Blonde v bombshell: get set for the Barbie-Oppenheimer smackdown – The Guardian

In one corner, veteran heavyweight Christopher Nolan. In the other, nimble visionary Greta Gerwig. Their big films come out on the same day – but whose will triumph at the box office?
We live in divisive times. Opinion is more tribal and entrenched than ever, the value of reasoned argument and willing compromise plummeting by the day. This volatility could spread to the multiplex next month, where a battle of the blockbusters is destined to make previous cinematic standoffs – Mothra v Godzilla, Alien v Predator, Kramer vs Kramer – look like games of playground pat-a-cake. Get ready, then, for Barbie v Oppenheimer.
Directed by celebrated auteurs (Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan respectively), and hyped by multiple trailers over the past year, both movies are scheduled to open on the same crowded day. Forget your QR codes: this is one time to buy a physical ticket and save the stub to show your grandchildren. Future generations will want to know where you stood on 21 July 2023 when Barbie met the bomb.
In the pink corner is Gerwig’s DayGlo toy story starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken, who while away their days happily but vacuously in Barbie-land. In a plot apparently borrowed from Enchanted and The Purple Rose of Cairo, with a dash of Don’t Worry Darling, they swap their cosseted fairytale existence for our harsh modern world. (The trailer shows Barbie having her police mugshot taken after walloping a Venice Beach groper in the face.) The cast incorporates hot young things Issa Rae, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Jamie Demetriou and, most excitingly, the new Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, as well as old hands Michael Cera, Kate McKinnon and Will Ferrell; Helen Mirren is on narrating duties.
The 39-year-old Gerwig is arguably as big a selling point as Robbie or Gosling, as well as a guarantor of quality control. The three-time Oscar nominee directed Lady Bird and Little Women, as well as co-directing with Joe Swanberg the long-distance love story Nights and Weekends, back in the days when she was the doyenne of the lo-fi indie “mumblecore” movement. Her co-writer on Barbie is her partner, the director Noah Baumbach, with whom she wrote gems such as Frances Ha and Mistress America. Back in 2010 when she was promoting Greenberg, the bittersweet Baumbach comedy which became her Hollywood springboard, she spoke of her childhood habit of jumbling up the letters in her name: “In second grade, I’d be writing ‘Great Gerwig, Great Gerwig’ on everything,” she said. These days, it’s more than just an anagram.
Her opponent is the 52-year-old Nolan, a five-time Oscar nominee who has heft on his side. His is the weightier directing CV (12 films), with Oppenheimer his longest yet: he recently confirmed that it is “kissing three hours”, which makes it more than an hour longer than Barbie. This is serious, spectacular event cinema, shot with Imax cameras and booked long ago into all that format’s venues – to the apparent chagrin of Tom Cruise, whose latest Mission: Impossible adventure opens a week earlier but will be relegated to smaller screens the instant Oppenheimer drops.
Nolan’s cast is every bit as impressive as Gerwig’s; as well as the perpetually haunted Cillian Murphy as the physicist Robert J Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, Nolan has assembled Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Robert Downey Jr, Gary Oldman and Kenneth Branagh. The chances of any of them rollerblading à la Gosling in Barbie are negligible, which may help explain why Gerwig’s film is on track to have the more impressive opening weekend. Not that Oppenheimer will exactly bomb.
Barbie also has the edge when it comes to marketing opportunities, as might be expected of any movie adapted from merchandise. This goes way beyond the valley of the dolls: among the many tie-in products is an inflatable Barbie pool-float golf-cart, a Barbie dog’s basket, and an electric toothbrush capable of 36,000 sonic vibrations a minute – the same effect you get from watching Oppenheimer in Imax.
Unlike Barbie, Nolan’s film probably doesn’t have its own Exclusive Oral Beauty Partner, though given his protagonist’s chain-smoking tendencies there may be a teeth-whitening deal in the offing. And we shouldn’t rule out Oppenheimer throwing its hat in the ring when it comes to headgear. As far back as 2010, one plaintive user on was searching “for a lid like the one the famous nuclear physicist wore,” citing a “2½-inch snap brim and a very thin ribbon” and concluding that “such a hat would be positively atomic”. Factor in the Cillian Murphy effect – this is the man who helped popularise the Peaky Blinders newsboy cap/undercut combo – and the Oppenheimer fedora and brown wool coat could be the look to replace Barbie’s summery pink once the nippier months roll around.
