The Philosophy of Birdman: The Icarus Complex

Caution: This is an in-depth analysis article. As such, spoilers for Birdman ahead. If you want to purchase Birdman, you can find it on Amazon Video here.

Note: The page links are a bit hidden at the bottom of this page. Just to be clear, there are five pages to this article, you might just have to scroll a bit to find the correct buttons.


Icarus, son of Daedalus, is the famed tragic figure of myth who wore wax wings and flew too close to the sun, failing to heed his father’s warning in his aerial jubilation.


I. “Birdman is Like Icarus”


In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2014 film Birdman, we just so happen to have a similar icon as Icarus in the eponymous winged superhero. In an early scene of the film we hear Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) mention briefly that “Birdman is like Icarus,” although the reporters surrounding him barely register his comment, moving on to Birdman 4 and baby pig semen. But keen viewers likely made quick mental note of the allusion.

Comparing Riggan’s former superhero acting role to Icarus is not important to the thematic thread of the film. But comparing Icarus to the man inside the costume is pivotal.

From what I gather, there are two direct allusions to Icarus in the film. The first coming in the aforementioned scene, and the second coming from the lips of Birdman himself, who speaks to Riggan, trying to convince him out of superhero retirement. The next film would be called “Birdman 4: Phoenix Rising.”

The phoenix, of course, is the mythological figure representing both the sun and resurrection. Anyone who has seen the Harry Potter films will know that the mythical phoenix’s claim to fame is its ability to be reborn from the ashes of its former, who dies in a literal blaze of glory.

What does this mean for ol’ Riggan? The phoenix reference here is mirroring the earlier Icarus comment, that the man Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting his wings. The phoenix, as a counter, is an immortal beast who survives even as its wings (and the rest of it, frankly) get consumed by flame. The hallucinatory Birdman is coaxing Riggan back to the side of the Hollywood celebrity by tempting him with the concept of immortality.

This represents Riggan’s major character flaw. “You confuse love for admiration,” his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) comments. Riggan’s desire to be adored by the community at large is what becomes his ultimate mental undoing. The immortality that comes with his work living on even after he is long gone is what drives him to write, direct, and star in the stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”

Of course, this is a lofty goal. The weight of the play and its impact on his legacy burdens him throughout the film, ultimately leading to his final demise (which is left intentionally ambiguous).

All the while, everyone around him with the power to make or break his celebrity resurgence doubts his artistry. The famed stage critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) is set to bury his play before even hearing a line of it. The pedantic journalist Gabriel (Damian Young) (note the allusion to the Biblical Gabriel, who is seen as a messenger angel) cites Barthes when claiming Riggan is simply staging the play in order to maintain relevancy.

The pressure is too much for Riggan. His anxiety becomes exceedingly high, perhaps to the point of hyperbole. To the viewer, Riggan could easily be viewed as childish for his insecurity over his self-importance. But perhaps it isn’t as simple a characterization as that.

On page two: Icarus and the Celebrity Mind

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