Barbenheimer: How ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ Became the Unlikely Movie Marriage of the Summer


Online enthusiasm for both 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' has led fans to dub the pair "Barbenheimer" — creating everything from clothing to fake film posters celebrating the fusion of these two fundamentally different (though also surprisingly similar) movies. Photos: Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer courtesy of Universal Pictures; Margot Robbie as Barbie courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Barbenheimer! It’s the most hyped movie of the summer. It’s candy pink! It’s grey! It’s the most fun you can have at the movies destroying civilization in an artificial world that’s too good to be true while driving a candy-pink convertible!

There’s just one thing: it doesn’t exist, except as a product of our cultural imagination. 

Barbie and Oppenheimer (or, Barbenheimer, as the internet has dubbed the duo) are two of the most highly anticipated movies of the year. Opening on the same day (July 21), they’ve created the most interesting weekend at the box office in years.

The convergence is not unprecedented: mid-July is typically Oppenheimer filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s time (recall how in 2008, his lugubrious The Dark Knight opened against another upbeat crowd-pleaser, Mamma Mia!). But both the nominal similarities and enormous contrast between a movie exploring a toy fashion doll’s feminist consciousness in a world too good to be true, and another about nuclear scientists grappling with a weapon that could seal the fate of the real world, proved irresistible to pop culture.

The #Barbenheimer phenomenon truly exploded in June in the wake of a meme — a mock-up of a split-personality T-shirt in bleak grey and Malibu pink. If my phrasing seems glib, it’s because that’s been the gleefully light tone in juxtaposing the two movies about existential crises that have vastly different contexts.

Critics debate the right way to watch them both (which to see first and why), while skilled Photoshop Barbenheimer fusions abound, with magenta mushroom clouds, mashups of La La Land and riffs on the visual grammar of enemies-to-lovers rom-com posters featuring the two leadsMargot Robbie (Barbie) and Cillian Murphy (J. Robert Oppenheimer). 

Female film critics association CherryPicks is hosting a double-bill event as are many fans and groups, all ad hoc. Lest there be any doubt as to the popularity of these unlikely bedfellows, look up the Toronto couple who are taking their entire bridal party to both movies on the eve of their wedding this weekend.

Even the most skilled studio marketing strategist can’t buy this kind of enthusiastic organic publicity. As advertising aficionado Jean Kilbourne recently opined in WWD, the Barbenheimer memes encourage consumers to be their own avatars. “This is a lightweight, fun film with a star-studded cast in the midst of what is a difficult time for most of us. People worry about climate change, the wars and on and on. This seems like the perfect diversion,” she said.


Barbenheimer at the Box Office


The date clash that generated what is now the summer’s must-see blockbuster double bill was initially positioned as a face-off. 

Oppenheimer filmmaker Nolan left his longtime home studio Warner Bros. (the studio that happens to be releasing Barbie) in 2021 after it announced its decision to release all its films that year in both theatres and on HBO Max. He’s now with competitor Universal and that may in part be responsible for the early oppositional stance. It spurred put-downs: Barbie the movie is a brand extension of a controversial toy, after all, and there were suggestions that only one of the movies would be cerebral — and that it’s not the cheeky, unapologetically synthetic pink one made by, and about, women. 

To be fair, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s feminist comedy-adventure fantasia Barbie launches toy giant Mattel’s long-term intellectual-property-as-movie strategy; the polyvinyl doll accounts for about a third of the company’s US$5 billion annual revenue and will be a test of whether entertainment translates to increased product sales. Add to that the fact that Nolan is an analog filmmaker (there are no CGI effects in Oppenheimer and he apparently doesn’t use email or a smartphone either) and a poster boy for the ‘serious cinephile’ and the theatrical experience.


The Same, But Different


It’s J. Robert Oppenheimer vs. Barbara Millicent Rogers, yet both all-star ensemble cast films reframe historical figures whose paths are not as cut and dried as one might think. Sure, the execution’s different. On the one hand you’ve got a moral dilemma about the ethical implications of profoundly altering the parameters of our lives; on the other, there’s Oppenheimer. 

