Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Behold Barbenheimer: Experiencing the biggest opening weekend of the year

The much anticipated Barbie/Oppenheimer double feature has finally arrived. Does the experience live up to the hype?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Barbenheimer: Experiencing the year's biggest opening weekend
Oppenheimer; Barbie
Screenshot: Universal Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube

What is Barbenheimer? It’s a moment. A movement. A meme. It’s a triumph in filmmaking from two top-of-their-game directors. It is, occasionally, a weird outcropping of gender essentialism. It is mostly just a fun thing a bunch of people decided to do at the same time. It’s the movies’ biggest opening weekend of the year and the fourth biggest in history. It’s the portmanteau of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. It’s an experience, and the experience is a theatrical double feature.

Before this weekend, I’d only previously done two theatrical double features, the first almost exactly 10 years ago when I saw Man Of Steel and This Is The End back-to-back in the summer of 2013. Back then, my friends and I went from Superman into doomsday without giving much thought to the experience. The same can be said for the whim, in autumn 2016, to watch Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and hop right into Edge Of Seventeen. It was more about the novelty of the double feature than the films themselves. But in the long cycle of press and online chatter surrounding this year’s biggest releases, I found myself on the hype train for Barbenheimer.


For someone riding that train, it seemed like everyone was on board Barbenheimer. Yet I began to suspect that people who are less online or less inclined to cinephilia had not given this double feature a second thought. “I actually do not know who that is,” my friend responded when I offered her a Barbenheimer ticket. She thought I was inviting her to a drag show. She also didn’t want anything to do with the event once I explained what it was. And so I set out to Barbenheimer alone. Though not precisely alone: there are dozens of us! Even more than dozens, actually. Earlier this month, AMC revealed that more than 20,000 moviegoers had already bought tickets to both movies.

Unlike those random double features of years past, Barbenheimer is an experience to be curated. First, one must decide in which order to see the films. Technically, I did the “Oppenbarbie,” a choice I more or less stand by. Then there’s figuring out the format in which to see those films. I wanted to see Oppenheimer in 70mm IMAX like God and Christopher Nolan intended, but by the time I ordered my tickets—a full month in advance—there was no option to see it on the opening weekend unless I wanted to get my skin scorched off in the front row. Instead, I settled for a regular IMAX showing on Saturday afternoon.


Movie #1: Oppenheimer

There was a frantic energy in the theater ahead of Oppenheimer, although that may be because I got there slightly late and my concessions took forever. The place was certainly abuzz, though. There were lots of pink-clad customers and the theater was already out of collectible Barbie cupholders. When I asked the young person scanning my ticket if it had been crazy this weekend, he replied with a cartoonish, “Yeeeaaah,” the subtext of which I assume to be “duh!”

The atmosphere inside the actual screening was more subdued and less pink. My best guess as to who was also doing Barbenheimer was the girl in front of me who took off her shoes and rested her socked feet on the partition. Maybe she had horrible manners, or maybe she was just in it for the long haul and had to get comfortable in some non-reclining seats.

Overall, I had the sense that this was a crowd that came from Film Twitter. They were more enthused about the Nicole Kidman ad; some of them chanted along, “Heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” They laughed when John F. Kennedy Jr. got a name drop in the final act, which to me felt more funny in the context of the many tweets I’d seen about it than in the actual context of the movie. Generally, they were a quiet and respectful audience. I heard chattering about the effectiveness of the film when we filed out three hours later. “Oppenheimer had some drip,” a girl behind me on the escalator observed. Having seen his belt buckle, I could not disagree.


A brief intermission

I met someone the weekend before Barbenheimer who said he wanted to see Oppenheimer second because he wanted to end the day thinking about the ethical implications of what he’d seen. Not me. I would’ve been happy to jump right into Barbie, but with how the showtimes shook out, I had a purgatorial two hours to kill in between. For about 25 minutes I paced around outside and eventually tried to call my mom. She texted, “Dad and I at Oppenheimer, talk later?” No help from that corner. Elsewhere, my colleague Saloni Gajjar decompressed between Oppy and Barbie by strolling through a bookstore. I had to settle for sitting in a Five Guys on a stool regrettably still warm from the person before me, listening to pop rock and trying not to think too hard.


