Birdman is the winner of the 2015 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography – and may have been an enormous hit with critics – but thanks to a limited release, it has taken awhile for casual moviegoers to catch the film and form their own opinions. Emmanuel Lubezki’s simulated one-take presentation should give viewers an appreciation for the creativity and innovation that was required to produce Birdman; however, the film’s bookish storyline, mixed with magical realism, has left many cinephiles scratching their heads at what they did (or did not) see by the end.
At its core, Birdman tells the tale of a man’s struggle to find internal as well as external love and acceptance, as the film’s central character, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), channels his regrets and frustrations into a stage adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Still, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu isn’t simply focused on Riggan, and the filmmaker takes opportunities to explore what his characters talk about when they too talk about love – producing a rich and layered movie experience (one that also happens to contain some potentially head-scratching moments for casual viewers).
Given the film’s open for interpretation ending, fans have come up with a variety of theories that could provide a definitive explanation to Riggan’s storyline. For that reason, we’re here to help breakdown Iñárritu’s use of magical realism, as well as explain the real takeaway of Birdman‘s open-ended finale. Our discussion is going to be full of SPOILERS for Birdman, so READ NO FURTHER unless you’re all caught up. You have been warned.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
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- Birdman Ending: Fan Theories (This Page)
- Birdman Alternate Ending Detailed
- Birdman Ending Explained: What Really Matters
Birdman Ending Theories
Fan Theory 1: Riggan Dies on Stage. The Rest is Just a Death Dream.
As mentioned, Iñárritu leaves Birdman open to audience interpretation and, like most great stories, there are multiple ways of interpreting the ending. One especially popular theory asserts that, in spite of what is shown in the closing moments of the film (specifically: the hospital bed reunion scene), Riggan does not survive his on-stage suicide attempt.
In this scenario, Riggan dies from a self-inflicted gunshot wound but, before he passes, the actor experiences a happy ending hallucination – a death dream where he has won the adoration of his fans, reconciled with his wife, been recognized as a success by his critics, and earned his daughter’s respect. The theory brings full-circle thematic through-lines where, after proving he is worthy of esteem and love, Riggan is finally able to silence Birdman‘s abusive voice. Riggan was not a Hollywood hack, he was a dedicated performer – so dedicated that he was literally willing to die for his craft (creating “super-realism” in the process).
Knowing that he’ll be remembered for his public suicide, Riggan is no longer tethered by his insecurities, able to transcend, and move on. Looking down at his adoring fans and the physical world, Riggan lifts his eyes to the sky, and leaves his life behind.
Fan Theory 2: Riggan Survives the Gunshot Wound and Can Actually Fly
Another evaluation of the ending suggests that Riggan, for whatever reason, isn’t just an actor who played a flying superhero, he’s actually a superpowered being – capable of defying gravity and, presumably, physics (via telekinesis). In this interpretation, Riggan survives the self-inflicted gunshot wound and earns the adoration of everyone around him. Fundamentally, he defies his critics: both his audience (in the film) and the audience (us as viewers) – who were skeptical that the actor was anything more than a washed-up hack losing his mind.
Within the film, Riggan proves he’s a gifted theater actor/writer/director – successfully developing a Raymond Carver adaptation and going the extra mile (self-mutilation) to sell the show on opening night.
Similarly, after Iñárritu teased the possibility that Riggan’s superpowers are just in his head (by showing an angry cabbie chasing Riggan after his second act mid-town flying sequence), Samantha Thompson (Emma Stone) actually sees her father hovering in the sky – proving that Riggan didn’t just imagine his powers, he really can fly.
Fan Theory 3: Riggan Survives the Gunshot Wound but Attempts Suicide (Again)
The final theory blends elements of the prior two – suggesting that the hospital scene is real but the end result is the same, Riggan successfully commits suicide. In this take, Riggan survives his on-stage gunshot wound (intentionally or unintentionally) and lives to see the fruit of his labor – he conquered his skeptics and earned the love of his family. However, he’s still damaged (and possibly demented) goods – ultimately jumping out the hospital window to his death.
