Birdman is one the year’s most critically beloved films. It features brilliant performances, breathtaking filmmaking, an off-the-beaten-path score, and unfolds in one long unbroken take (but not really).
And how about the story? Well, on a narrative level, it’s pretty much the same movie as Black Swan, which is why I admire the film but can’t get fully on board the Birdman train as so many critics have.
Don’t believe me? Below are 10 irrefutable reasons why Black Swan and Birdman are practically the same movie.
(Massive spoilers for both films ahead.)
Both films notably take place in New York City, the cultural capital of America. Black Swan is located on the Upper West Side and Lincoln Center, as is fitting for a ballet story, while Birdman is appropriately rooted around Broadway in the midtown theater district.
Birdman and Black Swan both center on stage adaptations of a previous work. In Black Swan, it’s a new interpretation of the classic ballet Swan Lake, and in Birdman, it’s Riggan’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
8. What is real?
Both films play with our perception of reality by depicting certain events as “real” that are later revealed to take place only in our protagonist’s minds. In both films, many scenes feel slightly surreal and “off,” tipping us off to their mental instability early on. Basically, we’re getting a taste of the crazy that’s running through Nina and Riggan’s minds.7. The Rivalry
Nina and Riggan both come up against a rival who threatens their star status. For Nina, it’s the ingenue Lily (Mila Kunis), who eventually worms her way into the role of Nina’s understudy and is praised by director Thomas Leroy as the perfect embodiment of the Black Swan. For Riggan, it is his outrageously vain co-star Mike (Edward Norton), who starts out by making suggested cuts to Riggan’s dialogue in the play and then engages in increasingly erratic antics, like breaking character to complain that his stage booze isn’t real booze and trying to have actual sex with his co-star during a performance (resulting in a very visible erection, much to the delight of the audience).
Duality is a major factor in Black Swan, as Nina perfectly embodies the White Swan but has a hard time channeling her inner Black Swan. (Probably because her inner Black Swan is a looney murderess.) She often sees alarming, evilly smirking reflections that suggest a darker side to herself. Riggan, too, is tormented by his on-screen alter ego Birdman, which a raspy inner voice constantly compels him to embrace. Like Nina, Riggan does eventually give in to his alter ego, further loosening his grasp on reality.
5. Opening Night
In Black Swan and Birdman, two performers spontaneously engage in some steamy girl-on-girl hanky-panky — because dancers/actresses are just kind of like that, aren’t they? They’re not real out-and-proud lesbians, they just dabble in lesbianism. (Though in Black Swan’s case, the sapphic action turns out to be yet another hallucination.)
3. The Critic
The true antagonist in both films — besides the protagonists’ dark alter egos — is a bitchy female of a certain age who lives to criticize them. For Nina, it’s her mother Erica (Barbara Heshey), a former ballerina herself. For Riggan, it’s the cruel theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who is also called out for being bitter and “jealous” of the protagonist’s talent. Nina and Riggan both explode in a fever-pitched rage at these women just before going completely bonkers, but that woman still ends up prominently featured in the audience at their debut (and final) performance.2. Hallucinated bird-people.
What is it about crazy people and avians? Both Nina and Riggan’s main hallucination involves a human-bird hybrid. For Riggan, it’s himself as the costumed superhero he made famous in the 90s, and in later scenes, Riggan embraces Birdman and goes soaring before our eyes. For Nina, it’s the Black Swan. At one point, she sees (or thinks she sees) a menacing bird-man having sex with Lily (and then herself) backstage; she also sprouts feathers and literally becomes the Black Swan in her final performance. Embracing their inner birdness is an essential step on both Nina and Riggan’s pathway to crazytown.
1. Suicide on stage.
The inevitable conclusion in any story about a protagonist who is going irrevocably nuts is suicide. Both Nina and Riggan end up there, deciding to do the dirty deed on stage as the grand finale of their opening night performance. Riggan does so by replacing his prop gun with a real one, and Nina does so more accidentally, having stabbed herself in the belly with a shard of mirror while she thought she was attacking Lily. Nina’s suicide is apparently successful; Riggan succeeds in blowing his own nose off and winds up in the hospital, where he arguably makes a more successful attempt by jumping out the window. The ending of both films (Birdman in particular) is left somewhat open to interpretation as to what happens next, but the safest argument is probably that both Nina and Riggan are dead at the end of their respective films.