Barbieheimer. It’s more than just black and pink side by side or a battle of the sexes manifested on celluloid. It’s a meme. It’s a mood. A vibe. A lifestyle. It’s the phenomenon that could save cinema as we know it.
Okay, maybe that last bit is a slight exaggeration. But it’s true that the same-day release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, two extremely different summer mega-movies, galvanized movie geeks to the tune of a legendary $300 million combined opening. The hype gave Barbie director Greta Gerwig a historic box office debut of $162 million, and contributed to the fourth-highest-grossing weekend in US cinema history. Not bad for two films that, by now, have become more meme than movie.
While some of this is tinged with irony, there’s a genuine enthusiasm for both films fueling the Barbieheimer narrative — so much so that “Barbieheimer” (or “Barbenheimer,” as some have dubbed it) has evolved into an offline phenomenon. Nolan fans, Barbie fans, and cinephiles have made the movies’ opening weekend into an excuse for an unlikely doubleheader — pretty impressive given that Oppenheimer is a grimdark three-hour history lesson about the man responsible for creating nuclear holocaust while Barbie seems to be a giddy, fizzy sugar rush. Still, fans are so excited that the hype train for “Barbieheimer” has arguably outstripped the two movies individually. Gerwig and her star, Margot Robbie, have played into it, showcasing their tickets to Oppenheimer, and even Tom Cruise (promoting his own Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One) and Cillian Murphy (who plays Oppenheimer) are on board.
Some fans have worried that all the meta-commentary around Barbieheimer has overshadowed each movie’s individual merits. They have a point. There are whole hot takes about the order in which you should see the films as a unit. (To some, using “Oppenbarbie” indicates you’re seeing Oppenheimer first while “Barbieheimer” indicates seeing Barbie first, though this distinction has largely been lost in the Barbieheimer noise.)
Is there a meaning to the order? It’s doubtful most people are lining up to use the serious historical downer as the chaser to the frothy girl power anthem, but then again, maybe Barbie is your perfect brunch movie and Oppenheimer the kind of movie you need several mimosas to cope with. Or maybe you’re the type of person who’ll do a double-double header: See Barbie first one day, Oppenheimer first the next. Live large! Live Barbieheimer.
Some fans have taken the competition literally, comparing the two movies’ very different approaches to marketing, their projected box office takes, and presumably wildly different content: Barbie is a PG-13-rated flick based on Mattel’s classic go-getter toy doll; Oppenheimer is R-rated and reportedly features full-frontal nudity from leads Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh in between all the atomic destruction.
Even beyond their whole Hot Topic/Claire’s aesthetic mismatch, the films are strange bedfellows. Same-day releases have long been a quirky aside in movie lore, but rarely has the idea of a “double header” experience taken off like this outside of film festivals. It is, ironically, the type of thing cinema purist Christopher Nolan would probably love — if, of course, his serious historical drama weren’t the film being pitted against splashy Barbie and its giant Mattel machine.
Deepening the irony is that Oppenheimer, a Universal film, represents the first time Nolan has worked outside of Warner Bros. in nearly two decades — a split reportedly exacerbated by the failure of Nolan’s 2020 film, Tenet, to woo audiences back to the theater in the middle of a pandemic. The failure of Tenet then caused Warner to shunt its films to a hybrid cinema/streaming release day strategy — a controversial move it has since walked back, but one that especially outraged Nolan. These days, Warner is reportedly trying to lure Nolan back to the fold by promising to prioritize cinema and take “big swings” — but one of those big swings was pitting Warner’s Barbie directly against Nolan and Oppenheimer. Warner has even reportedly scheduled conflicting press screenings for Barbie against Universal’s Oppenheimer press screenings (with no alternate screening available) in a kind of gladiator-style “choose your fighter” throw down. Maybe not the best way to declare your love!
The direct implications for Nolan’s career is one unexpected outcome of the Barbieheimer battle. Another is that now the film that “wins” the weekend box office might be seen not just as a bankable movie, but, as Screenrant put it, “a way to gauge where the soul of cinema currently lies.” That’s probably a bit much to ask of either film, considering that at baseline they likely appeal to very different audiences (or at least the same audience in very different moods!) and the tent of cinema should ideally have plenty of room for them both. Certainly that’s Gerwig’s take. “It’s all love — double up, double up twice,” she told The Hollywood Reporter at Barbie’s world premiere in LA on July 9. “Obviously you should see Oppenheimer first and then cleanse your palate with Barbie.”
And if the two films’ entangled fates are now part of cinema legend? There are certainly worse movies to meme. In fact, if there’s any larger way to gauge the soul of cinema in 2023, Barbieheimer, in toto, is simply it.
With some rare exceptions like 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick, the public has proven consistently reluctant to return to the theater at pre-pandemic rates — a sluggishness that’s meant dire times for the film industry. Yet the public’s willingness to create a whole day-long event out of Barbie and Oppenheimer suggests that the two films together may be the much-needed jolt the 2023 box office needs: A spark to reignite the flame of the cinema lover’s heart and remind us all why we love going to the movies.
After all, this summer will be stacked with offerings across a wide range of genres, from franchise offerings like Mission Impossible and Indiana Jones to horror bets like The Meg 2 and Insidious and family films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. What better way to keep things going than reminding everyone how much fun the experience of sitting in those luxe velvet seats with oversized popcorn buckets and nothing to do for the next three to five hours but feast your eyes and ears on a stirring drama about the existential crisis of the 20th century? Or a movie where She’s Everything and He’s Just Ken? Or both?
Why not both?
Update, July 24, 4:35 pm ET: This story, originally published on July 10, has been updated to include the movies’ opening weekend box office numbers.