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.
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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