At first blush, this weekend’s stubborn box office showdown between Warner Brothers’ BARBIE and Universal’s OPPENHEIMER would have appeared to have been nothing more than classic counterprogramming. Yes, both of these stories have their roots in the 1950s. But aside from that, they would not have much else in common.
OPPENHEIMER is the true story of the Los Alamos theoretical physicist J, Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project who designed the first nuclear weapons during World War II abd fought for the rest of his life for the right to continue his work despite the potential of armageddon. BARBIE is a celebration of the fantasy world of 19-year-old Barbara Millicent Roberts, her overly bleached-blonde beau Ken, and a dream house that redefines the concept of over-the-top. OPPENHEIMER is the vision of Christopher Nolan, who had been partnered with Warner Brothers for nearly 20 years on a series of films but soured on the company in the wake of the company’s decision to release its 2021 theatrical slate on HBO Max. Many industry pundits believe that the real reason Warner Brothers was determined to release BARBIE on the exact same weekend, despite the possibility of delaying by a week or two while target moms and girls inched closer to back-to-school, was strictly for revenge against Nolan. Individually, both films have been projected to deliver far smaller box offices than either of the recent installments of the INDIANA JONES and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchises, both of which underachieved their respective grandiose expectations.
But as the non-showdown between these seemingly polar opposite films drew closer, a funny thing happened, as our friend Wikipedia details:
nternet users noted the juxtaposition of the films and posted memes on Twitter. Shirt designers on Etsy began creating merchandise based on the Barbenheimer phenomenon. Early versions of these shirts directly used the wordmarks of the films and placed them side-by-side, while later versions used a Barbie-inspired “Barbenheimer” wordmark. Several tweets referenced the Sherbet Homes in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, side-by-side homes noted for one’s black demeanor and the others pink appearance.
Two Dallas video editors made US$14,400 selling Barbenheimer shirts. Businesses have also posted about the phenomenon; a Barnes & Noble store in Olympia, Washington presented a “Barbeinheimer [sic] Starter Pack” on TikTok, accruing 30,000 likes.
And what has started out as a joke has apparently already showed signs of inflating both films’ takes, as Wiki continued:
Two weeks prior to their release, AMC Theatres announced that over 20,000 AMC Stubs members had already pre-booked tickets to both films on the same day, seeing a 33% increase of people buying double feature tickets from July 7 to July 10. On July 17, they revealed that this had doubled to 40,000 members. According to cinema chain Vue International, nearly a fifth of audiences who bought a ticket for Oppenheimer also bought a ticket for Barbie.
The Barbenheimer effect has become a de facto pop culture phenomenon:
Tom Cruise referenced the phenomenon in his Twitter post in which he held up tickets to Barbie and Oppenheimer with Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One director Christopher McQuarrie and referred to the two films as a double feature. Cruise plans to watch Oppenheimer then Barbie. . Gerwig and Barbie star Margot Robbie also joined Cruise’s film marathon, and held up tickets to Oppenheimer. At the premiere of Air, actor and Oppenheimer star Matt Damon told Vanity Fair that audiences are “allowed to go see two movies in a weekend”..
So as Pink and Black Friday approaches, the same internet that spawned this phenomenon is awash in Thursday morning quarterbacking that attempts to explain it:
Though the Internet joke began as a reference to the two films’ seeming difference, some writers have pointed out crucial similarities. In an article for The Washington Post, Tyler Austin Harper wrote that both films explore the theoretical notion of the anthropocene, the geological epoch defined by humanity’s impact: “Despite their apparent differences, both Barbie and Oppenheimer tell the story of core ideas of the 20th century: accelerating militarism and unbounded consumption,” Harper writes, “ideas which might well outlive our species in the form of plastic and plutonium’s lingering traces across our fragile planet.
I’ll throw my own theory onto the–ahem–barbie as to what may be the cohort group that the 20% Venn diagram overlap cited by Vue may be referencing.
Leonard and Penny.
After all, as any devoted fan of THE BIG BANG THEORY knows, Dr. J, Robert Oppenheimer was the name of Sheldon Cooper’s first cat. Lord knows his roommate Leonard was far more disturbed by that pussy than others he may have desired the company of. And speaking of which, it would not be a huge leap of faith to see his neighbor Penny gushing at the sight of Robbie as the embodiment of all that a blonde beauty from the cornfields of Nebraska aspired to be. At least until she met someone who could had the capacity to appreciate inner beauty more than, say, the likes of Ken Carson could.
If you’ve been watching BIG BANG THEORY reruns on MAX or TBS, you no doubt have seen the same type of marketing for BARBIE that theater-goers were exposed to. The ones with the tagline “If you love Barbie, go see this movie; If you hate Barbie, go see this movie.”. I’m ashamed to admit I fall more into the latter category; my experience with the doll being limited to chewing on its toes, which I assure you was not a foot fetish but more of an obsession with the taste of plastic.
But maybe you were someone who, like Penny, wanted to be Barbie. Maybe you weren’t even necessarily a girl. And on the other side of the aisle, maybe you were a Barbie lover who recognized the name Oppenheimer from that now-classic BIG BANG episode, and who might now have a Leonard type in their life.
I imagine if we were somewhere near a multiplex around Pasadena we might run into Leonard and Penny, Penny with their child in tow, Leonard savoring the chance to catch up with Sheldon as Amy practices for the possibility of appearing on CELEBRITY JEOPARDY!.
Speaking for myself, I’ll be seeing both films in two separate locations, with two different companions, each of which is as passionate about their respective Barbenheimer favorite as the other is. I’m a lot more like Leonard than they are, so I won’t mind. Watching them watch will be as much of a joy as my watching these films, in a nicely and hopefully filled air conditioned theatre, will be.
Unicorns of the world, stand up and be counted. And see you at the movies.
Until next time…