Everyone’s talking about Barbie.
And Christopher Nolan and his bomb movie are also there.
The first cinematic event to really capture moviegoers’ attention and dollars since maybe the 2019 release of Avengers: Endgame, the dual debuts of Nolan’s historical epic Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s campy, existential Barbie — the two together known colloquially as “Barbenheimer” — has certainly been the push faltering theater chains have needed since the pandemic caused them billion dollar losses and a general move towards streaming sites.
It has been a feat of viral marketing, particularly by Barbie doll creators Mattel and film distributor Warner Bros., that when one is asked if they’ve “done the Barbenheimer,” there’s no confusion as to what is meant. Indeed, production companies and the film distributors responsible for releasing their work will likely be in a clumsy dash to replicate this once-in-a-generation success story. (More on that later.)
What is most striking is just how successful Barbie has been and what that means for indie darling directors like Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the film, big-name brands like Barbie, and even what role artificial intelligence may play in future film productions.
If Barbenheimer is a competition, albeit a friendly, accidental, and unnecessary one, there are a couple reasons why Barbie is the clear winner. That said, with that win comes caveats. The historical success of Gerwig’s Barbie will have ramifications that are potentially both positive and negative for the film industry and how cinema is produced in the rest of the 2020s.
But first, let’s give Barbie its roses.
If money is the metric, Barbie won the Barbenheimer based on the box office alone. Despite having only been out since July 21, the film has already surpassed $800 million worldwide and is on a steady track to rake in a billion dollars by the summer’s end. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, has pulled in about half of that.
Still, Oppenheimer fans may rightly assert, the fact that a historical epic largely about Senate hearings has managed even that is nothing to denigrate, especially when R-rated films generally have a hard time making much money unless there is an anti-hero or killer clown attached to it. This is true. But it remains likely that even if Oppenheimer were to be released as a PG-13 film (like Barbie), it’s not as likely that many folks under the age of 17 would be clamoring to see it. Nolan rightly predicted that only people of a certain age would appreciate the subject matter and occasionally meandering pace, so he kept his vision intact. It’s something to be applauded, but it still won’t get the numbers on his side.
Add to this that Gerwig has made history for having the biggest opening weekend for a female director in addition to, according to Forbes, having the “biggest domestic opening ever for a non-superhero film or sequel.” You get the sense that Barbie has won based on historic merit alone. There was a monumental shift here; it just remains to be seen what the reverberations will be.
Already, though, I can hear cries of, “What about the Rotten Tomatoes score?!” Well, let’s talk about it.
I’ve never seen a film so clearly destined to be review-bombed by otherwise thoughtful critics. Take, for example, Kyle Smith of the Wall Street Journal. His scathing review of Barbie seems more aggrieved at the “[f]eminist enlightenment” contained in the film than anything to do with character, structure, or plot. Other negative reviews seem most concerned with what “speeches” the film has, as if the worst thing on earth is that a woman character points out the absurdities and contradictions of being or being seen as a woman.
The 88% rating that Barbie holds compared to the 93% ratings for Oppenheimer feels, in part, due to one film having the Gravitas of Seriousness behind it — monochrome portions, World War II, theoretical equations and the men who write them — while the other is a neon fever dream that, yes, attacks patriarchy in possibly the most light-hearted way imaginable.
Any critic is susceptible to a fear of looking idiotic, a fear that if we don’t “get it” like other commentators apparently do, then maybe we’re the ones who are too frivolous, too daffy, to be critiquing art. It’s hard as a critic to say that Oppenheimer occasionally bored you because that movie is Serious and no Serious person gets bored with matters such as science, war, and Communism. They don’t get bored even if a three-hour movie sometimes lapses into just being C-SPAN at the IMAX.
That Barbie slightly trails Oppenheimer in critical ratings is to be expected. It’s a feminist movie in the sense that it calls out patriarchy and its detrimental effects on men and women. It’s a divisive movie because it dares to do so openly.
So, if Barbie has won Barbenheimer, what does that mean for filmmaking?
Well, on the positive side of things, this means studios will trust more women directors. It’ll open more doors so that women don’t merely comprise less than a quarter of directing roles in Hollywood. Gerwig’s success with this, Little Women, and previously-best-ever-reviewed film Lady Bird will potentially give studios a formula for success that includes betting on women and female voices. Even if only out of marketing necessity, production companies will look to hire femme directors and writers in order to cash in on the current zeitgeist that sees “girl power” as a good and multifaceted thing.
It’s not the most altruistic thing, but it’ll have the most positive material benefits for women creators. Further, even if right-wing reactionaries like Ben Shapiro get miffed that Barbie has the gall to make feminist points, studios may just see this as good for branding. The movie is openly critical of gender norms? Good. That’ll get everyone talking and butts in the seats just to see what the fuss is about.
On the negative side of things, this is a movie co-sponsored by Mattel. This means perhaps fewer chances taken on original stories. Yes, Barbie was the biggest non-superhero opening, but it’s not like Barbie wasn’t already an equally popular IP. The same studios that (maybe cynically) might take a chance on women might not take a chance on stories like Lady Bird. It’s a good thing A24 exists because without them distributing Gerwig’s indie smash, Warner Bros. would never have let her helm Barbie. The downside of this success story is that big companies will continue to narrowly bet on superheroes and our nostalgia for childhood playthings. The only difference now is that Lena Dunham will be in the director’s chair.
In all, it’s a great thing that Barbie has its storied success. It’ll likely cause a paradigm that sees studio heads gambling that women actually have something to say and a point of view worthy of an audience’s attention. Yes, it continues the “Marvel-ization of Hollywood,” but it does so in a way that’s potentially positive. It’s just a matter of what Barbenheimer’s fallout will actually entail.
Barbie and Oppenheimer are currently in theaters.
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Wayne Broadway is a writer from Sacramento, CA. He writes fiction, non-fiction, and is currently obsessed with Pomeranians.