Directed By: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Lindsay Duncan, and Naomi Watts

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige."
-Mike Shiner (Edward Norton)

Twenty five years later, it's hard to deny the influence of Tim Burton's Batman and its star Michael Keaton.  Just look at the state of mainstream cinema today.  As we eagerly await the latest news bytes on Doctor Strange, X-Men: Apocalypse, or Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the legacy of Keaton's signature film is abundantly clear.  Look at all the fanboys titillating over the new The Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer that leaked online this week for instance.  Without Keaton and the success of those Batman films, comic book movies might not be where they are today.  While the genre has been on a meteoric rise over the last quarter century, Keaton's career has been on a contrastingly downward trajectory, until this weekend, until Birdman.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was once somebody.  Portraying the iconic superhero Birdman, he's the movie star who ushered in the modern wave of comic book movies.  Today, he's a washed up actor trying to reinvigorate his career.  He intends to do so by headlining, directing, and writing the Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carter's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  His best friend and attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is producing it.  His girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) are starring alongside him.  His daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict, is working as a production assistant for the play.  To his ex-wife Sylvia's (Amy Ryan) dismay, he's refinancing some of his property in California to fund the production, property he intended to bequeath to Sam one day.  Clearly, there's far more than Riggan's career riding on the success of this production.

With so much pressure on Riggan, he wants everything to be perfect.  That's why one of his stars conveniently has an accident in which a prop inexplicably collides with his head.  Given that the first preview of the show is tonight, Riggan is in dire need of a new actor.  Luckily for him, Lesley taps her boyfriend the beloved stage actor Mike Shiner (Norton) for the role.  Mike arrives on set that day and immediately begins pressing for more authenticity.  To impress the theater crowd, Shiner believes that they need more realism.  Though he now has Mike on set, Riggan still has plenty of problems at hand.  His tumultuous relationship with Sam worsens every day at the theater.  Mike is trying to steal his spotlight.  It certainly doesn't help that his career is in the hands of New York Times theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a woman hell-bent on keeping entitled movie stars off Broadway.  Most problematically, he hears voices in his head stroking his ego and challenging him to don his wings as Birdman once again.

You all know where I stand on the state of the film industry today.  It's in shambles.  The studio system has gutted any semblance of creativity or originality in the vast majority of mainstream films that come out today.  While I enjoy many of the superhero movies and other big budget blockbusters that have come our way in the last fifteen years, I do recognize that it has come at a price.  Outside of the fall awards season, studios do nothing to try to challenge audiences with innovative, thought-provoking cinema.  It's all about the next Spider-Man or the next Terminator.  Well, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is the cure to the common blockbuster.  Fittingly, his latest feature makes fun of Hollywood with its first modern superhero Michael Keaton.

With Birdman, Iñárritu creates a dark, fantastical world inhabited by a panoply of discontent characters.  It's all courtesy of some incredible filmmaking.  For instance, the gorgeously rich and mildly grainy cinematography immediately catches the eye and gives the satirical black comedy a certain grit.  By using jazzy, rhythmic drum beats, Iñárritu accentuates the film's violent, emotional tone.  When he conversely uses operatic melodies, he sets the stage for majestic yet melancholic scenes full of the impossible.  Finally, the film's long takes foster a winding sense as moviegoers explore the twisted mind of aging movie star Riggan Thomson where fantasy is reality.  The creation of this rather cynical world allows for Iñárritu to deliver some biting commentary on today's cinematic landscape.

One has to be very comfortable in their own skin to make a movie that, in a sense, makes a mockery of their life's work.  It takes a certain artistic fortitude to do this, especially on the 25th anniversary of the individual’s crowning achievement.  With this in mind, I've got nothing but respect for Michael Keaton suiting up as Birdman.  As conflicted movie star Riggan Thomson chasing former glory, Keaton is absolutely unhinged on screen.  For his tormented character, his enduring popularity is a knockoff drug.  Prestige is the real thing he wants, and the play is the means by which he intends to earn it.  Beautifully disconnected from reality, Keaton gives us one delightfully crazy bird and proves that he's still got it in this eerily self-aware performance.

Keaton is backed by an incredibly talented supporting cast.  First and foremost, I have to mention Edward Norton and his slippery performance as the arrogant actor Mike Shiner.  A thespian who chases authenticity at any cost, Norton's Mike is a delightful character who amusingly antagonizes many of his co-stars on screen.  For her part as Riggan's daughter Sam, Emma Stone reminds us that she can be a force on screen.  With some potent scenes as this recovering addict, Stone steals the spotlight from her fellow cast members on quite a few occasions.  For his part as Riggan's attorney and producer Jake, Zach Galifianakis puts the funny man in him aside and gives a surprisingly serious performance only sprinkled with hints of humor throughout.

As Riggan's girlfriend Laura, Andrea Riseborough gives us a sexy, slightly crazy actress looking for love in all the wrong places.  It's nice to see her not giving us the cold fish we've seen her portray on quite a few occasions in the past.  We also have Naomi Watts as Shiner's girlfriend and co-star Lesley.  Fresh from St. Vincent, Watts gives us this beautifully fragile actress just looking for her big break on Broadway.  Finally, we have actresses Lindsay Duncan and Amy Ryan as New York Times critic Tabitha and Riggan's ex-wife Sylvia respectively.  Both serve as forceful yet amusing thorns in our star's side.

In all its satire of cinema today, Birdman is a film that really challenges us to think before we drop twelve bucks for admission to Hollywood's next mindless blockbuster.  In a fun way, it challenges us to pursue more edifying forms of entertainment.  Simply put, we should follow quality.  With the year we've had at the box office, how can you argue with this message?  Alejandro González Iñárritu, Michael Keaton, and their impeccable cast and crew deliver the goods.  I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this one as the awards season marches on.  Birdman gets a sober rating.  Don't miss this one.