The Real Winner of Barbenheimer Weekend Is the Audience
After months of anticipation, it looks like Barbie is going to win Barbeinheimer weekend pretty handily, at least from a box office perspective. The film grossed $22 million in its Thursday preview night — a massive number, and the best first day for any 2023 movie to date. Oppenheimer had a good first day too, grossing roughly $10.5 million. When all is said and done, it’s expected to earn about $50 million for the weekend. (It looks like Barbie will earn at least twice that much, and possibly more.)
Cinephiles — and now regular old folks who are just curious about pop culture — have had a lot of fun pitting these two movies that are so different but happen to be opening in theaters on the same day against each other. They’ve made memes. They’ve sold bootleg T-shirts on Etsy and Instagram. They’ve contemplated how to see them both as a deranged double feature. (My advice having seen both on back to back days: Start with Barbie.)
READ MORE: The Best Barbenheimer Memes
Now that paying customers are seeing the films for themselves, they will inevitably start comparing the two; debating which is better, and which will have the larger and longer impact. And these are fun things to do! No moviegoing is complete without a discussion about what you saw afterwards.
But I do think it’s important to take a step back and observe: It doesn’t matter whether Barbie or Oppenheimer is better. It doesn’t matter which one makes more money at the box office. What does matter is that there are two big and worthwhile movies opening in theaters this weekend, and that theaters around the country are going to be packed with people going to see one or the other or both. And they’re not going to be there to see the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie or Star Wars sequel.
Granted, Barbie is based on one of the most popular toys of all time, and generally speaking a movie based on a mass-market product is not exactly the sort of thing that gives a person hope for the future of cinema. But in this case, Barbie is not just a feature-length commercial for Mattel. In fact, Mattel is basically Barbie’s villain, and director Greta Gerwig mercilessly mocks the company, along with many of the weirder or more ill-advised Barbies they have released through the years. She also uses Barbie as an opportunity to consider the evolution (or lack of evolution as the case may be) of gender roles in our society, and to reckon with what it means to sell “girl power” to little women (pun intended) in the form of a fashionable doll. Love it or hate it — and I am sure audiences will be split on it — Barbie is a legitimate, thoughtful movie. Maybe the most legitimate and thoughtful ever made out of a kids toy line.
It may not be as thoughtful as Oppenheimer though. At three hours long, with multiple timelines and dozens of speaking roles, Oppenheimer is not just the polar opposite of Barbie, it’s the polar opposite of almost every movie released by major Hollywood studios during the summer for the last few decades. It’s Christopher Nolan’s dark three-hour meditation on the nature of atomic power. And it just made more money on its opening Thursday night in theaters than Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One.
The timing of both movies is noteworthy as well. This weekend marks not only ground zero for Barbenheimer, but also ground zero for San Diego Comic-Con, the annual celebration of all things nerdy and geeky. Typically, that means people would stop paying attention to the movies they could actually watch in theaters right now, so they could instead speculate about and obsess over films that haven’t even been finished yet. Instead, all anyone is talking about is Barbie and Oppenheimer.
Again, there’s a caveat here; the writers and actors strikes mean a lot of talent that might have attended Comic-Con to promote their future projects stayed home. (One colleague attending San Diego this year told me that while the convention floor remains as crowded as ever, Hall H, where studios typically present their upcoming slate at star-studded panels, is half empty.) On another year, Barbenheimer could have gotten overwhelmed by the Comic-Con hype machine. This year, that didn’t happen.
Movies and movie theaters and film lovers needed this. In an era of so-called peak TV, when streaming has become so prevalent but also diffused the mass audience, the Barbenheimer phenomenon has proved there’s still nothing quite like power of opening a big, interesting movie in theaters around the country. Or, in this case, two at the same time. So enjoy the Barbenheimer debate — but remember that the debaters are the real winners here.