Barbie vs Oppenheimer box-office clash likely to leave an unprecedented pop-culture impact


Christopher Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' (left) versus Greta Gerwig's 'Barbie', both releasing on the same day, July 21, 2023.

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ (left) versus Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’, both releasing on the same day, July 21, 2023.

One is a fantasy movie based on the world’s best-selling fashion doll; the other is about the man who made the world’s first atomic bomb. They are releasing on the same day and have kickstarted a discourse on outdated views on gender and the perception of art. Barbie vs Oppenheimer is a battle between plastic fantasy and brutal reality. It is a battle between arched feet and flat feet; high heels and saddle shoes; shiny pink dresses and oversized coats; or as some are calling it, a battle between ‘atomic’ and ‘iconic’. The sheer dichotomy and sharp contrast in the aesthetic of the two films and their themes would be noticeable even if they weren’t premiering on the same day. But now that they are going neck and neck and competing for box-office collections on July 21, backed by no less than Hollywood’s biggest studios, Universal and Warner Bros, the comparisons are bound to happen. One of them has a pink armour and the other is armed with the knowledge of theoretical physics.

Big bang vs pink power at the box office

A still from Great Gerwig's forthcoming 'Barbie'. A still from Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming ‘Barbie’.

The Barbie movie is like sweet candy floss wrapped in a shiny paper. Delicate but not fragile, pretty but not frivolous. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, is a cold reality check about the grim future of humanity and the destructive power of nuclear weapons. The former is likely to have light-hearted moments and tongue-in-cheek humour; the latter will leave you contemplating where the human race is headed. The former has songs by Dua Lipa and Nicki Minaj, the latter has compositions by Hans Zimmer. Filming Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie led to a shortage of pink colour in the world, while filming Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer included a nuclear explosion which was filmed without CGI. Who will win the high-stakes battle?

Barbie vs Oppenheimer: The civil war

Before the Barbie vs Oppenheimer debate causes another American civil war, we must look for answers to a pertinent question — how should one quantify which of the two films are likely to leave a greater impact, not just in terms of box-office numbers but also in terms of their respective legacies? But then why should one even compare the two films, or worse, box them into specific genres? There’s space for both of them in the theatres and an audience which admires both. Now that we know many “chick-flicks” are liked by men and that the top movie genre liked by women is action (according to a Fandango study), it is all the more problematic (and nearly impossible) to quantify which film will leave a lasting impact, especially if one were to view it through the lens of gender. Turns out, Barbie doesn’t live in a box any more. Neither does Oppenheimer.

A still from Christopher Nolan's forthcoming 'Oppenheimer'. A still from Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming ‘Oppenheimer’.

The cinegoers are aware of this and are no longer choosing between the two, at least those who can afford to go to movies twice on the same weekend. As biases go, there might be a gender divide in the audiences of the two, between young women and queer folks on the one hand and Nolan fanboys on the other. Those who remember every scene in Interstellar might opt for Oppenheimer. But this couldn’t be far from the truth. Not only are men planning to sneak into the movie halls playing Barbie in pink shirts, women have their lab coats and primers on nuclear physics ready as they brace themselves to watch Cillian Murphy fire off fission experiments. If the social media reactions are anything to go by, both movies have equally piqued interest in people across all genders.

Earlier this month, Matt Damon, who plays a significant role in Oppenheimer said that if his daughters wish to watch the Barbie movie, his family will watch two films that weekend. “People are allowed to go see two movies in a weekend,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair. The discourse on social media tends to agree with Damon. Last month, a Twitter user had shared an image of a young girl in naturalistic attire walking along a straight line. As she walks, her monotone wardrobe changes into a shiny pastel pink dress. She captioned it “Leaving the Oppenheimer theatre and heading to the Barbie theatre”. In response to the tweet, another Twitter user shared an image of a man wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. As he walks, his sweatshirt metamorphoses into a top and jeans into a skirt.

Pink v/s monotone conundrum

While Nolan had locked Oppenheimer’s release date as a part of his deal with Universal back in 2022, Barbie’s release date was announced much later in May this year. For reasons that deserve a standalone explainer article, neither studios are willing to change their dates. While trade analysts were initially predicting that the business of the two films might take a hit due to simultaneous release, it turns out, the clash could be beneficial for both. The reason is the same as what makes them so different in the first place — the dichotomy and stark contrast in their aesthetic and theme, which helps them cater to a wider audience.

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The clash has had a positive impact already from what it seems. It has urged the current generation to reevaluate how they perceive the gender binary. The GenZ and young millennial audiences are more accepting of the people who do not conform to outdated gender norms.

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The clash has also led to a universal realisation — how one experiences art or chooses to engage with it, may or may not depend on their gender identity.

Perhaps, in a different universe, Barbie might just ditch Ken and fall in love with Oppenheimer. Barbie has a good day every day. So does Oppenheimer. Tom Cruise, meanwhile, has a good day only when he has enough IMAX screens for Mission Impossible.


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