My reticence to be alone with my thoughts after Oppenheimer has less to do with denial of my own implication in the horrors of American imperialism and more with a sudden and inconvenient resistance to having an opinion. Refreshing Twitter during my two-hour break produced wall-to-wall Hot Takes on Barbie, Oppenheimer, or Barbenheimer as a whole. Participating in a phenomenon means having thoughts and feelings about that phenomenon, especially if you’ve volunteered to write about it. For me, the window between the two movies was too short to form coherent thoughts on the experience and too long to feel fully inside of it. It was like stepping outside of time. I did my best Cillian Murphy impression with a thousand-yard stare and watched pink-outfitted people go by in the window.

For most of the day, the block by the movie theater was awash in pink. More than just pink: many of these fans would fit in at a club or even a semi-formal wedding situation. In terms of dress code, it’s unlike any movie theater experience I’ve had in my life, and I’ve seen multiple Marvel movies on opening night. Throughout the day, I spotted just three people sporting the unofficial Barbenheimer merch that’s proliferated online. Only one person seemed to be doing Oppenheimer cosplay in a wool coat and suspenders—either that or they had a fetish for sweating in 85-degree heat. Eventually, I quit people-watching and headed back into the theater.


Movie #2: Barbie

The audience for Barbie was plugged in, too, in a different way. They were there to see the movie, but even more so to have the Barbie experience. There was pink in every row (yes: I was wearing a pink shirt as well). The crowd was rowdier and more responsive. The group of friends in my row was giggling amongst themselves as much as they were giggling at the screen. “Slay!” said the girl next to me when the first-ever Barbie appeared. (She was weeping profusely by the climactic montage at the end.) “Breaking the fourth wall,” another one of them loudly observed when the movie broke the fourth wall.


I wasn’t bothered by the audible enthusiasm—people who came for a fun time had a fun time. It was Barbie itself, or maybe the entirety of Barbenheimer, that left me cold. For most of those fans, Barbie seemed to be a nice evening out, not the culmination of a full-day excursion. They enjoyed the movie not as a package deal, but as the ultra-feminine free-for-all that was being offered. “I just love women,” a young woman cried as we shuffled our way out of the building.

Meanwhile, I exited the theater after a long day of watching movies feeling disappointed and a bit confused. Wasn’t Barbenheimer supposed to be the pinnacle of cinema? Why was I walking away feeling so apathetic?


The Barbenheimer comedown

By any measure, Barbeheimer’s opening weekend is a stunning success. If you like movies, the financial sweep of these two films is unequivocally good news. In the midst of a strike, two movies with giant casts of real actors, real human faces that audiences are responding to, is a win and hopefully a lesson for the people who write the checks. All of that is a net positive to me, even if my Barbenheimer experience wasn’t precisely positive.


Anything hyped to such a profound degree is bound to be at least a little bit overrated, right? Both movies had objectively good qualities. (For the record, I much preferred Oppenheimer to Barbie.) They share some interesting thematic similarities, the foremost of which are protagonists in existential crises. What they share more than anything, I suspect, is a destiny to be cannibalized by discourse. Especially if few films come out this year, we’re bound for an endless cycle of nitpicking each movie’s imperfect politics, garnering over-the-top praise as well as bad faith criticism in the way only the biggest cultural sensations can generate. That machine was already working before the films had even premiered, and I fell for it all hook, line, and sinker.

I bought into Barbenheimer completely, an idealized version of the theatrical experience that was better in theory than in practice. Smashing these two films together turned out to make good business sense, but not so much sense as a viewing experience. The reality is, it wasn’t so different from my first double feature 10 years ago—it’s still watching a lot of movie in a relatively short amount of time. The quality of the double feature films may be different, but the result is ultimately the same. Barbeheimer didn’t enhance my experience of either film; if anything, it might have diminished it.


My recommendation? Watch Barbie and Oppenheimer separately, with plenty of time to digest in between. And if you can manage it, try to disembark from the hype train that continues to barrel full speed ahead. Barbenheimer will be remembered as a moment in movie history, but I think these films are better appreciated when they can stand on their own.