Why Barbenheimer Matters in Film Discourse

Barbenheimer graphic featuring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer.

Barbenheimerthe summer phenomena promoting viewing both Barbie and Oppenheimer in theatersstarted as a means to celebrate two credible directors and the purely coincidental release date of the highly anticipated films. Yet, it’s so much more than that when you look at how it can convey change if discourse around films and comparisons shift. Both films are bringing box office numbers that few others have managed post-Covid, and both films are prompting mostly positive reactions.

Films and TV series geared strictly toward women often bring unsolicited sexist reactions and unnecessary mockery. Fandom culture is demoralized, and while we’re still amid the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike, studios are still woefully clueless about what the people want. It’s rare when critics and audience members outside social media are on the same page. It’s rare that something blows up to the degree Barbenheimer has that doesn’t tie to a large franchise spanning decades of fandom building.

Barbie and friends in the Barbie Movie for Oppeneheimer weekend.
©Warner Bros.

It’s intermittent, especially for the internet, not to pit two entirely different properties against each other for the sake of conversation. Yet somehow, collectively, we decided we’d celebrate film as a medium by morphing the two together and creating an entire spectacle out of happenstance. Posters, t-shirts, directors, and actors in and on the conversation, Barbenheimer proves that celebrating cinema is better than unnecessarily comparing.

No, neither film is perfect, and every person doesn’t love them both equally. Discourse remains about which is better and why, but there’s a positivity attached that’s contributing to conversations with the light we could use. Film critics and audiences who’d maybe otherwise dismiss Barbie for being overtly feminine still hopped aboard memes and heightened the praise. People who might not otherwise gravitate toward historical war dramas added Oppenheimer to their must-watch list. It became a full-blown summer event people wanted to participate in, even if they usually wouldn’t have.

It’s our job as critics to watch films, but I’ll bet we all know someone in real life who’s not at all invested in this field and who’s heard of Barbenheimerwanting in on it. It ultimately reveals that as human beings we’re a little desperate for good things after years of horrors when the opportunity to celebrate something like this blows up.

Oppenehimer walking in the film.
©Universal Pictures

Studios will try to replicate Barbenheimer with other films in the future, going about it in all the wrong ways without understanding how much of this is driven by fandom, film critics, and women. Yes, women. Because whether people like to admit it or not, women have significant voices and positions in fandoms. When we love something—when we care about it—we choose to spread that love far and wide consistently. We choose to be loud and unapologetic.

Barbenheimer is a phenomenon that might never happen again, but that’s okay.

The films also aren’t alike unless we consider existential crises as themes. Still, they don’t necessarily go together like some stunning puzzle piece that makes perfect sense. The idea of Barbenheimer doesn’t add up in hindsight, but it continues to spread because we continue to celebrate two incredible films and why they matter. With it, we celebrate the collective experiences inside theaters that the pandemic robbed many of for years. We celebrate the actors, the writers, the directors, and the idea of something most of us can agree on—film and TV should be enjoyed.

It’s nice to feel excited, and that’s what much of it comes down to—the sheer thrill of watching a movie and loving everything about it, even with the flaws. It’s going to feel even nicer to pull out a custom Barbenheimer t-shirt and wear it years from now while remembering how fun our jobs were for a beat during the summer of 2023 when we wholeheartedly embraced creativity.

In every way, Barbenheimer is a celebration of creativity. It’s a decision to give credit where it’s due and honor the hard work that goes into making a film by embracing them both at a time when we could all use excitement. It’s the decision to continue creating even when we’re amid hopeless times where our livelihoods are threatened by artificial intelligence. It’s a celebration worth gloating about because Barbenheimer is entirely a human idea that no form of AI could ever piece together on its own. No matter how advanced technology gets, it’ll never be able to understand the purpose of meme culture or our inherently human need to live for the hope of it all. (See what I did there?) It’s not always fun being a film critic or even a fan; it’s daunting at times and a little sad, but there’s beauty and hope in communities, and that’s exactly what Barbenheimer is—a celebration of creativity and an open community. Weirdly, it’s like summer camp a little. A little film summer camp we’ll want to go back to, but next year, it might not be the same again.


Leave a Reply