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It’s a Barbenheimer world, and we’re all living in it

As we ponder if Barbenheimer and anything post-Barbenheimer can truly live up to months worth of hype and marketing, it can be said with conviction that the journey to these two films remain unmatched by any previous cultural phenomenon.

Art by Long Huynh.

Let the reader be warned, this article is not a spoiler-filled review because that would lead to an existential crisis, arched feet, and an enduring sense of guilt that determines the history of the world — or at least 2023.

Barbenheimer has now entrenched itself in popular culture with its very own Wikipedia page. It was primarily birthed when Warner Brothers scheduled Barbie’s release date on the same day as Christopher Nolan’s historical epic Oppenheimer in an attempt to defeat Nolan at the box office after the TENET (2020) debacle. Fan-made memes over the stark difference between the two blockbuster films led to a global audience embracing this rare instance of counterprogramming as a double feature. Coincidentally, both films entail the presence of horses, fascism, the military industrial complex, as well as presidents and mentor figures helping the protagonist understand their position in the world. 

Stars like Tom Cruise have encouraged Barbenheimer, as did Barbie director Greta Gerwig and star/producer Margot Robbie. The viewing order has been widely debated, with many seeing Oppenheimer for breakfast-lunch, and Barbie for dessert. By July 17, more than 40,000 people in the US had purchased tickets to view both films on opening day. Australian cinemas like Dendy Newtown, Ritz, and Event Cinemas have promoted their back-to-back screenings, as cinemagoers have championed pink as the new black. USyd also jumped on the bandwagon, emailing students a Barbie x USSC2601: Power, Conflict and Diplomacy unit.

Though commentators have crowned Oppenheimer as Nolan’s magnum opus and Barbie as Gerwig’s feminist masterpiece, it is possible to enjoy these films whilst also discussing where they fall short. We can immerse ourselves into the cultural phenomenon, but we need to be conscious of its effect.

For example, it’s important to note that the Oppenheimer biopic does not depict the plight of the thousands impacted by the A-bomb, and the fallout of testing on Native American communities. However, many believe Nolan justly displayed the human and psychological impact without evoking traumatic images for sensationalisation, especially as the film situates the audience within Oppenheimer’s perspective. You can also acknowledge that Nolan’s female characters remain underdeveloped relative to other characters, despite outstanding performances by Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt. That being said, criticism is often reactionary and serves to reinforce existing political agendas, as seen with the many reviews that have chosen to focus on the supposedly “woke” and “anti-men” agenda of Barbie. Such buzzwords and inflammatory angles encourage a fragile line of argument, and superficially engage with the content, appealing to provocative perspectives. 

This is not to say that Barbie is without its flaws, and we should critically engage with work produced by companies raking in billions of profit. The movie attempts to invite everyone along for the ride, marketed as subversive, hilarious and self-aware. In the film, Sasha, played by Ariana Greenblatt, criticises Barbie as vapid and shallow, on the grounds of encouraging an unrealistic body image and materialism, even labelling Barbie a “fascist” at one point. Mattel executives flagged this with the filmmakers and only agreed to keep it in the film after a “six-hour long” exchange. This serves as a reminder that no matter how much Mattel lets the writers poke fun at them, they are the ultimate arbiters of their life-long branding.

It’s clear that “Operation Summer Barbie” is a way of the industry encouraging more consumerism. Besides the advertisements on social media, billboards, bus stops, partnerships with fashion brands like Aldo, Dotti, and Review, Mattel has collaborations with Grill’d, Burger King, Chatime, dating app Bumble, and the Airbnb Malibu DreamHouse that have all turned heads. These licensing deals have been signed to compound on the film’s success, with Mattel’s desire to turn various of their IP into a Mattel Cinematic Universe. It is safe to say that “each doll sold separately” no longer applies. 

Mattel saw its poorest years of their product life cycle with sales falling every year from 2013 to 2018, until the COVID-19 pandemic increased sales. Thus, Barbie is being deemed a “key milestone in [Mattel’s] company’s history”, as she drives the brand back to its desired market position in her pink corvette. 

It’s clear that fans have bought into the hype, proving that the strategy has worked. Fears regarding the uncertain future of cinema are being alleviated as both films are bringing numbers unseen after the COVID-19 pandemic. Within mere weeks, Barbie is close to reaching $1 billion and Oppenheimer is nearing $400 million worldwide. Even Francis Ford Coppola stated that a cinematic golden age is on the horizon. Despite the joy of this dual cinematic experience, the film industry is deeply flawed, as Hollywood executives are causing the delay of film releases and new productions by failing to respond to the demands of striking writers and actors.

As we ponder if Barbenheimer and anything post-Barbenheimer can truly live up to months worth of hype and marketing, it can be said with conviction that the journey to these two films remain unmatched by any previous cultural phenomenon.

I know I am having my cake and eating it too, but such is the world that we live in. We consumers are fascinated by the Barbenheimer phenomenon as an experience that is one for the ages, whilst also recognising that we partake in a larger consumerist culture, where huge corporations have control over the media that we consume. 

Excuse me, while I listen to Ryan Gosling as Ken sing his heart out in “I’m Just Ken”, and watch Cillian Murphy contend with questions about being a Ken in a Barbie sequel.