It started out as a meme. Two films, seemingly so diametrically opposed, coming out on the same day; people were bound to blow it out of proportion. In one corner, we have Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which brings Mattel’s iconic doll to life. In the other, we’ve got Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a biopic about the father of the atomic bomb.
They both, in their own way, deal with near-impossibilities in scale. Barbie has long been criticized for her measurements; stretch her out into a human-sized counterpart and she might not fall over, but she probably wouldn’t be very healthy. And Oppenheimer—well, 78 years later, it’s still hard to comprehend the vastness of the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb. That’s part of what makes the comparison actually work in a non-meme way. Despite their vast differences, Barbie and Oppenheimer make for a surprisingly complementary double feature. It’s a joke, but it’s not. AMC Theaters claims over 20,000 people have already bought tickets for back-to-back showings.
Still, among those who are on board for spending nearly five hours in a theater seat, there is one point of contention: Barbenheimer (that is, seeing Barbie first and Oppenheimer second) or Oppenbarbie (Oppenheimer first, Barbie second)?
Barbenheimer offers the path of least resistance. When you walk out of Barbie, the prospect of spending another three hours in a movie theater probably won’t seem too bad. For all its meta social commentary, it’s still a fun movie that’ll leave you in a good mood when it’s over. And you’re definitely going to need to horde all the positive vibes you can get because, as Nolan said about Oppenheimer, “Some people leave the movie absolutely devastated. They can’t speak.” Ending with Oppenheimer lets you reflect on the horrors you’ve just seen, but it could overshadow Barbie, making that experience feel very, very far away.
Barbie star Issa Rae said it best: “Obviously you should see Oppenheimer first and then cleanse your palate with Barbie.” But Oppenbarbie is a much harder transition than Barbenheimer; you’re simply not going to want to sit through another movie after Oppenheimer. You’re probably not going to want to do much at all except go home and curl up into a ball, honestly. But if you do manage to drag yourself anywhere else, it might as well be Barbie. If any film has a chance of helping you decompress after an atomic bomb, it’s Gerwig’s hot pink love/hate letter to a doll.
It’s Oppenbarbie, no doubt. Going the Barbenheimer route is an act of either extreme shortsightedness or self-flagellation. You’re not thinking about the consequences of ending the night with a nuclear explosion or you’re thinking about it way too much. Whichever side you fall on, you’re still doing a disservice to Barbie. And you’re discounting that Barbie might actually help you process Oppenheimer.
We’re not recommending Oppenbarbie solely because it will help you forget Oppenheimer. (For one thing, that’s a pretty bad coping strategy.) Instead, we think Barbie’s gonzo depiction of the real world makes more sense when viewed through Oppenheimer’s historical context.
As Courtney Howard put it in her review of Barbie for The A.V. Club, “...when Stereotypical Barbie and a stowaway Ken (Gosling) arrive in Southern California, they face fish-out-of-water hijinks while dealing with humans’ dysfunctional nature stemming from patriarchal toxicity, loss of adolescence, and adult disillusionment.” It’s easier to understand how we got to that dysfunctional place when you’re still grappling with the fact that dropping nuclear bombs on over 200,000 innocents once seemed like the best—and perhaps only—option for ending a world war. It’s absurd, but it’s not.
And if you don’t believe us, just take it from Lynda Carter: