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Home Entertainment ‘Barbie,’ ‘Oppenheimer’ face off at the Golden Globes. All the factors that made ‘Barbenheimer’ a pop culture phenomenon.

‘Barbie,’ ‘Oppenheimer’ face off at the Golden Globes. All the factors that made ‘Barbenheimer’ a pop culture phenomenon.

by Jonathan
0 comment 8 minutes read

It may be a new year, but “Barbenheimer” still reigns supreme.

With the Golden Globes kick-starting the 2024 awards season on Sunday, two of last year’s biggest and buzziest movies — Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer — face off once again as the top nominated films, with nine and eight nominations, respectively.

Competition between the high-profile movies began in earnest last summer when Barbie, which stars Margot Robbie as the bubbly titular heroine, and Oppenheimer, which stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who built the atomic bomb, were released in theaters on the same day: July 21, 2023.

If there was concern over whether the “Barbenheimer” head-to-head box office showdown would cannibalize one film’s performance over the other, it quickly went away. PG-13 Barbie made a record-breaking $162 million at the box office in its opening weekend, while the R-rated Oppenheimer shattered expectations by earning more than $82 million during the same period, according to Box Office Mojo, all amid an actors’ strike. In the months since, Barbie has earned a staggering $1.4 billion in worldwide box office receipts, with Oppenheimer close to $1 billion.

At the height of the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, the unexpected portmanteau — a blending of the film titles coined during the lead-up to the mutual release date — inspired a slew of witty social media memes, fan-made merchandise, Halloween costumes, mock trailer mash-ups and a viral trending hashtag that’s sure to resurface during awards season. The internet discourse surrounding “Barbenheimer” motivated more than 40,000 moviegoers to turn it into a double-feature event, according to AMC Theatres.

“Hollywood couldn’t have written a more perfect scenario if they had tried,” Meredith Loftus, freelance film and TV writer for Collider, told Yahoo Entertainment.

It all started as a joke
“Barbenheimer” gained considerable traction in mid-2023 before cementing itself in the pop culture lexicon when a tongue-in-cheek rivalry emerged between the bright pink hues of Barbie and the sharp contrast of the darker Oppenheimer.

The term was first used more than a year earlier when Next Best Picture editor in chief Matt Neglia sent out a cheeky one-word post in April 2022 on X, formerly known as Twitter, amid a slew of daily cast announcements for both anticipated films. Neglia later told NBC News he “never meant to start a hashtag or anything like that.”

When the release date was announced for both films, the internet was quick to begin creating memes about this epic day for cinema,” Loftus said. “At first, it was to create memes solely based on each film’s respective color palettes — pink for Barbie and black for Oppenheimer. Plus, the subject matter of each film represented a different targeted demographic.” She cited a similar cinematic rivalry that took place on July 18, 2008, amid a recession, when Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit U.S. theaters the same day as director Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia!.

Release date debacle
There was a reason neither Barbie nor Oppenheimer moved its release date when it had the chance.

Nolan’s long-standing relationship with Warner Bros., the studio with which he’s released most of his films since 2002’s Insomnia, turned contentious in December 2020 after executives revealed plans to drop the entire 2021 movie slate simultaneously on streaming and in theaters. After expressing his discontent over their plans to do away with the exclusive theatrical release window, Nolan swiftly moved Oppenheimer to Warner Bros.’ rival studio Universal Pictures.

Since The Dark Knight, Nolan has long enjoyed success with July releases for many of his big-budget movies, notably 2010’s Inception, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises and 2017’s Dunkirk. It came as no surprise when, in October 2021, Universal dated Oppenheimer for a July 21 theatrical release. Months later, Warner Bros. announced that Barbie would be released that same day, which many perceived to be a slight to Nolan.

Robbie, a producer on Barbie, revealed during Variety’s “Actors on Actors” discussion with Murphy that she was asked by Oppenheimer producer Chuck Roven to move her movie off the July 21 schedule. She refused and said she told Roven, “‘We’re not moving our date. If you’re scared to be up against us, then you move your date.’”

Nolan told IGN that the dueling films and fans’ fervent engagement in “Barbenheimer” mania was ultimately a good thing for the movie business. “I think for those of us who care about movies, we’ve been really waiting to have a crowded marketplace again, and now it’s here and that’s terrific.”

What Barbie and Oppenheimer have in common
On paper, both movies are seemingly polar opposites.

One movie centers on a Mattel doll who lives in a cheery, bubble-gum fantasyland that’s disrupted when she ventures into the real world while experiencing an existential crisis. The other is an intense, explosive examination of the man responsible for building the atomic bomb and the consequences of his invention. But dig a little deeper and similarities begin to take shape, which could explain why “Barbenheimer” was bound to strike a chord.

Both are based on known properties or stories. Barbie is inspired by the popular doll invented by Ruth Handler, while Oppenheimer is a biographical tale adapted from the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Both are directed by visionary filmmakers, Gerwig and Nolan, respectively, who often add their signature flair to their work and have engaged followings.

Both feature A-list ensembles. In Barbie, Robbie leads a cast that includes Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Michael Cera and Will Ferrell. In Oppenheimer, Murphy is joined by Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman and Rami Malek, among other notable names.

Barbie and Oppenheimer also subvert expectations. The former critiques patriarchal societies and is deeply feminist in its messaging (with splashes of “Ken-ergy” to lighten the mood), while the latter leans into its nonlinear storytelling to bring added weight to a nuclear Pandora’s box.

“Both films are about two creations that changed the world and the consequences that came with it,” Loftus said. “Barbie approaches its material through sharp comedy and Bob Fosse-esque musical numbers, whereas Oppenheimer twists the traditional biopic on its head by manipulating time.”

Fans took advantage of the craze
Moviegoers showed up in droves all over the world to see Barbie and Oppenheimer at the theater, with friendly debates waged over the order in which one should experience “Barbenheimer.” At the time, Barbie star Rae suggested ending the double feature with Barbie: “If you see Oppenheimer last, then you may be a bit of a psychopath.”

Many dressed up in creative Barbie-, Oppenheimer- or “Barbenheimer”-inspired outfits in a festive show of support for what was being called “the biggest movie event of the year.”

What makes ‘Barbenheimer’ stand out is its transformation into a celebration of film,” Loftus said. “For the moviegoing audience that was beginning to feel superhero fatigue, the idea of getting excited for films like this was entirely refreshing and just fun to be a part of.”

And when the Golden Globes take place Sunday, round two of “Barbenheimer” will be alive and well. Barbie’s Gosling will directly compete against Oppenheimer’s Downey Jr. for Best Supporting Actor, while Gerwig and Nolan will vie for Best Director.

May they be “Kenough.”

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