Actor Riggan Thomson is most famous for his movie role from over twenty years ago of the comic book superhero Birdman in the blockbuster movie of the same name and its two equally popular sequels. His association with the role took over his life, where Birdman is more renowned than "Riggan Thomson" the actor. Now past middle age, Riggan is trying to establish himself as a true artist by writing, directing, starring in and co-producing with his best friend Jake what is his Broadway debut, an adaptation of Raymond Carver's story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He is staking his name, what little artistic reputation that comes with that name and his life savings on the project, and as such will do anything needed to make the play a success. As he and Jake go through the process of the previews toward opening night, Riggan runs into several issues: needing to find a replacement for the integral supporting male role the night before the first preview; hiring the talented Broadway name, Mike Shiner, for that role, Mike who ends up being difficult to work with and who may end up overshadowing Riggan in the play; having to deal potentially with a lawsuit based on one of his actions to ensure success; needing to be there for his daughter, Sam, who he has hired to be his production assistant and who has just come out of drug rehab; and pleasing the New York Times critic, Tabitha Dickinson, who wants to use any excuse to give the play a scathing review which in turn would close the show after the opening night performance. But Riggan's biggest problem may be his own insecurities, which are manifested by him constantly hearing what he believes to be the truth from the voice of his Birdman character, who he often battles both internally and externally.
Riggan is a man struggling to make his mark in the world. Having achieved fame as "Birdman", he voluntarily walked away from the on screen role, and battled the inner voices that had him believe he was more powerful than anyone could imagine. Old, irrelevant, but still driven, Riggan has chosen to pursue his dream of honoring the man who inspired him over 20 years ago. Riggan and those around him are all facing similar battles, but seem to be unaware of any but their own. Determined to make his play a success, he overcomes obstacle after obstacle in order to ensure it is a success on the stage. Surrounded by his daughter and the actors he's chosen, Riggan works to come to terms with the realities of life. Moments of brutal honesty affect him and those around him. Nearly everyone finds themselves in both positions, of giving and receiving the words they need to hear in that moment. Riggan attempts to let himself truly feel what he needs to so he can find inner peace and freedom. Opening night finds him offering the performance of his life for more reasons than one, and the success of that night will make or break the future of his play. Like everything else, his handling of events is affected by demons only he is aware of.
Riggan Thomson is an actor who played the famous and iconic superhero "Birdman" over 20 years ago. Now, in his middle-age, he is directing his debut on Broadway, a drama called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", an adaptation from a Raymond Carver story. With the help of his assistant and daughter Sam, and his producer Jake, he will play out the show previews, even when a talented actor he hired on, Mike Shiner act arbitrarily, the internal issues between him and the other casts, his useless maximum efforts to critics, and the unexpected voices of his old character- the Birdman, pushing his sanity until the first debut show.
Former cinema superhero Riggan Thomson is mounting an ambitious Broadway production that he hopes will breathe new life into his stagnant career. It's risky, but he hopes that his creative gamble will prove that he's a real artist and not just a washed-up movie star. As opening night approaches, a cast mate is injured, forcing Riggan to hire an actor who is guaranteed to shake things up. Meanwhile, Riggan must deal with his girlfriend, daughter and ex-wife.
A washed up actor tries to reclaim his fame on Broadway with a new play. As this is happening he has to handle with new actors and has to re kindle his relationship with his daughter. But most importantly he has to escape the shadow of the superhero he used to play, Birdman.
A washed-up Hollywood actor, who once played a famous superhero, attempts to revive his career by writing and starring in a Broadway play.
- In the opening shot, what appears to be booster rockets from a space shuttle shoot through the sky.
Note: Almost everything from here until the final scene is designed to look like one continuous shot -- long takes by a single camera, edited together to look like one seamless shot, similar to Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 experimental film Rope (1948).
Interior: St. James Theater, New York City
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), seen from the rear, is sitting cross-legged and floating a few feet above the floor in his dressing room. He's wearing only tighty-whities. The voice of Birdman, seemingly coming from a Birdman movie poster, taunts him. The voice tells him he's a has-been and should never have quit making Birdman movies. He hates it in this small, dirty dressing room that smells like balls.
Riggan is a washed-up actor trying his hand at live theater after walking away from a superhero franchise playing Birdman. Riggan gets a video call from his assistant/daughter Sam (Emma Stone). She's at a flower shop and they don't have the kind of flowers her dad wants. He tells her to get something that smells good. She reaches for some roses as the call cuts off and he says not to get roses; it's not clear whether she hears him. Over the PA, Riggan is called to the stage for rehearsal.
On his way to the stage, Riggan talks to his manager, best friend, lawyer, and play producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who voices concern about Riggan starring in, writing and directing a play based on Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" (a real short story). Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), one of the other actors, isn't very good. Riggan joins three other actors in a kitchen scene. They are Lesley (Naomi Watts), Ralph, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough). During the scene, Riggan looks up to the lighting grid and then one of the lights falls right on Ralph's head, knocking him out of consciousness and the play.
