This summer, blockbuster films “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” took the world by storm by sharing a release date, and thus participating in a dual marketing campaign that consumers took it upon themselves to create. The term “Barbenheimer,” which emerged on the internet when the films were first announced, refers not only to the shared release of the films, but also to the phenomenon in which moviegoers would attend a double feature of the films.
While Barbenheimer inevitably invited a feuding comparison between the two movies, their mutual hype also invoked a cultural phenomenon that has been nearly rendered obsolete in the last decade: shared media literacy. Among the boundless landscape of streaming services and thousands upon thousands of movies and TV shows, it has become increasingly more difficult for consumers to relate to each other in regards to digital media over the dinner table. (Herein lies the genius of the Netflix Original, one piece of high value media marketed over all others in order to create a shared experience among viewers – think the release of Stranger Things IV last summer).
In addition, given the rise of cultural criticism and viewer-driven discussion on social media in the last several decades, Barbenheimer was a central topic of conversation across all platforms. Memes abounded, with TikTok videos and viral tweets garnering millions of views. One joke, in reference to Christopher Nolan’s intention for “Oppenheimer” to be shown on an IMAX screen, showed the movie being played on ever-smaller screens, including one built into a Barbie Doll. Yet viewers still felt the slow burn of “Oppenheimer” as opposed to the animated nature of “Barbie.” Despite the collective hype about the movies, its consumers were made aware of their significant differences in the movie theater.
Emily Tieu ’24 was one of many who committed to an “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” double feature at the nearby Poughkeepsie Galleria, in that order. She called the experience an “emotional rollercoaster,” with the intensity of “Oppenheimer” sharply contrasted with the humor and personal connection she felt watching “Barbie.” Jake Silva ’24 watched the double feature in the opposite order. He said, “We attended a matinee of Barbie, had a burrito break, and then caught Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm. The best and biggest way to see it!”
Some, however, did not opt for the ambitious choice of spending five cumulative hours in the movie theater. Skylar Huebner ’24 saw the two movies on separate days, and even saw Barbie twice in two different continents (once in Greece and once in the U.S.). Heubner mentioned that she resonated with “Barbie” more. “Even though the movie can be viewed as ‘starter pack’ white feminism, it’s insane that this was the biggest blockbuster of the summer in a culture with increasing attacks on women, people of color and trans people.” Tieu shared similar thoughts on the personal impact of the movie. “It made me rethink Barbie as this one-dimensional doll. She’s seen as an ideal woman and someone we all wanted to grow up to be, but the movie showed that we are supposed to become who we want to be and what makes us feel alive. And that doesn’t have to look long-legged, plastic and pink.”
As for Oppenheimer, both Tieu and Huubner agreed that it was fast-paced and engaging in its storytelling, though it could have done more reflection on the devastation of the bomb. “Oppenheimer did not fully address the effects of the bomb tests on the populations and environment in the area, which felt like a meaningful omission,” said Huebner. Tieu shared similar thoughts, but acknowledged the difficulty of addressing such a complicated subject; the movie already spans over three hours long.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds in regards to dual marketing and release of blockbuster films. The response to Barbenheimer was truly unmatched; while films have been released simultaneously before (for example, “The Dark Knight” and “Mamma Mia” in July 2008), the massive response to the films both online and at the theater was truly unprecedented.