One of the novels I teach to my AP students is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, a novel that falls squarely into the genre of literature known as magical realism. Magical realism also seems to be at work in Birdman, and here I intend to lay out the similarities.
Ambiguity of the Real and Supernatural Elements
First and foremost, magical realism is marked by a mixture of utter realism and supernatural elements presented in an ambiguous way. The audience continues to question the truth of the magic but is not allowed to wholly disbelieve.
This is entirely different from the supernatural elements in a superhero movie where there is no doubt that, say, Spider-Man* gained super strength and acrobatic skill after being bitten by a radio-active spider. The movie successfully gains the suspension of the audience’s disbelief. Though we might not normally accept that a radio-active spider can imbue a person with super powers, we push our real world doubts aside for our understanding of the narrative. It’s not so much about having a reason to explain Spider-Man’s powers as much as it is the acceptance of those powers by witnesses within the narrative–those people who see and respond to his web-slinging and swinging.
This is an interesting comparison since Birdman heavily references superhero films while also presenting an ambiguity about the truth of its own supernatural elements. We open on Riggan floating two feet above the floor while meditating. Meanwhile the Birdman voice in his head disparages his surroundings. The two truths of the scene are at odds in two ways. First, how is it that he floats above the ground? Does he have Birdman’s powers? How would that even be possible? This is a world, the audience understands, in which superheroes are as fictional as in our own. That element of magic–the floating–is at odds with the utterly crass dialogue of the Birdman voice: “Smells like balls.”
It is this inability to decide whether Riggan is telekinetically powered or merely insane that puts Birdman in the realm of magical realism. His powers amplify over the course of the film. The camera and plotting keep us guessing up to and including the very end. The camera capturing Riggan rather than giving his point-of-view implies an objective perspective. When we initially see him floating or telekinetically moving a vase, we assume it is real. But as his powers increase, the camera clues us into contradictory evidence. When he telekinetically throws items around his dressing room, Jake walks in to see Riggan picking an item up with his hands to throw across the room. Later, after Riggan jumps off a building and flies away, he touches down at the theater. But he is followed by a cabbie demanding payment for his fare.
These moments suggest the powers shown on camera are part of a growing delusional fantasy Riggan is adopting as real. His Birdman persona is taking over.
The ending initially appears to up-end this interpretation. Riggan jumps out of the hospital window, but we don’t see what happens to him. When Sam goes to the window, she looks down, anticipating the worst but finds nothing, then she looks up and sees something that, according to her facial response, is wondrous and joy-inspiring. We can only imagine that she sees her dad flying off.
But the ending has it’s own contradictions to suggest that everything that happens after Riggan shoots himself on stage is merely a dream or fantasy. I intend to fully cover that interpretation in a later post.
*I am highly annoyed by the chosen spelling of Spider-Man. It should be Spiderman. Like Batman. I believe Stan Lee added that hyphen just to be difficult. Perhaps he was passive-aggressively seeking vengeance for perceived wrongs done to him by his penciler.
The Fight Against Fascism
In traditional magical realism, as in the cases of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, the supernatural elements pose a kind of rebellion against fascist tyranny by offering a subversive way of thinking. In both cases, the native population was fighting against colonial forces.
Now, I understand Birdman is not fighting fascism of the same gravity, but it is rebelling against hegemonic definitions of art and the oppressive existential truth. Riggan is being crushed by the downside to celebrity–falling into obscurity and feeling irrelevant. He writes, directs, and stars in the play to reinvigorate his career and gain some artistic respect. But the harder he attempts to be a “real actor” and renew his relevancy, the harder the hegemonic powers of the theater, in this case the New York Times theater critic, and of youth, voiced through his daughter, push him back into the lesser, meaningless role of has-been celebrity.
Critic: “I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends? Well this is the theater and you don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first….You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that. I’m gonna kill your play.”
Sam: “You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
Riggan’s supernatural powers contradict both the critic’s and Sam’s assessments of him. First, having Birdman’s powers legitimizes the truth and importance of the “cartoons” the critic assails. Birdman becomes not just an entertainment but a real, powerful being through Riggan. Second, if Riggan truly becomes Birdman, he also establishes existential significance. He even becomes more powerful and important than contemporary superhero-playing celebrities like Robert Downey Jr. or Michael Fassbender because his superpowers are not an act for the camera but a reality.
The ending, though it may be utter fantasy, solidifies these powers. Riggan’s gauze facial dressings look like Birdman’s mask, and his seeming flight off into the skyline after garnering the glowing review from the theater critic and the new viral relevance to the youth announce his victory over these fascist expectations of art, youth, and relevance. His flight shows his freedom from these chains.