Do endings matter? Can't we all just watch and absorb a piece of art without trying to impose our own meanings on it? No, we can't. Humans are pattern seeking animals and we want explanations and meanings for things. Even for magical realist movies like Birdman. If you haven't seen Birdman don't read anymore of this.
Still reading? Ok you've either seen Birdman or don't have any intention of watching Birdman or just don't give a crap and all of that is just fine with me...
10 explanations for the way Birdman ended:
1. Riggan could actually fly. Throughout the movie we get lots of hints that his powers are in fact only in his head, but what if they're not?
2. He jumped out the hospital room window in a psychotic state thinking he was Birdman and as he hit the ground he died imagining that he was actually flying and that his daughter was witnessing him hovering with the pigeons.
3. He really died on stage after he shot himself and imagined everything that happened after that in the final second of his consciousness.
4. He really died from the multiple jelly-fish stings in Malibu and imagined the entire movie in the final seconds of his consciousness while dying on the beach (hence that shot of jellyfish: one of the first and nearly the last thing we see in the film).
5. Riggan really died when the bystander talked him down off the building and he changed his mind and jumped again. Everything after that was imaginary as he fell to his death. I'm not so sure about this one because it creates a paradox: his flight over Manhattan seems to have been imaginary because we - the viewers - see that he got to the theatre in a taxi and didn't pay the fare because he thought he had flown there. I suppose its possible that he imagined the irate taxi driver too.
6. In the final scene he only imagined getting out of the bed and jumping out the window (since when do hospital rooms have slide open windows on the 20th floor?)
7. A la St Elsewhere the entire movie takes place in the head of Riggan Thomson's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who really is in the mental hospital we see at the end of the movie. Sam is in recovery from substance abuse issues and suicide attempts and this is her way of coping: imagining helping her father put on an artistic masterpiece and having an affair with a hot older famous actor.
8. Like #7 above the entire movie takes place in Riggan's head in a mental hospital where he has been committed because of his Birdman hallucinations.
9. As in #8 above except that Riggan is in the hospital because the spotlight that supposedly fell on Ralph's head actually fell on his head.
10. This is my favourite interpretation but not the one I actually believe in: Naomi Watts is still playing her character, Diane Selwyn, from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (who if you'll remember was also a minor actress trying to make it into the big time and who also had a lesbian crush on the female lead). This is going to require some explanation, so here goes. In Birdman Watts's character is simply called Lesley. The female name Lesley was popularised (some even say invented) by Robert Burns in his poem: Saw Ye Bonie Lesley. This is the first stanza of Saw Ye Bonie Lesley:
O saw ye bonie Lesley,
As she gaed o'er the Border?
She's gane, like Alexander,
To spread her conquests farther.
The 'Alexander' Burns is talking about is of course Alexander the Great who was born the night the Great Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) burned to the ground. Artemis of course is the Goddess Diana or Diane in the Roman Pantheon and the Romans referred to the Great Temple of Diane/Diana. The name "Selwyn" means one who dwells in the house/castle/temple. So the name Diane Selwyn literally means "Diana the Goddess who dwells in the house/castle/temple". Alexander himself was not only born the night the House of Diana burned to the ground but visited the temple and offered to pay for it to be rebuilt as he saw himself as the reincarnation of the God Apollo who was Diana's brother. Alexander is intimately bound up with Diana and her temple (Diane Selwyn) as is Lesley in the poem. Therefore Lesley = Diane Selwyn, the character Naomi Watts played in Mulholland Drive. In the Lynch movie Diane mixes imagination and reality for the first 4/5 of the film, but in the last reel we see the bitter reality she has left after she has paid to have her ex girlfriend murdered. Birdman could be another one of Diane's fantasies. . .Interestingly Riggan throughout Birdman hallucinates music and sees a drummer but no band, or as David Lynch has one of his characters say chillingly in Mulholland Drive: No hay banda. Silencio.
The one I believe is the real interpretation of Birdman is #1. Alejandro González Iñárritu comes squarely from the Latin American magical realism tradition and in that tradition all such things are possible. Its also the most cheerful ending and who doesn't want a bit of cheer in these troubled times. Other possible explanations & comments below if you please: