III. A Brief Aside: Birdman Ending Analyzed
Perhaps I should address this point first. Riggan’s superheroism is a fabricated disguise by his unconscious to hide his various complexes and insecurities. Because of the ambiguous ending, some believe that he had real powers all along and we had been tricked into thinking otherwise. But this is not entirely logical.
Riggan most likely suffers from Schizophrenia. He shows the “positive symptoms” quite readily throughout the film: hallucinations (in the form of Birdman manifesting and speaking to him, as well as Riggan using telekinetic powers to move objects), delusions (he is relatively grounded in reality, but this is where a lot of his problems occur, and we see this best when he is trying to combat his mental illness, which leads us to assume that he has been treated and delusions have become less severe), and thought disorders (like the Icarus Complex) (National Institute of Mental Health).
We see concrete evidence that his hallucinations are not grounded in reality. In the first instance, we see Riggan tossing things in his dressing room against the wall in anger with his mind. Then, when Jake (Zach Galifianakis) enters the room, we see the same actions, only Riggan is holding an object and throwing it to the ground.
Later, we see Riggan flying through the New York City air. After this excursion, he settles back on land in front of his theater. Yet, the viewer sees further that there is a taxi cab waiting to be paid for Riggan’s trip, so we are to assume that he was hallucinating flying while riding in a cab.
We also see smaller instances where Riggan is trying to cope with the voice in his head by whispering to himself and doing breathing exercises, which is indicative of therapy that he has likely undergone for his illness.
The final image, which allegedly complicates this argument, also has a basis in Schizophrenic logic. Schizophrenia can run in families. Sam may be suffering from hallucinations and delusions just as readily as Riggan; we don’t know because we have been following Riggan the entire film, but her fascination with sitting on the roof of the playhouse is reminiscent of Riggan’s own fantasies. It isn’t extraordinary to assume that a tragic incident, such as the death of her father, would exacerbate her own symptoms of mental illness.
Also, one theory I play with that is more tongue-in-cheek is that Inarritu added that final image in as somewhat of a test for the audience. The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance may apply just as much to the audience as it does to the characters in the film. Ignoring all of the signs in the film that Riggan suffers from a mental disorder in order to hold onto the belief that he flew away instead of plummeting to his inevitable demise is a virtue of filmmaking, that we can leave a film in wonder of something that is not physically possible, even if all of the signs point to a more logical conclusion.
No matter what you believe about the film’s ending, this article assumes that Riggan suffers from a mental illness and that, yes, he did indeed die at the end of the film, regardless of the direction in which Sam looked before the screen cut to black.
And with that, let’s return to Icarus.
On page four, the Icarus Complex part two