Whether Riggan is a victim of his crazed psyche, after years of schizophrenic-like Birdman voices, or chooses to commit suicide to cement his legacy, it can be assumed that the actor falls to his death. Where Samantha is a crux to theory 2’s argument, marking the first time that anyone outside of Riggan sees him fly, Samantha’s reaction to the open window complicates the theory that her father has finally killed himself.
Nevertheless, Samantha’s smiling face isn’t unequivocal proof that Riggan is actually floating around safe in the sky either – especially if she happened to actually be looking at the meteor shown in Birdman‘s opening rather than her dad. Iñárritu’s choice to hold back the hospital scene’s carnage, or lack thereof (his corpse below or levitating body above), makes it clear that the filmmaker wanted the finale to be partly ambiguous.
Why? We’ll get to that a bit further on. But first, Iñárritu’s original draft of the Birdman script had a slightly more definitive ending – one that could offer hints at which theory is closest to the truth.
NEXT PAGE: Birdman’s Original Ending
Birdman: The Original Ending
Prior to Birdman‘s big night at the Academy Awards, Iñárritu was asked about the film’s ending, revealing that it wasn’t the original ending he had scripted:
It had a different ending but in the middle of shooting, I knew it was a piece of shit. I felt it and the film began to breathe by itself, and the characters began to grow. I went in and wrote it with Alexander [Dinelaris] and Nico [Giacobone], and I am so happy that I changed it. Now I feel very good about the ending. It feels very fair.
Iñárritu was reluctant to share the specifics of that ending (“I will never tell you. It would be so embarrassing. It was bad.”) but, fortunately for viewers, co-writer Alex Dinelaris may have spilled the details.
After shooting himself on-stage, Riggan was set to appear on a Charlie Rose-like show – following a positive reception to his play. Then, according to Dinelaris:
“…the camera prowled like it did the whole film, went back stage through the halls we’ve seen the whole time and we’d get to the dressing room where literally Johnny Depp would be sitting looking in the mirror and putting on his Riggan Thomson wig and then the poster of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 5′ would be in the back. In Jack Sparrow’s voice [it would say], ‘What the fuck are we doing here, mate?’ It was going to be the satire of the endless loop of that.”
According to Dinelaris the ending had to be scrapped because the production team could not get Depp nor the rights for a mock Pirates of the Caribbean 5 poster. Assuming Dinelaris is talking about the same “bad” ending that Iñárritu referenced, it’s equally possible the filmmaker simply re-worked the script for a better finale before the crew went very far down the Depp cameo route.
Still, the old ending suggests that, at the very least, theory 1 (Riggan Dies on Stage. The Rest is Just a Death Dream) is less likely to be what Iñárritu had in mind – since the original ending presented concrete closure on the thematic threads of self-determination and reinvention. If it was all Riggan’s dream, the Depp cameo (and larger concept of talented actors crippled by success in an iconic role), carries a bit less weight.
The same can be said for the film’s actual ending: if Riggan’s dies on stage, he’s a victim, crushed under the weight of his detractors and proven wrong. No matter the quality of his actual play, he still dies before he can see the fruit of his work – and, instead of bringing thematic threads full circle, Riggan’s story ends in abrupt tragedy.
However, by allowing Riggan to live, to bask in the limelight, Iñárritu positions the character (and the Birdman film) for a much more poignant message – and jumping off point for discussion.
NEXT PAGE: Birdman Ending Explained
Birdman Ending Explained: What Really Matters
Iñárritu has been reluctant to share his interpretation of the ending and, instead, has actually championed open-ended debate over Birdman‘s finale. Speaking to the Tampa Bay Times, the director made it clear: there is not one correct way to interpret the ending:
“At the ending of the film, (it) can be interpreted as many ways as there are seats in the theater.”
For that reason, any of the theories presented above could be true (as well as others that have not been mentioned). Just like Inception or Life of Pi (read our ending explanations for Inception and Life of Pi), the takeaway isn’t a matter of what happens – it’s a matter of what it all means. Whether Riggan died on stage, on the pavement below the hospital, or flew off to act/write/direct another day, every ending comes back to a single thematic point: Riggan succeeds in earning the admiration of his fans and detractors as well as the love of his family.
