Existentialism Makes Barbenheimer the Perfect Double Feature

[NOTE: Spoilers ahead for Barbie and Oppenheimer.]

With over half a billion dollars grossed worldwide in less than a week, Barbenheimer is a global cultural phenomenon.

Barbie and Oppenheimer, also known as “Barbenheimer”

“Barbenheimer” refers to the theatrical release of Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same weekend. The two couldn’t look any more different at first glance. Barbie is Greta Gerwig’s candy color-drenched comedy about the iconic Mattel doll starring Margot Robbie. Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s somber, intense drama about the life of quantum physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, who led the development of the atomic bomb. The aesthetic dissonance of the two films opening the same weekend almost immediately spurred talk in the industry of a box office showdown.

The conversation thankfully shifted to a more exciting place: why not both? In the months before their release, social media became consumed by the idea of a double feature, a long-lost staple of the theatrical experience. Barbenheimer was born with countless memes, posters, and merchandise. Tom Cruise, movie theaters’ greatest champion, shared his Barbenheimer ticket stubs on Twitter, as did Gerwig and Robbie. Unlike recent meme stunts like Morbius’ humiliating re-release, the Barbenheimer double feature demonstrated real-world impact. AMC Theatres reported that 40,000 of its A-List loyalty members purchased advanced tickets for both films on the same day. While Barbie outgrossed Oppenheimer two-to-one, it’s clear that both benefited from the excitement. (It’s worth noting that Oppenheimer is a three-hour, R-rated movie, which can restrict audience attendance.)

Tom Cruise with his Barbie ticket stub (Courtesy: Tom Cruise’s Twitter)

Much of “Barbenheimer’s” fun is the novelty of seeing two drastically opposed films starring half of Hollywood on the same day. However, when you watch the two films, they are more similar than their posters suggest. How they address the same challenge makes them a surprisingly profound double feature. 

What similarities could a doll in a pink paradise and a scientist who developed a catacylsmic weapon share? Existential breakdowns are a great place to start. Stereotypical Barbie and J Robert Oppenheimer are leaders in their fields: she is the Barbie that people imagine when they think of “Barbie,” and he is the foremost thought leader on quantum physics. They are the paragons of their respective worlds. Taking one step further, they bear the responsibility for their worlds. As narrator Helen Mirren explains in Barbie’s cold open, the Barbies believe their existence solved the entrenched gender restrictions that harmed women before their invention. Oppenheimer’s brilliant mind and neutrality put him in the unique position to develop the deadliest device in the history of humankind. 

The cast of Barbie (Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Barbie and Oppenheimer slowly realize that their responsibilities carry a heavy weight and are also profoundly different than they thought. When Barbie arrives in the real world with Ken (Ryan Gosling), she is immediately confronted with the grim realities of a patriarchal system. While her experiences are disturbing, she continues on her mission to find Sasha, the girl who is inadvertently causing her malfunctions in Barbie Land. She finds Sasha and her friends at lunch and their junior high school, and despite a nearby student’s warnings, she greets them with all the Barbie-ness she can muster. She expects a warm welcome, but Sasha brutally cuts her down to size, calling her a fascist and blaming her for young girls’ self-esteem and body image issues. Sasha’s revelations are soul-shattering for a doll who discovered irrepressible thoughts of death only a day prior. 

Sasha ultimately comes around to helping Barbie through her mother, Gloria (America Fererra), but Barbie experiences another wicked blow upon returning to Barbie Land. Ken, who “discovered” patriarchy while exploring Century City, introduces it to the other Kens. The Kens transform the dolls’ paradise into a hyper-masculine (but not really) hellscape and brainwash the other Barbies into serving as their plaything. The revelations that Barbie did not solve gender inequality in the real world and that patriarchy could easily translate to Barbie Land are too much for her to bear. She tells Gloria and Sasha to go home while she sits down, falls over at a 90-degree angle, and succumbs to depression.  

Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt in Oppenheimer (Courtesy: Universal Pictures)

Oppenheimer’s crisis has more tangibly catastrophic consequences. After conducting the Trinity Test that confirms the successful detonation of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer learns over the radio that the US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He immediately feels the unimaginable loss of life and land that his invention caused. What disturbs him further is how no one else seems to grasp the magnitude. His colleagues cheer his name when he walks into a gymnasium to address them about the detonation. Amidst the fervent praise, visions of rotting flesh and petrified bodies plague him. His guilt over developing the bomb pushes him to urge President Truman (Gary Oldman) to limit using nuclear weapons. As Sasha did to Barbie, Truman gives him a reality check: no one cares that Oppenheimer created the bomb. What matters is who dropped it; Truman gave the order. Oppenheimer has no place in the story.

Truman’s cold assessment of Oppenheimer’s responsibility doesn’t assuage the physicist’s guilt. He continues to push back against developing new atomic weapons, including the hydrogen bomb. It puts him at odds with the government, particularly Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) of the Atomic Energy Commission, who feels slighted by Oppenheimer. Strauss orchestrates a commission hearing to reinstate Oppenheimer’s security clearance. In reality, destroying his reputation and neutralizing his political influence is the real goal. The hearing proves to be a profound embarrassment for Oppenheimer. His former colleagues testify against him, and the commission deliberately misconstrues his associations with communists to suggest he could be a Soviet spy. Rather than fight back against the spurious allegations, Oppenheimer sits silently, to the outrage of his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt). While the commission doesn’t label him a traitor, they strip him of his clearance and destroy his public image.

Could that be what Oppenheimer thinks he deserves? Oppenheimer suggests as much as he sinks further into resignation during the hearings. His refusal to fight, even shaking Edward Teller’s (Benny Safdie) hand after his betrayal, carries a whiff of self-sabotage. Oppenheimer is capable of fighting; he joined the Manhattan Project to stop Hitler, after all. But what right does he have to fight when he helped eradicate hundreds of thousands of lives? Losing his reputation is a relatively small price for putting humanity on the path to mutually assured destruction. With that logic in hand, Oppenheimer allows the torching of his reputation as penance for signing the planet’s death warrant. Oppenheimer eventually receives vindication when David Hill (Rami Malek) exposes Strauss’ plot during his Senate confirmation hearings. It was a vindication that Oppenheimer himself did not speak.

The cast of Barbie (Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Barbie takes a more active role in resolving her crisis. After a brief depressive detour, she explains to Gloria and Sasha that she doesn’t feel perfect anymore. It means she failed: herself, the Barbies, and ultimately every little girl she thought she inspired. In a landmark speech, Gloria verbalizes the frustrating contradictions of being a woman in a society that inherently devalues you. It not only lifts Barbie’s spirits but has the power to free the other Barbies from their patriarchal mental prison. The Barbies ultimately restore Barbie Land to its rightful glory, but the experience changes their approach to life. Barbie apologizes to Ken for disregarding his feelings and encourages them to discover who they are beyond the gendered rules of Barbie Land and the real world. For Barbie, that means leaving Barbie Land behind to pursue life as a human.

Barbie and Oppenheimer ultimately find themselves in similar places: reckoning their responsibilities to humankind. They also find that their perceptions of those realities differ significantly from everyone else’s, warping their sense of self. Barbie and Oppenheimer both hit their brink, and Gerwig and Nolan chart different courses in pulling them back. Gerwig emphasizes the power of community and leveraging it to discover one’s individuality. Meanwhile, Nolan asserts that there is no easy path to reconciliation when the consequences of one’s actions are as dire as yielding horrifying amounts of human suffering. The best that one can do is accept responsibility and try to prevent others from following in their footsteps.

The theatrical double feature is a rarity in this era of streaming and short-form social content. It’s even rarer for two films released on the same weekend to form a compelling portrait of existential crises. Barbie and Oppenheimer, different as they are, explore the personal costs of carrying the world’s fate on one’s shoulders. It’s possible that “Barbenheimer” was a quirk of theatrical scheduling or a deliberate studio attempt to undermine the other’s film. Whatever the reason, “Barbenheimer” proves the double feature’s power to make us think holistically about the world around us.

If you can do that while wearing loads of pink, even better.

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