For the record…
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of irony is: “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny.”
So… A certain someone was wrong.
Just for the record.
I mention this now, and it comes to mind now, after a conversation in class, about what irony really is. And then we began to think about irony in relation to art. Many of us simply came to the conclusion, upon looking at Guthrie Lonergan’s Artist Looking at Camera that Lonergan was being ironic. But was he really? And is ironic art really art?
That’s a big question, and one that I hadn’t considered before. Largely because I hadn’t thought deeply enough about art to consider the question in the first place. But now that I am delving further into this beautiful, complicated, messy world of Internet art, the question is a valid one. In an age in which so many of our interactions are steeped in irony, can art really be ironic?
I sat and thought about it for a while. How do I interact with other people in the course of a day? My friend comes into class and asks me how I’m doing. I respond, “So much better now that you’re here.” Someone asks me if I’m ready for an exam. I respond, “Yeah, I’m really excited about it.” Someone asks if I’m tired at 11:30 p.m. I respond: “No, I was actually about to go for a run.” Everything is ironic, from our sense of humor to our basic interactions.
I cannot attempt to answer the question whether art can be ironic, or whether it should be. But in considering the question, it appears to me that our expectations of art differ from art form to art form. Nowhere, arguably, is this more evident than in the realm of mainstream blockbuster cinema.
While we judge Internet art and forms of “fine art” — what an oddly vague, amorphous term — by a seemingly strict set of expectations, our conception of the value of a movie is dictated by an entirely different set of expectations, one that seems in many respects to directly contradict those of other art forms. And this is most clear with regards to irony.
Let’s take a look back at some of the most commercially successful films of 2015 and the critical reception thereto. Let’s consider Ant-Man, for example, one of Marvel Studios’ more recent pieces of hot garbage. Christy Lemire was a fan. “The overwhelming, self-serious sense that we are watching something Very Important blissfully doesn’t exist in Ant-Man,” she writes. “It’s just plain fun: light, breezy, simple and enjoyable.” So, too, was Anthony Lane: “What, if anything, holds ‘Ant-Man’ together? First, Paul Rudd, who is laughably unheroic, and has the grace to know as much.” In other words, this was a superhero movie masquerading as a superhero movie, which was really only actually intended to make fun of superhero movies and what Lemire calls the “self-serious” concept of heroism. This is the use of film to convey an idea opposite to that which is intended. This is irony.
Or how about the response to another 2015 mega-hit, Jurassic World? Wesley Morris gave a positive review, saying that director Colin Trevorrow “is having fun taking as little of this as seriously as he needs to.” Adam Fendelman wrote: “‘Jurassic World’ doesn’t buck blockbuster trends. Rather, it cleverly plays into them.” Another critic, striking a similar note, said that the film was replete with “winks and nods.” In other words, Jurassic World has merit because it only pretends to be a serious movie, all the while knowing that it is a dumb, silly one.
I have grown increasingly frustrated by critical expectations of movies, especially big, dumb ones like Jurassic World — which is actually one of the more forgettable and soullessly okay movies I’ve ever seen — and Marvel’s slate of superhero movies — which are often unforgettably bad. Every movie has to be “fun.” And this has to do with tone, but it also has to do with irony. We live in a post-Christopher Nolan world of cinema, in which critics are no longer enamored with darkness and grittiness. Nolan, who refuses to back down from his dark vision, seems in certain respects to grow increasingly unpopular among critics. Compare responses to The Dark Knight in 2008 with responses to Interstellar in 2014. Tom Charity lauded the “brooding” tone of the former, while Jules Brenner suggested the latter was “too overloaded with hopelessness.” Nate Dean called the former “brilliantly bleak and chillingly Gothic,” while Brian Henry Martin wrote that he had never before “seen more blubbering in a movie than in director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.” Jay Stone wrote that The Dark Knight was “the right movie at the right time, especially if you have a burning desire to be excited and depressed simultaneously.” William Bibbiani, speaking unknowingly to the logic that fuels the desire for ironic movies, complained of the dark, sad tone in Interstellar, and wrote, “Interstellar would be a stunning piece of cinema if you weren’t supposed to think about it.” Why not, in other words, make a movie that can make fun of itself and realize its inherent dumbness?
Certainly, there are other factors that impact the critical reception of these films, but it does seem to me that we’ve entered the post-Nolan phase of mainstream filmmaking — not something that I am particularly pleased with, as you might know. Nolan, as opposed to stuffing a movie full of winks and nods to the inherent absurdity of Batman, instead emphasized realism, making Batman less absurd than ever and emphasizing instead the very dark, serious undertones behind the character and the rich canon of stories in which he appears. Joss Whedon, on the other hand, took the opportunity in The Avengers to make fun of superheroism, to spend more time taking playful jabs at the childish, ridiculous nature of his heroes in spandex. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Critics have almost universally loved the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially the “fun” and “playful” nature thereof, which stands in direct opposition to Nolan’s self-seriousness, a term which is now used as an insult in reviews, as if every movie were supposed to think poorly of and subtly parody itself. As if there were no place for a movie that was most certainly not ironic.
And this is where one of my favorite movies of 2016, Batman v Superman, comes into play. Yes, say what you will about Man of Steel, and you’re probably right. Because it’s not exactly a good movie. And its depiction of Superman is indeed problematic. But Batman v Superman addresses some of those wrongs in interesting ways. And it’s a far better movie. But that’s not what critics would tell you; 73 percent of them gave a negative review on Rotten Tomatoes. And what was the reasoning? Well… There were many responses, but one theme stands out.
From Will Leitch: “A movie that beats you into submission and makes you wonder if the sun will ever come out again.”
From John Serba: “All this gloom and doom is just the pits.”
From Ben Sin: “As a superhero flick, it’s shockingly joyless and overlong, with the two iconic crimefighters presented as angry, cranky, easily manipulated men in tights.”
From Jim Lane: “The result is ugly in every sense of the word — grimy, incoherent and a stupefying bore; everybody looks like they need a bath and the movie is as drained of fun as it is of light and color.”
From Tim Grierson: “Filled with scenes of gloomy characters confronting their demons or wrestling with insipid moral quandaries, this joyless slog isn’t a superhero film so much as it is an excruciating therapy session with huge explosions and guys in capes.”
From Marc Savlov: “Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle feels like an antic 1930s screwball comedy compared to Zack Snyder’s seriously patience-trying Sturm und Drang”
And this one, one of the most memorable, from Ray Pride: “Where celluloid was once flecked with dream-sparkles of silver, Zack Snyder’s darkest dark-beyond-dark digital project yet is all clutter and cloaca, as if sprayed and spackled with a sewer’s worth of a city’s shit.”
Ben Affleck noticed the trend in responses. He offered a response in a recent interview: “It was judged not necessarily on execution so much as its tone. People seemed to want to have a lighter tone to the movie, and I thought that was interesting. Tone isn’t a qualitative thing. It’s subjective, right?”
The fatal error that Zack Snyder made with Batman v Superman is that he took the source material seriously. Some will accuse him of getting the characters wrong. To some extent, that is less of a mistake than an intentional subversion, but that is another discussion altogether. He took the source material too seriously, and he wasn’t sufficiently ironic. This isn’t a superhero movie that makes fun of itself. This is a superhero movie that says what it intends to say, without much in the way of a wink or a nod. This is a superhero movie predicated on a belief in the inherent value and merit of superhero narratives, a movie that does think it’s important, that does think it deserves to be taken seriously. Why is that wrong?
There is a strong argument to be made that superhero narratives can be harmful, that the messaging can be problematic and perhaps dangerous. There is a strong argument to the contrary. The important point here, I mean to suggest, is that there are strong arguments to be had about superhero narratives… Period. And does that not lend the genre some degree of merit? Does that not justify a serious consideration of the themes posed? In many ways, Batman v Superman could be seen to act as a sort of meta-narrative on superheroism. Unfortunately for the critics, such an approach is not ironic, and subsequently lacks the merit of, say, a superhero movie that instead parodies itself and makes a fundamentally more ironic argument.
I understand that we are discussing a very opposite end of the spectrum from Guthrie Lonergan’s work. I realize that I’m focusing very much on the large, corporate head of our economic system, as opposed to the “long tail.” But this is a conversation that we need to have about art. Why do we have certain expectations for one art form or genre and different expectations for others? It’s not isolated to superhero films, nor to the issue of irony. Let’s think about double standards that exist between digital art and music, for example. Whereas art critics have traditionally condemned the derivative nature of some digital art (which very commonly repurposes materials that are disseminated online) the intentional and obvious recycling and repurposing of music in rap and hip-hop has long been accepted as inherently artistic.
There is a complicated and fascinating debate to be had over the merits of irony in art. But there should be no debate that double standards exist between art forms and genres and that the art community should subsequently engage in a dialogue — from the niche groups of the “long tail” to the powerful institutions in the corporate “head” — about those inconsistencies.
There should also be no debate, for the record, that Alanis Morissette needs to consult a dictionary.