What we learned about Birdman and being a super hero from Michael Keaton and Ed Norton

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Oct 14, 2014, 10:19 AM EDT (Updated)

Comic-book fans eagerly packed the Empire Room for Friday's Birdman panel without knowing too much about the movie. The draw, of course, was two of its stars: Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. But before either actor would take the stage, audience members were treated to the first few minutes of the highly anticipated, expectation-defying Alejandro Gonzales Inarittu superhero film. Instead of CGI or an impressively choreographed fight sequence, we instead saw Keaton levitating in his tightie-whities while meditating in his dressing room, the only glimpse of any "super-hero" existing in a faded movie poster on the wall in the background. He was soon interrupted by a Skype call from his daughter (Emma Stone) before being beckoned to the stage over the theater intercom system, which then started off the much-talked-about single-shot technique used throughout the entire film.

Even before previewing the first 10 minutes of footage, you knew this movie was different from any other genre movie to date. The buzz about Birdman has been consistently growing since Keaton's role was announced last year, and it recently picked up more steam thanks to the unique method in which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film. A day after its NYCC appearance, Birdman closed out the New York Film Festival, with many not only declaring it the best film of the festival (and possibly of all of 2014), but also calling Michael Keaton a lock for an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Riggan Thomson, the aging actor who famously starred in a comic-book franchise in his heyday. 

It's not often, or ever, that a superhero film finds itself packaged as an Oscar-worthy indie and debuts on the festival circuit route the day after its stars preview footage at the biggest pop-culture event on the East Coast. This is one of the many ways everything about Birdman is different from everything else; it's purposely two things at once, a juxtaposition both on screen and off that could very well change the way people think about the genre moving forward. Edward Norton, who plays Mike in Birdman, feels that the various tricks used to shoot the movie will have film schools dissecting it for years to come. Norton said he walked out of the film thinking, "What did I just watch?" Keaton also found himself having trouble really explaining the movie to anyone who's asked, outside of saying it's unlike anything anyone has ever seen.

At Birdman's heart is a character-driven story about an artist who, along with others in the film, struggles with his own ego and insecurities. It just so happens that said insecure artist is having a hard time distinguishing himself from his superhero alter ego. The meta-humor in Birdman is evident from the get-go, with a superhero and celebrity-obsessed culture practically serving as another character in the film. In a scene previewed during Comic-Con, Keaton's character is fielding questions from press regarding his famous role as Birdman while also debunking gossip from another journo, when all he really wants to do is discuss the play he's currently producing. It's a scenario Keaton probably experienced in real life many times over, and possibly, to some extent, relived at times doing press for this very movie.

It didn't take long for the obvious elephant in the room to come up. When two actors who have each played two of the most iconic superheroes are now co-starring in a movie about an aging actor whose most famous role was that of an iconic superhero, it's bound to come up. Maybe it was when host Chris Hardwick begrudgingly acknowledged the barely audible Hulk comment an audience member shouted after Ed Norton admitted he demanded he get to be in this movie after reading the script. Maybe it was how the intonation of Michael Keaton's voice changed when he considered his answers, naturally weaving in and out of his own voice, Batman's and Beetlejuice's several times during the hourlong panel. Or perhaps it was when both actors admitted they were proud to have played those famous parts and that with the right script and director they wouldn't be against a big-budget superhero film in the future. Despite all of that, to hear Keaton tell it, he never put it together that they both had franchises under their belts. He just showed up for work.

Will you be checking out Birdman?