The battle for supremacy between "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" has finally begun and, while there is a clear winner, it's not really what you might think. As of this writing, "Barbie" has made $337 million worldwide ($155 million domestic) and "Oppenheimer" has pulled in $174 million globally (and $80.5 million domestically). Those numbers are huge, regardless of which movie was bigger. While Barbie took the "Barbenheimer" win that was jokingly manufactured by social media, the actual winner is a combination of Hollywood and movie theaters that are seeing evidence for the first time since "Top Gun: Maverick" that people will turn up for movies that the cultural relevancy is too strong to miss out on.
Some friends and I turned "Barbenheimer" into an entire weekend, going to Portland to see "Barbie" at the always delightful Cinema 21 and "Oppenheimer" in 70mm at the legendary Hollywood Theater. Yeah, we also fit in brunch at the Portland institution Stepping Stone Cafe and dinner at the Indonesian/Northwest fusion spot Oma's Hideway (also with a trip to Powell's Books and Uwajimaya Asian food market in Beaverton), so you could say we totally killed it.
The original joke that turned "Barbenheimer" into such a meme was that both movies, which appeared to be about as different as two movies could possibly be, are coming out on the same day. After watching them both in a double feature, I'll definitely admit that tonally they are absolutely polar opposites, but thematically they share more in common than most movies ever will.
"Barbie" follows the brilliant Margot Robbie as "Stereotypical Barbie," the Barbie you imagine when someone tells you to imagine a Barbie, who goes through an existential crisis when she thinks about death for the first time. She leaves Barbieland, the matriarchal society run by all the different kinds of Barbies to travel to the real world and find the child who's playing with her to basically recapture her mojo. She inadvertently brings her Ken, "Beach Ken" (played by the scene-stealing Baby Goose) who discovers the patriarchy in the real world and thinks it's pretty fantastic.
"Oppenheimer" follows the soft-spoken Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who helped develop nuclear weapons during the Manhattan Project with the desire to end the second World War. Oppenheimer goes through an existential crisis when he realizes the weapons of mass destruction that he helped create wouldn't be used as a deterrent as much as a show of force for the manufactured might of the American Military Industrial Complex.
Barbie and Bob are both trapped in a life leading them toward an inglorious ending they want to avoid. They're also manipulated by outside forces, with Barbie literally being played with by someone in the real world and Bob having his own brilliance and ego used against him as a puppet by the U.S. military. While the movies are both incredibly different, there are enough little details tying them together to make it a pretty thematically relevant double feature.
I would say for those of you planning on having a "Barbenheimer" day, to do the opposite of what we did and see "Oppenheimer" first, saving "Barbie" as the dessert for the existential despair that the story of the possible (eventual?) destruction of humanity can only bring. By watching "Barbie" first, the film lifts you into a place that gives you hope for the human race and that maybe all of us will eventually be OK and cohabitate peaceably as a species, whereas "Oppenheimer" reminds us that men love things that explode and will continue to fear the "other" for as long as they continue to romanticize war.
Both movies are truly excellent. "Barbie" is bubblegum fun while also being fiercely intelligent and a rallying cry for women to keep centered with their power, while "Oppenheimer" feels like a swan song for the world that existed before the bomb and a sobering view of the one that exists post WWII and the mass killing of the men, women and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both movies are hugely benefiting from the "Barbenheimer" meme, since I guarantee that audiences only interested in seeing one of the films are seeing both just to avoid FOMO.
If social media can keep pitting counter-programming against each other as successfully as they did with "Barbenheimer," then maybe theaters and movies in general might be OK. I saw teenage girls in "Oppenheimer" and grown-ass men like myself in "Barbie," so obviously this did something to get people out of their comfort zones and put them in front of movies that, while they might not have initially wanted to see, will eventually be glad that they did. Let's see an AI program plan something as brilliantly sneaky as that.