Some mild shade has already been thrown between the film’s respective camps on social media. “Greta Gerwig could do Oppenheimer but Christopher Nolan couldn’t do Barbie,” observed one tweet. Another overreached by proposing that “Margot Robbie could do Oppenheimer but Cillian Murphy couldn’t do Barbie” – clearly the work of someone who has never seen him in Breakfast on Pluto or Peacock. But the encouraging thing about the Barbie v Oppenheimer discourse is that, by and large, it has not followed the contours that often prevail in our online interactions. For anyone who loves cinema, the vibe feels closer to a cuddle than a cage fight.
There is real genius in this tactic of opening films catering for different audiences on the same day (known as counter-programming). The canny part is not what separates Nolan and Gerwig but what unites them: despite a clear contrast of style and sensibility, both directors possess a comparable skill, intelligence and passion, and tend to inspire loyalty in their fans. This same situation could never have arisen had Oppenheimer been pitted against, say, The Super Mario Bros Movie. Though that film is a smash, having grossed more than $1bn worldwide to date, it has nothing in it to propel cultural conversation along with profits.
Opening two films together that share similar DNA would also produce less of a spark. The experience of going to an afternoon screening of Ghostbusters on opening day in December 1984, then coming out and going straight back in to see Gremlins at teatime, was thrilling for my friends and me as 13-year-olds (especially as Gremlins was rated 15), but it was a routine sort of double bill on reflection: both were comedies that trafficked in the scary or supernatural.
Sign up to Film Weekly
Take a front seat at the cinema with our weekly email filled with all the latest news and all the movie action that matters
after newsletter promotion
What makes the combination of Barbie and Oppenheimer sing is that it is unlikely but not nonsensical. And though the films’ subjects are markedly different, there will be some overlap between their audiences. The major Rorschach test of our era, one Twitter user has suggested, will be whether you follow Oppenheimer with Barbie or vice versa. It’s no longer the case of “either/or” that it first appeared to be but rather “which one first?”. The Picturehouse chain is even extending the double bill idea by screening a selection of both directors’ past work in the coming weeks; audiences can see Lady Bird take flight alongside Interstellar, or pair Little Women and Dunkirk in a double bill of wartime stories, albeit from different wars.
Contrary to the way the rivalry was initially framed, this is no replay of the hostile Blur v Oasis Britpop war of the mid-1990s. Even the formulation of Barbie v Oppenheimer misrepresents the tenor of this unusual pairing: shouldn’t it be the more harmonious Barbie x Oppenheimer, in the style of today’s brand collaborations? Whichever film prevails financially, the result will be less meaningful to audiences than what these movies represent in a post-pandemic landscape that has seen famished exhibitors begging for new product.
Next month’s clash only came about in the first place because of Nolan’s commitment to cinemas over streaming. He would likely have set up Oppenheimer at his usual home, Warner Bros, had that studio not instigated a policy in 2021 (no longer in force today) of releasing its films simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max, in response to uncertainty during the pandemic. (Nolan, remember, had ruled out a streaming release for his previous film, Tenet, back in 2020 when cinema exhibition was at its most precarious.) Warner Bros still hopes to woo him back. Barbie is a Warners film, and if the studio had been distributing both pictures, they would never have let them go out on the same day. But Nolan took Oppenheimer to Universal – hence the scheduling pile-up.
No matter. The impact of Covid and the streaming revolution have been bruising, even in some cases annihilating, to parts of the industry. But contrary to the tagline from Alien Vs Predator – “Whoever wins … we lose” – the outcome of Barbie opening in lockstep with Oppenheimer can only be positive. Whichever one triumphs, cinema rules.
Barbie and Oppenheimer fight it out at the box office on 21 July.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *