I suspect one of the most maddening, happy-making, or thought-provoking aspects of Birdman, for most viewers, is its ending. What does it mean? Seems to me we can take the ending in three different directions: the literal (real), the metaphorical (magically real), and the fantastical (unreal).
As the end of the film approaches, Riggan loses more of his grip on his identity and sanity. The critic tells him that no matter how good the play is, she will kill it. He buys a super-cheap bottle of whiskey and drinks himself into a stupor, waking up on the day of the play’s opening on the steps of an apartment building–not even his.
He walks himself to the roof of a building. He appears to want to jump, to commit suicide. He does jump, but it leads to flight, not death. He returns to the theater where he appears to land and walk inside, but a cabbie runs after him demanding payment, placing the supernatural flight in doubt.
Opening night starts. His ex-wife visits the dressing room to congratulate him on how well it’s going. He tells her of another night years ago when he tried to kill himself by walking out into the ocean but started getting stung by jelly fish who shocked him, quite literally, into getting out of the water.
This all prefaces the climactic scene of the play. Riggan puts on the Eddie wig and walks through the backstage. He passes by the woman who would put on the apparatus to give the blood/brains splatter effect on stage. “I don’t need it,” he says and keeps walking.
It is crystal clear he intends to shoot himself. It seems pretty clear that it is a suicide attempt. He shoots himself–making Eddie’s act real. It looks like he shoots himself pretty squarely in the skull based on what we see from behind in terms of gun position and blood splatter. He falls to the ground. After a moment of shock, the audience gets to their feet in applause and the critic exits the theater.
And the editing changes drastically. The appearance of one long, continuous take stops. Instead we get a series of short cuts showing absurd things on stage. The marching band from the Times Square scene. The guy in the Spider-Man costume from that same scene. Then a fight breaks out on stage. Spider-Man punches a guy in a Bumblebee (from Transformers) costume. A chaotic brawl ensues.
Then we’re in a hospital room. The editing changes from the jarring and absurd quick cuts to a more mundane continuity style of editing–the sort of editing we expect out from television and film. Riggan is alive. He is a media sensation. People nationally are praying for his recovery. He’s on all the news stations. Ticket sales for his show are through the roof. He’s sure to get touring requests for the show. Even the critic’s review in the Times is hyperbolically glowing. His ex-wife is there and she is worried about him. His daughter brings him flowers that smell good (though he can’t smell them since he blew his nose off) and exclaims he has 80,000 Twitter followers already. Riggan has gotten everything he wanted–fame, respect, and the love of his family.
But Birdman remains. He remains in the shape of the dressings on Riggan’s face and much more crassly sitting on the toilet in the bathroom. Riggan removes the dressings to reveal his new nose–which looks an awful lot like Robert DeNiro’s nose in Raging Bull but also beak-like. Then he goes to the window, opens it, and jumps out. We aren’t shown the direction he goes in–up or down. But when Sam comes into the empty room and looks out the window she looks up to see something awe-inspiring, suggesting she sees him flying away. He has been redeemed.
Or has he?
The Literal (Real)
In this interpretation, Riggan’s successes also include finally gaining Birdman’s powers. This is the only time that Riggan’s powers are shown without a visual tip that they’re his fantasy. Certainly that’s what Sam’s look up in awe most strongly suggests. Additionally, there is a short clip of a number of large birds (or perhaps Birdmen) landing on a beach of jellyfish (though actually they’re Portuguese men o’ war, often confused for jellyfish), bringing together the identity of Birdman with the story of Riggan’s first attempted suicide.
The problem with this interpretation of the ending is less that it’s simply too happy and more that gaining Birdman’s superpowers completely undercuts the power of Riggan’s other accomplishments. If he can fly and telekinetically control objects, what’s the point of having artistic and familial respect and fame to boot?
This is a half-and-half reading of the ending. In this case, most of the ending can be taken as real–all except the hallucination of Birdman and the flight out the window. Instead, we still understand Birdman to be a figment of Riggan’s mental neurosis and the flight becomes entirely metaphorical. Sam’s look of awe signifies her new love and respect for her father after he has regained celebrity and become a true artist.
This ending fits best with the magical real genre, since most of the magical elements of magical realism can be read as powerful metaphors. By being made “real” within the text, the metaphor packs more punch. I like that it maintains the ambiguity while also allowing a sense of real redemption at the end.
In this interpretation, which is also my interpretation of the film, Riggan does not survive the shooting on the stage and everything that follows is a kind of death dream. This makes the ending similar to the alternative reading for the ending of Taxi Driver. In both cases, the ending is too happy to fit the film’s established tone and subject matter and ironically twists our understanding of the protagonist.
Evidence that the ending is a fantasy:
- Riggan really does seem to shoot himself squarely in the head, not just in the nose. The back silhouette we’re given does make the trajectory ambiguous however.
- The jarringly edited and strangely dreamlike action on the stage after the shooting with the drumline and fight between Spider-Man and Bumblebee suggests a transition to another state of being.
- The change in editing to continuity editing in the hospital scene especially feels like we’re out of the “real” of the film and within a more conventional film’s ending, like maybe Birdman 4.
- Two references to Martin Scorcese–the first when Jake mentions Scorcese is in the final preview night’s audience and looking to cast a new film, and the second with Riggan’s cosmetically created nose. These act as a kind of arrow to the Taxi Driver ending parallel.
- The “errors” of realism.
The jellyfish are men o’ war.There is no police guard outside of Riggan’s room, though he is going to be arrested. His window opens though he would most certainly be on suicide watch floor, and that’s even if there are hospitals anywhere in New York where the windows open.
- Ultimately the ending feels very much like Riggan’s heaven–he gets everything he wants and becomes a theatrical and celebrity hero. It ultimately feels too contrived and out of sync with the rest of the film.
Admittedly this interpretation of the ending is the most dour, but it’s also the truest to the tone and character of the rest of the film.
The screenwriters themselves admit they don’t really have a firm intent behind the ending of the film. They plotted it out a number of ways but found that ending other ways kept the ending too small to be effective. Check out the video of their insights here.