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The Bizarre Case of Barbenheimer

Barbenheirmer
Credit: ThatTallGinger (left) | Jusralphy (right)

Sometimes the world is given a titanic battle between goliaths whose struggle echoes through the ages, whether that be Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier, Athens vs Sparta or even Citizen Kane vs Paddington 2. No one had expected 2023 to contain such a contest…but we were wrong. The first hint of this conflict was when rumours started circulating that the release date for cinema icon Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer was being pushed back; possibly so as not to compete with the latest work by the rising directorial star Great Gerwig- Barbie. Was Team Oppenheimer ceding the field of battle to Team Barbie? At first, it seemed so but soon word came that Nolan was standing his ground – the fight would happen July 21st.

Matt Damon preparing to declare war on Barbie
Matt Damon preparing to declare war on Barbie // credit: Oppenheimer, Universal Pictures

Instinctively I sided with Nolan. I am a huge fan of his work and Oppenheimer looked amazing. The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer the physicist who oversaw the Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb and would later lament that he had become “Death, destroyer of worlds” is truly epic in scale. And the subject of the opposing film? Barbie – a toy who previous movie work has included Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus 3D and the admittedly fantastically titled Barbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia. Yes, Greta Gerwig had directed the brilliant Lady Bird and the beloved Little Women but this was Barbie. And then I heard the sensational Margot Robbie was playing the lead…and then the wonderful Ryan Gosling was playing Ken…and then I saw the trailer and it looks brilliant. A blinding pink fever dream in which Barbie asks if the other dolls ever thought about dying. Yes, Barbie is about the title character having an existential crisis.

Barbie and Ken rollerblade into battle
Barbie and Ken rollerblade into battle // Credit: Barbie, Warner Bros. Pictures

I no longer had a clear favourite. Ultimately my loyalties would lie with Team Oppenheimer but it was hard not to support Team Barbie. And then like Rodan teaming up with Godzilla to fight Mechagodzilla there would be no fight, instead there was “Barbenheimer”. The two films were not enemies and they would band together to defeat the true enemy, and in this unusual metaphor is Transformers. A bizarrely pleasing mashup of the different styles of each film took place online, often combining the doom-laden expressions and mushroom cloud visuals of Oppenheimer with the onslaught of pink that was Barbie.

Oppenheimer explaining the chance of Barbenheimer destroying the world as near zero //credit Oppenheimer, Universal Pictures

The trailer for Barbie did something very interesting and it is one of the things that brought me around, it announces itself as a movie for everyone who loves Barbie and a moment later for everyone who hates Barbie. It seems to be trying to appeal to both those who have a genuine love for Barbie (which must be millions and millions of people) and people who have looked at the toy with disdain (another group in the millions and millions). There is a gentle mockery of the fact that toy Barbie wears high heels which means if the shoes are removed the plastic feet still are still arched, the ridiculous outfits like the rollerblading outfits we see Barbie and Ken wearing, and finally speaking of Ken the absolute nothingness he is in the world of Barbie. A tagline for the poster is “She’s Everything. He’s just Ken.” In 2023 it would take a big swing for a live-action Barbie movie to work and that seems to be what Gerwig is doing.

Barbie practicing her victory dance //credit: Barbie, Warner Bros. Pictures

Oppenheimer is on the surface at least a less original film, an epic of a huge figure from history. We see how he’s a genius, the struggles he has, the complications in his life. But this is Christopher Nolan and at the very least the practical effects of the film will be astounding. Even just watching the trailer has managed to capture the dread that generations of people lived with after the end of World War Two, that they lived in a world where humankind had created weapons that could destroy everything and everyone.

Oppenheimer announcing the Barbenheimer Agreement
Oppenheimer announcing the Barbenheimer Agreement //credit: Oppenheimer, Universal Pictures

Of course, the two being released on the same day would give the opportunity for a double bill of rare quality and the Internet has debated as to what order should you watch the films. It’s hard to say as we don’t know what each film would be like its tempting to think Oppenheimer will be a downer of a film, and there have been reports of audiences leaving screenings of the film feeling like they’ve been through a harrowing experience but perhaps the huge apocalyptic doom will not resonate as much as a character not understanding her place in the world and trying to learn. I would argue for seeing Barbie first if for no other reason as it may be genuinely hard to shake the dread associated with nuclear Armageddon to fully enjoy Barbie.

And what do the respective teams think of all this? Christopher Nolan is thrilled that two big films are opening on the same day and it is generating excitement, with stars Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in agreement. From Team Barbie Gerwig advocates seeing a double bill of Barbie then Oppenheimer, followed by a double bill of Oppenheimer then Barbie to get the full experience. I feel this is good advice.

Also Read: Barbie Reimagined: How the Live-Action Film Could Transform the Iconic Brand

Also Read: The Anatomy of a Christopher Nolan Film

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.