They need to find a replacement and Jake is worried because time and money are both very tight. Lesley suggests famous actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is known to be difficult (he's available because he just quit/was fired from another project), but he'd be a big draw. She assures Riggan and Jake that Mike is interested, and when they ask how she knows him, she says "We share a vagina." Riggan goes back to his dressing room and Jake tells him to prepare for an afternoon of interviews. The interviewers are more interested in gossip and Riggan's lapsed career than they are in talking about the play. Later that night, Riggan goes back to the stage to meet with Mike.
Mike is a very intense method actor. He surprises Riggan by already knowing his lines -- he learned them by helping Lesley. Mike breaks down several lines of dialogue with Riggan, makes some good suggestions that Riggan accepts, and agrees to do the play. Sam takes Riggan to costuming where he strips naked in front of her. Lesley comes in, doesn't realize Sam is behind a rack of clothes and tells Mike to put on clothes because Sam might come back and he shouldn't be naked in front of Riggan's drug addict degenerate loser daughter. Sam reveals herself and leaves. Lesley is embarrassed and yells at Mike.
Laura tells Riggan that she's missed two periods and believes she's pregnant; he fakes (poorly) being happy. Then he asks if she's sure it's his. She leaves in a huff. Jake tells Riggan that Mike is way over their budget, but Riggan says he'll pay for him himself. Jake is helping the production avoid a lawsuit from Ralph by threatening to tell the press about odd porn Ralph is into.
The play starts its preview performances. Mike drinks real gin on stage. The stage manager tells Riggan just as he's about to enter, so Riggan casually switches the real gin with prop gin. During Riggan's monologue, Mike realizes his gin was swapped out and he breaks the scene in front of the packed house to yell at Riggan for not committing to the performance and the characters.
Riggan calls for the curtain to drop and he and Mike get into an argument. Riggan tells Mike that his heart went into this production and he "doesn't need him fucking it up." Mike tells Riggan that he's just a movie star and has no right to be on Broadway in the first place. Riggan storms off the stage and tells Jake that he wants Mike fired, but Jake points out that since Mike was brought on, pre-sell tickets have gone through the roof. Mike can't leave.
Riggan's ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) was in the audience. She goes to Riggan's dressing room to see how he's doing. He tells her that he wants to refinance their Malibu home to help pay for the play. She's upset because that was supposed to be Sam's home one day. But she grudgingly agrees.
Riggan tells Mike he wants to talk to him outside. Riggan says he has a lot riding on this play and he feels that Mike resents him because he's popular. Mike tells him that popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.
They walk to a bar and Riggan tells Mike that he decided to become an actor because when he was much younger he did a play and afterwards Raymond Carver sent him a complimentary note on a napkin, which Riggan shows Mike. Mike points out that it's on a bar napkin and surmises that Carver was drunk at the time, so it doesn't mean anything. Mike also asserts that previews where the actors get to know the work -- just rehearsals that some suckers are willing to pay to see -- so it doesn't matter that the previews haven't gone well. The only show that matters is opening night and the only opinion that matters is at the end of the bar. He's referring to Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), the theater critic for the New York Times. Her review will make or break a play. On Broadway, no one cares about a washed-up movie star like Riggan Thomson. On cue, a family asks Mike if he'll take their picture with Riggan because they're huge fans. They don't recognize Mike.
On his way out, Mike stops to taunt Tabitha. She asks if he's worried she'll give him a bad review. He says he knows she will if he ever gives her a bad performance. Mike also tells Tabitha that he feels that Riggan is legit.
During the second preview things go better until they get to the finale, where Riggan's character catches Mike's character in a hotel bed with Lesley's character. Unfortunately, as they're about to do the scene, Mike tells Lesley that he has an erection and proposes they have sex for real on stage in front of everyone. Over her objections, he tries to have sex with her as the scene begins. Riggan's character bursts on stage and points a gun at them. Mike jumps out of bed and reveals to everyone a massive erection. Riggan continues with the scene and delivers his final monologue as the audience laughs at Mike's penis. He tells them that he realizes he's nothing now and then he shoots himself in the head. Everyone cheers and the play is finished. The cast bows and it's a success.
Lesley is upset and on the way to her dressing room is heard to mutter that Mike hasn't been able to get it up in months. Riggan goes to her dressing room and tells her that she's brave and wonderful. Laura is there and afterwards tells Lesley that she's hurt that in all the time she's been with Riggan, he's never said anything nearly that nice to her. Laura and Lesley end up kissing.
