The Philosophy of Birdman: The Icarus Complex

V. Birdman: The Power of Image


The minor aspects of the Icarus Complex don’t necessarily fit into the framework of Riggan’s character. Fire plays no role in the film, save for that one image of a plummeting meteorite. Water, too, plays only a small role as manifested images of the jellyfish anecdote.

The role of women in the film, however, is intriguing as it relates to the Icarus Complex. It isn’t a large role in Riggan’s character, but his interactions with the women in his life are less-than-stellar. This is most likely done as a method of showing that Riggan puts more effort and attention into his own work and image than the people in his life. But, in a certain light, he uses these female characters for his own gain.

Sam, his daughter, is his assistant and, when introducing her to Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), he speaks for her as if she is a dog. Sam also mentions to Mike how she feels Riggan is unsatisfactory as a father given the time he puts into his career.

Riggan’s past with his ex, Sylvia, is briefly mentioned as a hostile environment given Riggan’s career failures.

And Riggan is rather flippant with his current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who also acts in his play. In one scene, he is so invested in an article posted in the paper about the play that he doesn’t even notice when he insults Laura.

Even if these relationships don’t quite point to the objectification of women for narcissistic gains, it shows a clear divide between Riggan’s relationships and his personal exploits. He would rather succeed as a celebrity than have a happy marriage or a healthy relationship with his daughter.

When all is said and done, what does this examination of Riggan’s character mean? Why worry about Icarus and the celebrity image?

Sperber, in his analysis of The Fall, claims that “the novel is a parable, and Clamence is used as an instrument of the author to explore man’s current moral and spiritual predicament.”

I think the same can be said for Birdman, only with different implications. Western culture is dominated by the concept of celebrity. Social status is an authority over most other hierarchical metrics, where power, fame, and wealth can come from nothing more than a person’s image.

This celebrity can be vilified and often is, but hating celebrity and hating the identity of a celebrity is a distinction that is almost never made. A celebrity has two personas, the external and the internal (or the public and the private, as Richard Dyer puts it).

Birdman is playing with this dichotomy. A celebrity’s public persona is easily disparaged. In Riggan’s case, he is looked at as an aging celebrity figure whose play is nothing more than an attempt at resurgence in the public eye. His Icarian nature fuels this belief, but his private persona paints a more complex picture.

Noting first the Icarus Complex within Riggan is a good way of conceptualizing both Riggan’s external and internal personas. His life is based on maintaining the external, which leads to mental anguish in the internal. This discrepancy leads to his break, and this break can be seen similarly in real-life celebrity figures. Birdman shows the pressures of the social world through the analysis of a sympathetic figure. Riggan is by no means a bad man, his outward transgressions are merely a consequence of his inward ailments.

As with Clamence, Riggan is not only an Icarian, but something much more complex. “To reduce him to a syndrome would be to miss much of the richness of the characterization” (Sperber). Riggan’s Icarian nature is his tragic flaw, but he is more than simply an Icarian or a celebrity. He is a human being, and Inarittu paints him as such for a reason, giving us access into the internal world of a persona that is otherwise characterized by its outward image.


The Post-Script

This is by far the longest and most in-depth article that I have written on this website thus far. Please let me know what you think, if you want me to do more of this kind of analysis, etc. It is a time-consuming affair, but it is incredibly enjoyable to go in-depth with a particular film.

As always, thanks for reading.

—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)

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Works Cited

“Schizophrenia.” NIMH RSS. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2016. <;.

Sperber, Michael A. “Camus'” The Fall”: The Icarus Complex.” American Imago 26.3 (1969): 269.

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