Riggan Thomson is a faded actor famous for playing a superhero named Birdman in a film trilogy in the 1990s. He is tormented by the mocking and critical internal voice of Birdman and frequently visualizes himself performing feats of levitation and telekinesis. Riggan is trying to regain recognition by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” However, the Birdman voice wants Riggan to return to blockbuster cinema and insists that he is an essential part of Riggan’s identity.
Jake, Riggan’s best friend and lawyer, is producing the play, which co-stars Riggan’s girlfriend, Laura, and Broadway débutante Lesley. Riggan’s daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict with whom he is trying to reconnect, is working as his assistant. The day before the first preview, a light fixture falls onto Riggan’s hapless co-star, Ralph. At Lesley’s suggestion, Riggan replaces Ralph with her boyfriend, the brilliant but volatile and self-absorbed method actor Mike Shiner. The first previews are disastrous: Mike breaks character over the replacement of his gin with water, attempts to rape Lesley during a sex scene, and claims that the prop gun does not look real.
Riggan clashes continually with Mike, culminating in a brawl after Riggan reads a New York Times interview with Mike in which he steals Riggan’s personal reason for doing a Raymond Carver play. Jake persuades Riggan to continue with the play. When Riggan berates Sam after finding her using marijuana, she insultingly rebukes and chastises him, telling him he is irrelevant and the play is for his own vanity.
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