Exploring the Generational Gap in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’

If you happened to see Neighbors over the summer, you’d remember that one scene where Seth Rogen and Zac Efron spoke about their respective favorite Batman. Seth Rogen flawlessly imitated Michael Keaton and Zac Efron chose to stick with modern-day Christian Bale. It was a pivotal moment where a generational gap was bridged within the context of the film’s theme.

But for those who aren’t serious Batman fans, Michael Keaton was the original Batman. He instantly became a household name and suddenly overnight he became a man’s man and ladies man featured on the covers of nearly every magazine. Now, let’s fast forward to the year 2014. Whatever happened to Michael Keaton? Tweens are not tweeting about him or oggling over his good looks. Did you see that Michael Keaton movie!? More like, “I, like, still haven’t seen Ryan Gosling’s new movie. Want to see it?”

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I reassure you that Michael Keaton is still alive and doing well. His comeback role of Riggan in Alejandro Gonazalez Inarritu’s latest film Birdman is perhaps the rawest role he’s every played, specifically engineered and orchestrated by Michael Keaton’s own time in Hollywood and quirky characteristics that made us fall in love with him in the first place. That voice serves us a slice of Keaton we’ve missed for way too long.

In the film, his detached and recovering drug-riddled daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone as a different Emma you’ve never seen (and surprisingly refreshing), adds a bit more thematic fuel to the Birdman fire. Her life has been surrounded by her father’s work, rather that her father himself. She’s a product of her own generation, often finding validation in Twitter followers, famous men, and viral hits—it’s definitely a cliché, but one that works.

What really makes the tragi-comedy satirical and ultra meta (very much so) is the omnipresence of Michael Keaton himself, an actor we always talked about and then suddenly stopped talking about. That’s where the bitter resentment and consistent uneasiness of this character goes full force.

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The parallel between this Birdman character and Keaton’s own rendition of Batman is so uncanny it hurts. But the complete objective and motive that lies in the story is Riggan’s comeback. His character desperately examines himself, his own career, relationships, and the measure of fame, often leaving him restless and confused as to what’s happening in the modern world. His personal views of fame completely differ from his daughter’s—“You don’t even have a Facebook page, do you?” There’s a shameless embarrassment that underlies her sharp-tipped tongue, stemming from such a naiveté that we’re all too aware of.

Challenging Riggan about who he really is—Father? Celebrity?—it’s as though Sam is embarrassed that her father isn’t what he used to be. “You’re a nobody!” she screams. Their argument leaves him speechless. Riggan’s abrasive realization that his past recognition isn’t in the spotlight on the internet, the papers, or media is so bleak that it’s funny, especially upon finding a hidden joint of his daughter’s that he sparks. 

Watching this, we find ourselves laughing out of discomfort or uneasiness that this is unfolding before our eyes so intimately. Audiences, both older and younger, may fully grasp the harsh reality we live in nowadays, where fame is truly measured on viral scales. It’s thematically reinforced that a fluid conversation between older generations and younger must exist for us to all succeed in such an industry. 

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I called my mother to ask her, “Remember Michael Keaton?” Of course she remembers Michael Keaton. A question like this is so mundane it might as well be rephrased as, “Do you remember George Clooney on ER?”  “Yes, he [Michael Keaton] was Superman,” my mother replied. But, he totally wasn’t. It’s okay, Mom…“He was also in that movie that we loved. Remember? It was in a haunted house.” Beetlejuice! Yes, of course.

The difference between my mother and I is the timing of what we’ve lived, seen, and remember. She was there when Mr. Mom had been released. So what will my kids be saying about Christian Bale when he’s 55? Will he have to make a comeback role as well? It’s all about timing isn’t it? Michael Keaton’s sincere and brutally honest depiction of Riggan may just land him that Oscar he’s been waiting for. 

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