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MIA ... Last Action Hero, left, and Roger Moore as 007. Photo: AP/Reuters
The man who could be elected this week as president of the United States was described recently as ''a socially stiff relic of a pre-ironic America''.
Mike Allen, an analyst with politico.com, apparently believes Mitt Romney is a man out of his time (the uptight 1950s), while Barack Obama is a hip, cool product of the noughties. We will know on Wednesday which model of masculinity Americans want, but first let's explore the implications of the label ''pre-ironic''.
It suggests the US (and thus the whole of the Western world) is now living through the Age of Irony. But I'm not sure that's true. I think it would be more accurate to say we have moved into a Post-Ironic Era (PIE) of history.
Groovy baby ... Mike Myers as Austin Powers.
I think this PIE started when screen spies started taking themselves seriously. The character we can blame or praise for the transformation would be Jason Bourne.
Consider these two symptoms of the post-ironic approach to screen spying: the new James Bond movie, Skyfall, was launched in London at a charity fund-raiser for dead, injured and impoverished agents of the British secret services MI5, MI6 and GCHQ; and the film Argo, which opened here last weekend, ends with a voice-over by former US president Jimmy Carter praising the real-life work of the spy played by Ben Affleck.
That's quite a change from Austin Powers, Maxwell Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and earlier incarnations of Bond.
The irony fad reached its peak in the 1980s. As the Cold War was winding down and we were wondering what all the anti-communist fuss had been about, spies were a joke. At the time, James Bond was played by smug, supercilious Roger Moore.
That was when people used to twitch two fingers on each hand to make ''air quotes'', indicating the twitcher didn't really mean what he or she was saying. Roger Moore's acting was permanently surrounded by air quotes.
The fading of the Age of Irony was signalled in 1991 by a documentary called In Bed with Madonna. We see the then-pop goddess in her dressing room, receiving a visit from Kevin Costner. She asks what he thought of her performance, and he says it was ''neat''. As he's leaving, Madonna pretends to vomit, hissing, ''Anybody who says my show is 'neat' has got to go.''
After the documentary came out, Costner was asked how he felt about being mocked in that way. He said he didn't mind, and actually he'd thought Madonna's show was ''kind of disgusting'', but had been too polite to say so. Costner didn't get the irony in Madonna's work, and didn't care that he didn't get it. He was the Mitt Romney of the 1990s.
Then, in 1993, Hollywood producers spent $70 million on a film called Last Action Hero, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger satirised the genre. It was a massive flop. Arnie retired hurt and went into politics. As it turned out, his character was not the last action hero, just the last ironic hero.
Bruce Willis gave us a fighter we could take seriously with the Die Hard series, but he was a cop. Spies only became credible in 2002, when the Bourne series began. Starring Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum suggested the CIA was sending agents around the world to assassinate politicians and journalists deemed to be enemies of the US. The spies were not likeable, but at least they were free of irony.
The owners of the rights to James Bond noted Bourne's success and transformed the hero of Casino Royale into a grim killer who could be endorsed by MI6.
Check out the trailer for A Good Day to Die Hard (the fifth in the franchise) and you'll see Bruce Willis describing himself as ''the 007 of Plainfield, New Jersey''.
Check out the trailer for The Last Stand and you'll see Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes, he's back) as the arthritic sheriff of a small town invaded by criminals. Arnie has one expression - grim. A Mitt Romney victory this week will suggest the US is in a mood to enjoy The Last Stand.
Arnie's sheriff won't be the first action hero of the Post-Ironic Era - that was Bourne. Or the second - that was Bond. But he could be the third. When you get to Arnie's age, bronze ain't bad.
To discuss whether irony is dead, see smh.com.au/opinion/blog/the-tribal-mind.