Birdman vs. Iron Man: The Art of Acting and The Commercialisation of it
By Jazz Gill
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) is a film that touches on the philosophy of superhero movies and the actors that play as them, in the style of a black comedy with magic realism and drama. Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis, the film begins with a ‘superhero’ actor, Riggan, who once played as a celebrated hero, Birdman and received commercial success; but once he decides to step out of the spotlight and instead pursue a career in acting and directing a Broadway show, adapting Raymond Carver’s play, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, he is instead received with criticism and struggles with his artform, as he becomes tortured with his previous superhero character that is still in his subconscious. Riggan also finds other bumps in the road when it comes to his self-doubt, culture of personality and his family and friendships.
As the film glides through, it is laid out with scenes of an enticing set of jazz drums that build up tension then quieten to let the tension crash down. Winner of four Oscars, the film is produced in a unique format, giving the illusion that its entirety is in a one take shot, following each character with a smooth pan in, through the tight corridors of the backstage of a theatre for Broadway to the bustling streets of Midtown Manhattan. Riggan, the main character holds a frustration of once having been a celebrated actor for his character, dazzling through film after film, pleasing the audience, to ‘save people from their boring, miserable lives’, and now holds resentment because that is all he knows, that trope and narrative to please the public eye. However, as the second half of the film title suggests, ‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’, comes only once an artist finally stops caring about other influencing factors of their work, such as pressures to fulfil everyone to eventually sell out and please audiences, to stop requiring validation and approval, and simply pursue an authentic artform, which Riggan hopes to seeks out eventually.
Marvel at The Artist
Since Michael Keaton played as Batman in the late 80’s, there appears to be a connection to the struggles of expectations in playing a title character. Though Keaton does return to the superhero franchise, however this time as a villain, playing the Vulture in Spiderman: Homecoming (2017). Actor Robert Downey Jr. plays the arrogant, sharp yet honest character Iron Man, or is Iron Man played by the arrogant, sharp yet honest actor Robert Downey Jr.? Both billionaires and both dry with their sarcastic humour. Birdman takes note of this, showing a snippet on the television of Robert Downey Jr. being interviewed about the ‘billion-dollar Iron Man franchise and the Avengers series.’ Riggan switches the television off, only for Birdman to creep into his subconscious and express his missed desires of also being a celebrated superhero. Birdman tells Riggan, ‘That clown doesn’t have half your talent and he’s making a fortune in that Tin Man get-up. We were the real thing, Riggan.’ Leaving Riggan in a conflicting mind state as he is torn between guaranteed success but poor artistic expression, or a risky artform in acting on stage, that alienates his audience. In a scene where a replacement actor is needed for Raymond Carver’s play, Riggan suggests Jeremy Renner, but he is told he is an Avenger now. Riggan replies ‘They put him in cape too?!’ Dismissing that he is not actually in a cape as his character, but it is what the cape represents, another turned in as a ‘superhero’.
Robert Downey Jr. is essentially the cash cow for Marvel movies, starring in them as himself in a way, but allowing him to explode things. Now as this blockbuster movie hitter, he has turned his back on indie films, dubbing them as ‘lame’, even though most actors of our time have generally started out through independent films. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the director of Birdman has stated that superhero movies are ‘cultural genocide’, which may be extreme, however it was ignored by Robert Downey Jr. who replied with a personal remark to Inarritu, rather than dissecting the comment. I stopped watching superhero films when I couldn’t enjoy them with a pre-hype always surrounding them, as I went into a film with expectations, if the expectations were never met, it made the film even more disappointing, as well as ruining the essence of a film (partly the reason I never watch trailers.) Ever since Disney took in Marvel, I noticed a change in film making, the movies became part of a typical narrative with cheap jokes and pricey CGI and bland dialogue, often cheesy at times. Though I realised that since these movies have such a broad demographic in mind: children, teenagers, adults and the older generation, it makes sense to have a simplified structure attached to them. But the actors don’t seem to be tested for acting, as they appear too processed and unnatural. Birdman holds plenty of scenes where it appears to be improv and even unscripted, yet the film can still go wherever it wants to and it remains unquestioned by the viewer, because of the acting as well as the videography.
It could be that some actors become trapped once they enter the realms of superhero franchises, then tortured by the characters they once played, and are unable to take on other roles in films; be it serious or comical, because of the pre-disposed image of their previous franchises, thus hindering the viewer from seeing a natural acting process brought to life by such an actor. Some actors can break out of this such as Johnny Depp or Leonardo DiCaprio, however others such as Robert Downey Jr may be restricted to a particular persona that must always be fulfilled, since that is the character they have signed up to in both art and reality.