A movie star who left millions on the table when he declined to reprise his lead role in a 1990s superhero sequel? You might reasonably guess that I’m referring to Michael Keaton, who turned down $15 million when he bailed on the Batman franchise during its (first) heyday. But no, I’m referring to Riggan Thomson, who quit the role of the flying, feather-clad crusader, Birdman, around the same time. The principal difference between the two is that unlike Keaton, Riggan is a fictional character, the protagonist in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, Birdman. And he is played, not at all coincidentally, by Michael Keaton.
Nor is that the end of the superheroic in-jokes embedded in Iñárritu’s gonzo, tour-de-force black comedy. At times Riggan is literally haunted by his old Birdman role, which speaks to him in a deep rasp (also performed by Keaton) conspicuously reminiscent of that of his Dark Knight successor Christian Bale. At one point in the film, Riggan finds himself obsessing about George Clooney—yet another old Batman—and in particular about the square jaw that his bat-cowl showed off to notable effect.
After years of wallowing in post-stardom obscurity, Riggan has decided that the best way to reintroduce himself to the world is to write, direct, and star in a loose, arty Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But this is no easy task. Riggan’s most immediate problem is that just a few days before the show’s premiere, one of his costars is hospitalized after being hit during rehearsal by a light falling from the rafters. With the help of his lawyer/producer/best friend, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan runs down a list of possible replacements: Michael Fassbender? On the hook for another X-Men. Jeremy Renner? Busy being an Avenger. Riggan, who had the skies to himself back in his Birdman days, quickly discovers that in contemporary Hollywood there’s hardly an actor working who isn’t working in lycra. So he opts to go in another direction, hiring a renowned stage thespian named Mike Shiner. This crown prince of Broadway is, naturally, played by Edward Norton ... who just a few years back was the star of The Incredible Hulk.