The Philosophy of Birdman: The Icarus Complex

IV. The Icarus Complex of Celebrity Part Two


The second form of ascensionism, social ascensionism, is “manifested in the wish to achieve spectacular rise in social status” (Sperber). This is another clear factor in Riggan’s existence. His whole life has seemingly been about gaining notoriety through his acting, which culminated in the Birdman franchise and then plummeted. Now lower on the social totem pole than he once was, Riggan is plagued by the anxieties that come with the discrepancy.

Riggan’s play is his attempt at ascending socially once again. He claims it is for artistic purposes, which I’m sure is something the character believes, but it appears a desperate act to maintain relevancy.

Riggan is a tragic figure through his social ascensionism. We see him struggle with his own existence as a result of his fall in status. Sure, he can be cast aside as another whiny celebrity wanting more while already living in excess, but this isn’t exactly the case with Riggan. We hear him talking about refinancing his house in order to put on the play, showing that he has indeed fallen on hard times. Regardless, the choice of whether or not to like and sympathize with the character is a subjective one. His compulsion to rise back to a former place in the social hierarchy, however, is undeniable, and it is yet another sign that Riggan suffers from an Icarus Complex.

What follows social ascensionism is a “falling” or a “precipitation.” A “what goes up, must come down” scenario, if you will. Sperber distinguishes between the two, where falling refers to “an undesired, unpreventable, or accidental descension” and precipitation refers to “a consciously or unconsciously desired calamitous descension” where “the subject allows himself to fall or leaps from a height (precipitative suicide)” (Sperber).

In Sperber’s article, he makes a similar analysis to the one made here, only attributing the Icarus Complex to Jean-Babtiste Clamence, the protagonist from Albert Camus’ The Fall (on a side note, it is surprising that my first two film philosophy articles would both tap into the work of Camus, but that’s neither here nor there). Clamence has a fall that is somewhat reminiscent of Riggan, in that they both lead to “auditory hallucinations” (Sperber).

Riggan’s “falling” has occurred before the film even begins, and it arguably continues throughout the course of the film. His fall in status is both undesired and unpreventable given the nature of celebrity in Western culture. This social fall leads to a psychological fall that follows Riggan throughout the previews of his play, ultimately leading to his on-stage self-inflicted wound.

This gunshot is the beginning of Riggan’s “precipitation.” The turmoil that comes with his fall leads to his desired death, which is something that he fails to achieve. Riggan allows himself to follow in the footsteps of his disillusioned on-screen persona, falling to his own demise.

When he fails, he ironically brings upon himself an appearance that reminds him of his past (his surgically altered nose now appearing like a beak). With this image, he knows exactly what he must do and consciously chooses to “leap from a height,” resulting in his debatable death. Riggan has learned that there is no way to escape the turmoil that comes with aging celebrity. His on-stage stunt will hold water in the public eye for a finite amount of time before Riggan fades into the background again. His only choices are to face the cyclical nature of his very existence or face his inevitable death.

On page five, final notes on the Icarus Complex and what it all means

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