To that end, the story in Birdman successfully parallels the story that served as Riggan’s inspiration: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (which you can read: HERE). Much like the characters in Raymond Carver’s short, Riggan is an unhappy and imperfect man with mistakes in his past – desperate to make sense of his life (and the consequences of his failures).
One of the most telling scenes in Iñárritu’s film, that lays out Riggan’s aspirations (and the challenges to those aspirations) occurs mid-way through the movie when Sam lambasts her father for his delusions of grandeur and self-importance:
Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written sixty years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over – and let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. 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.
Compare that conversation to the view of love presented in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by cardiologist Melivin R. McGinnis:
“There’d been this thing out on the Interstate. Drunk kid, teenager, plowed his dad’s pickup into this camper with this old couple in it. They were up in their mid-seventies, that couple. The kid–eighteen, nineteen, something–he was DOA. Taken the steering wheel through the sternum. The old couple, they were alive, you understand. I mean, just barely. But they had everything. Multiple fractures, internal injuries, hemorrhaging, contusions, lacerations, the works, and the each of them had themselves concussions. They were in a bad way, believe me. And, of course, their age was two strikes against them. I’d say she was worse off than he was. Ruptured spleen along with everything else. Both kneecaps broken. But they’d been wearing their seatbelts and, God knows, that’s what saved them for the time being.
They were in some shape, those oldsters. By the time I got down there, the kid was dead, as I said. He was off in a corner, laid out on a gurney. I took one look at the couple and told the ER nurse to get me a neurologist and an orthopedic man and a couple of surgeons down there right away […] So we took the both of them up to the OR and worked like fuck on them for most of the night. They had these incredible reserves, those two. You see that once in awhile. So we did everything that could be done, and toward the morning we’re giving them a fifty-fifty chance, maybe less than that for her. So here they are, still alive the next morning. So, okay, we move them into the ICU, which is where they both kept plugging away at it for two weeks, hitting it better and better on all the scopes. So we transfer them out to their own room.
I dropped in to see each of them every day, sometimes twice a day if I was up doing other calls anyway. Casts and bandages, head to foot, the both of them. You know, you’ve seen it in the movies. Little eye-holes and nose-holes and mouth-holes. And she had to have her legs slung up on top of it. Well, the husband was very depressed for the longest while. Not about the accident, though. I mean, the accident was one thing, but it wasn’t everything. I’d get up to his mouth hole, you know, and he’d say no, it wasn’t the accident exactly but it was because he couldn’t see her through his eye-holes. He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? The man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.
I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman.”
Given his choice of subject matter (and the character he elects to play in his production), Riggan clearly aspires to Mel’s sanguine view of love – and the power it can carry. Early in the film, Riggan desperately clings to his time in the limelight as the true measure of his worth – nearly bankrupting his family in order to prove there’s more to his life than Birdman.
For that reason, Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), even warns him that there’s a difference between being loved and being admired:
Sylvia: You know, just because I didn’t like that ridiculous comedy you did with Goldie Hawn did not mean I did not love you. That’s what you always do. You confuse love for admiration.
Yet, as the film unfolds, Riggan begins to learn that he’s given the world more than just Birdman – and that a comic book character isn’t the sole mark of his time on Earth.
Whether he dies, lives, or flies, Riggan has learned (and in doing so, mirrored, the larger thought presented in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) that he can be and is loved. Riggan might have mistaken admiration for love in the past but he is loved – not by his fans (who admire him) but by his daughter (as well as his ex-wife).
Riggan’s greatest victory isn’t that he proves a critic wrong or succeeds in his creative endeavors, it’s that through his work on the play, he rebuilt his relationship with Sam – and helped her see him the way that he, earlier in the film, needed the world to see him: something special, somebody that still matters.
What he does after that realization is up to personal preference and interpretation but, regardless, Riggan succeeds in transcending the man that said “I’m nothing. I’m not even here” to a father that, in the eyes of his daughter, can soar into the sky.
SEE ALSO: Birdman Review
Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.
Have your own theory? Feel free to share it in the comments below!