Barbenheimer: Is the Summer Blockbuster Back with a Bang?

This Barbie (Emily Sheehy) explores the Barbenheimer phenomenon and what it means for the film industry and theatre attendance in a post-COVID-19 era.

As of August, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer have earned a combined $2 billion USD at the global box office. Barbie is now the Republic of Ireland’s highest-grossing film ever, having earned almost €9 million to date. With admissions to the cinema increased by almost a third in July 2023 compared with July 2022, it’s clear that the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon has brought cinema attendance back with a bang.

I saw Barbie first, two days after it premiered. The sold-out cinema was packed with different people dressed in pink and this added to my enjoyment of the event as a collective experience. Gerwig brings a breath of fresh air to twenty-first-century feminist cinema with such a comedic, camp and colourful film. It succeeds in celebrating the Barbie doll while also acknowledging her role in the feminist dogma and movements, both positive and negative. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling bring playfulness to the roles of Barbie and Ken, which is precisely what is needed in a film about such iconic toys. Despite criticism that its treatment of feminism is fairly basic, it was nonetheless an enjoyable film for a wide range of demographics. 

Oppenheimer is thematically and stylistically the direct opposite of Barbie. I caught a screening of the film a couple of days after Barbie, where my local cinema regretfully informed us of the lack of sweets and popcorn available due to Barbenheimer. The theatre was much more subdued than that of Barbie but was still packed nonetheless. Nolan produces a vivid portrait of the titular inventor of the atomic bomb by highlighting both his devotion to the Manhattan Project and the guilt of his conscience once the devastation he has unleashed is realised. The film’s non-linear narrative allows Nolan to move between Oppenheimer’s personal life, the invention of the bomb, and the crucial security hearing that sought to eliminate his political influence to produce such a portrait. Cillian Murphy’s performance reveals Oppenheimer’s internal world and psyche and completes the film’s masterful evaluation of such a controversial figure.

While Barbenheimer is certainly a win for the film industry, it might be hard for studios to replicate this phenomenon in the future. Who would have thought that two thematically and stylistically opposite films could complement each other this well? Following the success of Barbie, Mattel has announced plans to create a cinematic universe with their other products including Polly Pocket, Thomas the Tank Engine and more. The company fails to realise that these products will not have the same draw as Barbie, and, furthermore, Barbenheimer was born out of a participatory internet culture fuelled by user engagement, which will be near impossible to organically recreate.

Who would have thought that two thematically and stylistically opposite films could complement each other this well?

Nevertheless, this is an exciting time and a pivotal moment in cinema and speaks to the future of the summer blockbuster for years to come. Barbenheimer attests to the joys of the cinematic experience in an era increasingly dominated by streaming. It is a collective experience that moves a person to dress-up, laugh, cry and reflect in a packed theatre, something that simply can’t be recreated at home or anywhere else.