Move over, Avengers – this is the most ambitious crossover event in history. The amusing juxtaposition of Greta Gerwig’s fantasy comedy Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – a serious biopic about the eponymous father of the Atomic Bomb – being released on the same day has sparked months of glorious memes.
Now, both films are out and their unlikely collision course has led to cinemas bursting at the seams with people going for a double feature. But while it’s created a whimsical cultural moment that’s briefly breathing a bit of joy back into being alive in 2023 and pumping money into beleaguered multiplexes, it’s easy to forget these films are competitors. When there’s competition, there’s got to be a winner. Judging from the first weekend of release, will it be Barbie, or will it be Oppenheimer? Ding ding!
Round One: Critical response
Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan have both been enormously critically acclaimed throughout their careers, so their respective films had already been set a high bar. It’s therefore no surprise that both films have received scores of glowing reviews. Oppenheimer has been praised for its screenplay, performances and in particular its visuals, but has been criticised for the writing of its female characters – Dr Tanya Roth even pointed out on Twitter that we don’t hear a woman speak until almost 20 minutes into the film, and not until after there is a sex scene. In addition, others pointed out a lack of focus on the victims of the atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Oppenheimer’s creation led to.
Barbie, meanwhile, was lauded for its humour, messages and performances (with Ryan Gosling getting particular praise for his turn as Ken), with the i calling the film “gorgeously retro, and frequently hilarious”. The Guardian was more critical however, writing that the film is “occasionally very funny, but sometimes also somehow demure and inhibited, as if the urge to be funny can only be mean and satirical”.
On Rotten Tomatoes, however, Oppenheimer ever so slightly has the edge, with a score of 94% compared to Barbie‘s 90%. While critics haven’t picked out such glaring criticisms for Barbie, the tone of reviews describing Oppenheimer as “a monumental achievement in grown-up filmmaking” (NME), “magnificent” (BBC) suggests critics were left floored in a way Barbie hadn’t managed.
Round one winner: Oppenheimer
Round Two: Fan response
If you saw people walking around dressed all in pink this weekend, they were probably off to watch Barbie. It’s just one example of the chokehold the Margot Robbie-starring film had on the general public, following months of pitch-perfect marketing for the social media generation. Lines such as “She’s everything, he’s just Ken” and “This Barbie is a….” flooded timelines as more information about the film was gradually revealed, offering fans something to insert themselves into, and for a while, Barbie felt like a fandom in and of itself. The more high-brow Oppenheimer inspired different kinds of devotion, more from highbrow film devouts, but not to the same extent as Barbie, whose promotion might well be regarded as one of the most thorough and interactive in recent times.
Round Three: Box office takings
It was always expected to be a bumper weekend at the box office for both films, especially with the volume of people attempting to watch both, often in the same day.
Indeed, in the US alone, 200,000 cinemagoers were estimated to have attempted the double feature according to the National Association Of Theatre Owners.
In the UK, both films made an accumulative £30m, the most successful weekend for UK cinema-going since 2019.
Exact UK figures are set to be released later today, but Barbie is now on track to become the biggest film of 2023, ahead of Super Mario Bros. Globally, it’s made $337m (£293m) too.
Barbie also triumphed in the US, where it made $155million (£120.8m) domestically, setting records as the biggest opening of 2023 and the highest of any movie directed by a woman in history.
In contrast, Oppenheimer grossed $80million (£62.3m). It’s also arguable that Oppenheimer benefitted more from Barbenheimer than Barbie, opening a door for people to see it who might have thought it too long, niche or highbrow compared to the easy commercial appeal of Barbie. Nonetheless, pink wins over black once again.
And the winner is?
Despite their diametrically opposed themes and subject matter, Barbie and Oppenheimer made for rather evenly matched rivals. However, with its wider-ranging appeal, humour, important yet digestible message and opportunity for escapism, Greta Gerwig’s film has claimed the title and proved that life in plastic really is fantastic.
Ultimately though, the real winner here is cinema itself. It’s a huge victory for the industry, with the combined weight of the films offering it a vital boost following lagging summer box office takings, the threat of streaming and a shaky post-pandemic recovery. We’ll raise our popcorn to that.