raymond-carver-an-untold-story/2/

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