(Editor’s Note: This post contains minor spoilers for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”)
In April 2022, Greta Gerwig’s film ‘Barbie’, an adaptation of Mattel’s iconic doll line starring Margot Robbie, set its release date for July 21, 2023. The date, as many immediately pointed out, was already the release date of Christopher Nolan’s next film, ‘Oppenheimer’, a biopic about the creator of the atomic bomb, starring Cillian Murphy in the lead role.
Both films had already been linked together for some (particularly a lot online); during early 2022, when both films were finalizing casting, it became a joke on Twitter that virtually every actor in Hollywood was in one of the two films’ giant ensembles. Throw in real-world drama involving Nolan’s messy split from Warner Bros., the same company that released “Barbie,” and soon “Barbenheimer” was born: a playful rivalry between the two very different features, eventually evolving into a viral trend of people booking double features for the R-rated biopic and the kids’ comedy.
It’s easy to see why Barbenheimer took off; Internet trends that encourage real-world action can lead to real community building. And it’s a trend that movie theater owners will no doubt welcome because it’s generating real business. But the conversation around both films was hampered somewhat by the meme, with the collective fervor notably overshadowing “Oppenheimer” as a footnote in the “Barbie” craze. It’s also a trend that was created and publicized about a year before anyone actually did it view the two films. That leaves an obvious question: is that really a good double-feature? Do these films complement each other in any way?
To understand this, this journalist made his own double feature “Barbenheimer”. Thursday at 5:00 pm, I went to the AMC in Century City to see “Oppenheimer” in IMAX, where several audience members were dressed in pink suits and one man was wearing a “Barbenheimer” shirt with both movie logos combined together. So, after a short break to get some food at 8pm, I returned to the theater to join a large and very enthusiastic crowd, almost uniformly dressed in pink, heading to a 10pm showing of ‘Barbie’.
Here are all your “Barbenheimer” questions, answered.
Do movies really work as a double feature?
Quite so! “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are, of course, very different theatrical experiences: “Barbie” is an easy-to-digest comedy that had the crowd rolling into their seats and cheering (especially for the surprisingly numerous jokes poking fun at Century City’s businessmen). “Oppenheimer” is a dour character study that mostly left the audience silent save for the occasional jokes (although some cheered when Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, first appeared), and the surprising bomb test scene that made it impossible not to jump in his seat a bit.
Thematically though, the films have enough in common to make for a double feature where they feel like they’re having a conversation with each other. First, there’s the obvious gender element: one of the main reasons “Barbenheimer” has become a joke is the way (somewhat reductive, but also based on a kernel of truth) in which the two films have been perceived as aimed “for girls” or “for boys”.
“Barbie” is a very explicit film about gender, with the third act in which Barbie takes down an impromptu patriarchy that has appeared in Barbie Land, as well as several great speeches about what it means to be a woman in modern society. “Oppenheimer” is a very masculine production, and the film doesn’t quite address Nolan’s notorious tendency toward superficial female characters: in its ensemble, the two main women are Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), memorably fragile but underplayed by the script, and his former flame Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), who does not transcend the tragically dead lover Nolan presented as a symbol in films like “Inception”.
Yet, “Oppenheimer” is not Not even on patriarchy. The film contains a few short but focused scenes detailing the institutional sexism that Kitty and Lilli Hornig (Olivia Thirlby), a female member of the Manhattan Project, experience in their professions; one memorable sequence shows Kitty sitting at a hearing for her husband, blurred and invisible to the men in her room even though they are talking directly about her. Even without those moments, the film’s meat – in which white men sit in boardrooms and determine humanity’s direction for everyone else – functions as a demonstration of the systems of power that “Barbie” spends her time (lightly) attempting to dismantle.
Less obvious but perhaps more interesting, both films explore themes of individualism, only in completely opposite ways. The main storyline of “Barbie” is about the importance of developing an individual identity beyond the constraints of society; both Robbie’s titular doll and Ryan Gosling’s goofy Ken struggle with feeling confined to their roles as their toy status prescribes, and their arcs involve a quest to find out who they really are. “Oppenheimer,” meanwhile, is a classic tale of a corrupt Great Man, the story of a man whose pursuit of his purpose results in the horrific deaths of thousands. Think of Robbie’s wide-eyed, innocent Barbie and Murphy’s obsessed, distraught Oppenheimer as two sides of the same coin: one who doesn’t know what their purpose is and is excited by the chance to find out, the other someone who pursued their purpose and ended up bitterly regretting it.
In what order should you see them?
Ultimately, ‘Oppenheimer’ followed by ‘Barbie’ seems like the right choice for the double feature to really hit the jackpot. After ‘Oppenheimer’s strenuous and grueling three-hour ride, it’s hard not to long for an almost immediate recovery. “Barbie” provides that; its poppy soundtrack and vibrant colors create an instantly uplifting experience, which ends the evening on a high note. That’s not to say “Oppenheimer” is a completely joyless experience, “Barbie’s veggies to dessert,” but its ending leaves audiences with an existential dread, which “Barbie” both reflects in its story about the title character’s existential dread and cures with its sunny sweetness.
It could be argued that “Oppenheimer”, as a heavier film, should be left for the end. “Barbie” is a fun moment in theaters, but one that’s easier to put in the back of your mind, while “Oppenheimer” is an almost rousing epic that you might come back to even when you’re looking to enjoy the comedic antics of Robbie and Gosling. The order chosen by the audience will likely come down more to planning around “Oppenheimer’s” heavy running time. That said, if you’re going to see these movies as a group, the choice seems clear: Would you rather end an outing with friends on the mournful soundtrack to Ludwig Göransson’s “Oppenheimer,” or Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj’s version of “Barbie World” that plays the film’s end credits? Save “Come on Barbie, let’s go party” for the grand finale of the double feature.
What’s the best movie?
It depends on taste, but frankly both films have their flaws, some quite similar to each other. For one thing, both have pacing and structure issues. “Oppenheimer” is split into three separate lines: the film’s main plot, a fairly linear account of the titular theoretical physicist’s life from college to the Manhattan Project, and two separate hearings involving Oppenheimer’s nemesis Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), peppered throughout the film. The film doesn’t always know how to separate these three storylines, and as such, feels rushed and uneven until the main storyline kicks in and the Manhattan Project actually begins, about an hour later.
“Barbie,” meanwhile, has the same problem in reverse: it’s far more entertaining during the first half hour or so, when the film is content to play in the beautiful world of “Barbie Land” that Gerwig and his team of production designers have created. Once Barbie and Ken go out on their journey into the real world, the movie pretty much immediately loses steam, the ratio of lines missing to lines hitting basically becomes 1:1, and several bland scenes being in a parade of a little bill from a little bill from a night from a little bill from a Saturday from a little work from the movie. Ensemble is another major issue both films have in common.)
Broadly speaking, ‘Barbie’ is perhaps the most obviously flawed film, in part due to its status as a two-hour brand extension: while ‘Oppenheimer’ feels very consistent with the points it makes about power and obsession, ‘Barbie’ is never quite able to reconcile its goals of satirizing the brand and celebrating it at the same time, all while placating the Mattel execs who were likely breathing down Gerwig’s neck during production. His points about feminism, patriarchy, consumerism, and capitalism all feel a little hollow and perfunctory, never in serious danger of offending anyone in the audience.
That said, its failures also made “Barbie” the more interesting film of the two, at least for this reporter, a fascinating study of trying to create art in the corporate studio system that still bears Gerwig’s voice, even if it falls short of his other films. And chances are many will have differing opinions on both films and how they compare to each other – you’ll have to go on your own ‘Barbenheimer’ journey to find out.