“Do you guys ever think about dying?” is the question that kickstarts Barbie’s introspection and hero’s journey (star Margot Robbie read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as part of her prep). One’s a stark and earnest film about the repercussions of the atom and hydrogen bomb, the other a nostalgia bomb of childhood memories. Yet both launches — 1945 and 1959 respectively — have had lasting impacts that helped shape the modern world. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the shadows of the Cold War have returned and lengthened, and Nolan’s timely biopic explores their roots and repercussions. Conversely, and while keeping in mind that it’s fundamentally still a feature-length commercial for a toy, Barbie explores ideas of traditional post-war femininity, conspicuous consumption and expectations around gender roles that Barbie still embodies. It also contends with the complicated impact the doll has had on the body image expectations of generations of young girls since her 1959 launch. 


Thinking Pink


Over the course of the summer, fandom rivalry evolved and #Barbenheimer’s cultural moment has coalesced into something else: marketing gold. 

Wait make that, marketing pink.

Even Mission: Impossible’s promotion could learn something from Barbie’s total cultural saturation. Mattel and WB have been coating the world in Barbie’s signature shade of Pantone 219C for a year, with merchandise tie-ins for adults and children alike. 

The buzz was seeded last summer with photos of stars Margot Robbie (“She’s Barbie) and Ryan Gosling (“He’s just Ken”) shooting on location in Venice Beach. The official marketing campaign kicked off in early April and has steadily rolled along, picking up Kenergy along the way. Grammy winner Lizzo, who performs “Pink” in the movie, has a Summer Doll House collection on her Yitty label, for example.

Sure, Ryan Gosling wore a pink Gucci suit to a première. But the promotion has included star and producer Margot Robbie giving Architectural Digest a video tour of Barbie’s Dreamhouse as well as delivering looks on the global press tour red carpet that reference archival Barbie outfits (themselves based on designer fashions of the day) with the help of stylist Andrew Mukamal. 

Wearing a Pucci dress inspired by the “Totally Hair” Barbie or Schiaparelli’s version of the black dress worn by the 1960 rarity “Solo in the Spotlight” Barbie make for memorable camp glamour. (For more on that, I highly recommend the recent book by retired longtime Mattel fashion designer Carol Spencer, 90, about the more than 35 years she spent creating clothing for Barbie.)

There are copious lifestyle articles wondering if Barbie’s high ponytail is inclusive, suggesting that Ken gets better fashion trends, arguing that she’s “a space-age recasting of a Stone Age fertility goddess” (as her biographer M.G. Lord does) or explaining that the Barbie Feet challenge is a podiatrist’s worst nightmare. Last week, the Washington Post even began offering Unboxed, a daily “pop-up newsletter” about all things Barbie, with Bloomberg News reporting that searches for Barbiecore have outpaced those of quiet luxury. (Because there’s nothing quiet about a synthetic raspberry-pink Dreamhouse.)


The Benefits of Barbenheimer


#Barbenheimer has become more than a portmanteau hashtag. It’s got bottom line benefits, with increased visibility and ticket sales to one audience not necessarily interested in the other. As Barbie hype reached fever pitch just before the SAG-AFTRA strike put a halt to actor promotion, #Barbenheimer momentum has already produced tangible benefits; in early July, American cinema chains revealed that more than 20,000 loyalty members had bought tickets to see both movies on the same day. With all the pink buzz, the industry is ever more optimistic about Barbie’s opening weekend figures hitting US$100 million. Its stakes have steadily risen, pulling the darker Oppenheimer’s box office projections along with it.

For an industry still recovering from pandemic closures and shifts in how audiences consume entertainment, the idea of going to the movies as a community event — a memorable excursion and participation in pop culture in itself — and leaning into the juxtaposition is a no-brainer.

Notice the playful headlines like “Mattelian neorealism” (the L.A. Times) versus “an action movie about scientists talking” (New York magazine). Even Nolan recently told IGN that it’s great to have both summer tentpoles open on the same day: “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.”