Riggan is still angry at Mike. Mike tells Riggan to get a better gun because the prop gun has a red tip and he doesn't find it realistic enough to intimidate him. Mike goes to the roof to smoke and runs into Sam. They play truth or dare. She comes on to him, but he reveals that the erection on stage was the first he's had in a long time. He doesn't think he could perform sexually even if he wanted to. She asks what he would like to do to her if he could. He says he'd like to pop out her eyes and see the city through her young, naïve eyes. She goes inside.
The next day the newspaper runs a piece about the play. There's a front page interview with Mike where he takes ownership of the story about Raymond Carver seeing him perform and sending back the note. There's a tiny story deeper in the paper mentioning Riggan. Riggan trashes his dressing room and the Birdman poster using telekinesis. Riggan is pissed and goes to Mike's dressing room where he finds Mike tanning. He drags Mike into a cafeteria area and they fight.
They do the play. Riggan sees Mike and Sam canoodling. He decides to go outside for a cigarette before his final scene. Unfortunately he locks himself out of the theater and his bathrobe gets stuck in the door. So he has to walk around the block to the front of the theater, through the crowds in Times Square, dressed only in his underwear. He reenters the theater and takes the stage from the back of the house (still in his underwear) and walks through the audience pointing his finger like a gun. A crew member hands him a prop gun and they finish the scene.
After the show, Riggan goes to the bar again and runs into Tabitha. He takes a drink over to her and starts to tell her the story of the Raymond Carver napkin. She says she doesn't care. She's going to bury his play tomorrow because she has no respect for movie stars who want to pretend to be real actors. He tells her he is an actor and she corrects him by telling him that he's just a celebrity. She leaves and he downs the martini he bought for her and walks out, leaving behind the cocktail napkin with Carver's note.
Riggan gets drunk and passes out on a stoop, with his head on a bag of trash. The next morning he wakes up and starts walking down the street with conviction. The voice of Birdman has now taken form as the Birdman character walking with Riggan. It tells him that he doesn't need this play. He should go back to Hollywood and make another Birdman movie. Everyone would love it and he'd make a fortune. Riggan imagines the city street turning into a scene of a big blockbuster action movie with explosions, helicopters, and giant robots. He returns to reality and goes up to the roof of a building. A man comes out and asks him to come away from the ledge. Riggan does. The man asks if he's okay and if he has somewhere to go. Riggan says he is ok and knows just where to go -- then he turns, runs and jumps off the building. He flies through the city like a superhero, goes back to the St. James Theater, and goes inside.On the way in he passes a cab and the driver is mad that Riggan didn't pay him. The driver follows Riggan inside and comes out a minute later.
Riggan runs into Sam, tells her she's doing a great job and asks her how life is treating her. They have a heart to heart talk. She puts dashes on toilet paper and explains that they taught her that in rehab. Each dash represents 1000 years. One sheet is the span that humans have been on earth. The rest of the roll represents how long the planet existed. It puts it all in perspective. He tells her that this play is his chance to finally do something that's important. She tells him that he doesn't understand. This isn't important. He's not important. None of this is important. They're a dash on a sheet of toilet paper.
Laura tells Riggan that he doesn't have to worry because she's not pregnant. Sam and Mike have sex in the rafters above the stage.
It's opening night. Riggan's dressing room is full of flowers, but they're almost all roses, which he dislikes. Sylvia stops by to wish him luck. Riggan reveals to her that on the night she caught him cheating on her, he went out to the ocean to try to drown himself, but kept getting zapped by jellyfish, so he dragged himself back to the shore. (She remembers that at the time he told her he got sunburned.) He says he has to do this play tonight because it's a chance for him to finally do something right.
After she leaves, Riggan pulls a real gun out and goes to the stage. He delivers his big monologue about how he realizes hes nothing and then he shoots himself in the head for real. The audience is in shock and then everyone except Tabitha gives it a standing ovation. Tabitha slips out, presumably to meet her deadline.
The rockets fly through the air again.
Jellyfish lie on a beach.
In Riggan's hospital room, Jake tells Riggan and Sylvia that the play was a huge success. He has Sylvia read from Tabitha's review, which says Riggan has inaugurated a new era of theater called Ultra-Realism. It's suggested that Riggan didn't know the gun was real -- Tabitha's review is headlined "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" (the subtitle of the movie). Jake says Riggan shot off his nose but now has a new one.
Sam brings Riggan lilacs, flowers he likes, but he can't smell them. Sam takes a picture of Riggan and says she's posting it on his Twitter account, which she just created for him. She leaves to get a vase. The bandages on Riggan's face cover the same area that the Birdman mask covered. He goes into the bathroom, takes off his bandages, and looks at himself in the mirror. His nose is bruised and swollen and he has two big shiners. He goes back into his room and sees birds flying outside the window. He opens it and stands on the ledge. When Sam returns, Riggan is gone. Sam looks out the open window to the ground, but apparently doesn't see him. She looks up into the sky and smiles.