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The people refuse to decide between Barbie and Oppenheimer

Barbenheimer poses the ultimate dilemma

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Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer looking distressed on the left, and Margot Robbie as Barbie looking shocked on the right. Graphic: Nicole Clark/Polygon | Source images: Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

Summer movie season is here, and fans are bracing for a showdown on July 21 — the fateful day when Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer both hit movie theaters. And the absolute ideological whiplash between these two films has, so far, dominated the conversation around them.

Barbie and Oppenheimer are extreme opposites, both aesthetically and in subject matter. One is a colorful comedy about a favorite childhood doll; it’s over-the-top, saturated with bright pink, and unabashedly girly. The other is a gritty war drama about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his work developing the atomic bomb through the Manhattan Project.

These films do have a few things in common: Both are helmed by critically acclaimed directors who have established a strong following, and each of these films play to their strengths. Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Little Women established her as a premier filmmaker for capturing coming-of-age stories and iconic girlhood cultural touchstones. And Nolan has elevated the classic thriller blockbuster into everything from high-concept science fiction to moving war stories in the likes of Dunkirk, Interstellar, and Inception. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer look engrossing, smart, and visually distinct. Both also have an absolutely star-studded cast.

Anyone craving a summer blockbuster has two stellar choices in July — it’s just really hard to choose between the two on opening day. Many fans have shared memes illustrating the difficult choice, or have committed to watching both, making jokes about the wild contrast and attempting to figure out which order to see them in.

Some fans have even edited together the two trailers to create one monstrosity: Barbenheimer.

Then there’s the sheer volume and tenor of Barbie marketing — which has made it feel all-encompassing and inescapable — made even funnier contrasted against the starkness of Oppenheimer’s own marketing push. Both films have received a handful of trailers, but that’s where the similarities end. The Barbie cast has appeared on The Kelly Clarkson Show and graced the covers of several glossy magazines, glammed up in pink. Pop star Dua Lipa released a single for the film, and rappers Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj did their take on Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”

Nolan’s film, on the other hand, hasn’t had the same glossy marketing. But Nolan did tell Wired that filmgoers have been “devastated” by Oppenheimer, saying “they can’t speak” after watching it.

Warner Bros. Pictures has also gone all in on Barbie product collaborations. The Barbie movie was made with Mattel’s blessing, and true to form, there are a series of dolls and a DreamHouse inspired by the actors and the film’s lively set. Unsurprisingly, there’s also real-life Barbie fashion, accessories, and home decor items. But there’s also a Barbie Xbox designed to look like a DreamHouse, and a series of controllers. Maybe the biggest play for attention is a whole-ass house in Malibu that you can rent via Airbnb, with bright pink walls and roofing and an enormous slide going from — what else — the second floor to a ground-level pool. It really does feel like we’re all Barbie girls living in a Barbie world.

This Barbie-versus-Oppenheimer moment might not have come across as so extreme in past years. Summer blockbusters historically offered fans a range of films. That’s the whole point: There’s an animated film starring an animal for the kids, a kissing movie for your date, a PG-13 comedy for high schoolers out for the summer, and a biopic for your dad (or your depressed bisexual sister — we contain multitudes). Look at the embarrassment of riches that was the summer of 2008: The Dark Knight, WALL-E, Mamma Mia, Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, Sex and the City, and more.

It has been years since we’ve seen this level of box-office showdown. Yes, it’s largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic tanking theater attendance, to the extent that major chains like Arclight completely shut down. In 2021 especially, releasing a film in theaters felt like a statement — a gamble that an audience would be willing to risk being in an enclosed space for several hours. But even earlier, streaming giants like Netflix disrupted theatergoing culture by making movies available on the day of release via streaming.

In 2023, this sort of showdown feels not only rare, but hysterical — and like a cause for celebration. Comparing the two movies is just as exciting as getting geared up to see them. And, yes, I do plan on seeing both.

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