WHEN I WALKED up to the movie theater at 10:00 in the morning, the first thing I saw was a man in a fedora. Mind you, this is New York City, where the weather for weeks has been sitting in the mid-80s with humidity at levels that don’t feel too far off from a fancy gym’s sauna. This man wasn’t just wearing a fedora, either: he also had on a tightly-fit button-down shirt, pinstripe slacks, and generally seemed to have a bit of world-weary demeanor on his face. It was clear what was happening here—this man was neither a glutton for sweat-based punishment nor someone going through life thinking they’re a 1920s detective. No, this person was dressed up as J. Robert Oppenheimer (a strange choice, for sure) and taking part in (at least the first half of) what has become the grand cinematic endeavor known as “Barbenheimer.” And it’s the reason I was there too.
As soon as it became clear that both Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie would both be releasing on July 21, 2023, the narrative, really, wrote itself. Here we have a pair of movies that couldn’t possibly be more diametrically opposed: one a three-hour epic biopic about the brilliant scientist who brought the hellish curse of nuclear weapons to the world, the other a bright, bubbly, feel-good comedy led by a pair of our most charismatic stars. If there were only two personalities in the world, these two films would represent the dividing line.
But, luckily, there are more than two personalities in the world. And many of us out there have a personality that includes the trait “likes movies.” As a fan of both Christopher Nolan’s 20+ years of ambitious mind-warping mastery and Greta Gerwig’s trajectory from independent film star to Oscar-nominated screenwriter to major studio talent… I wanted to see both. Add a cast full of top-notch stars to both movies… and you can understand why “Barbenheimer” became such a sensation. Not everyone is just darkness or just pink. Most of us have shades of both, and, guess what, by proxy, want to see both of these movies.
Izzy Ster, Adele Marchenko, Maya Gardner, Maddi Moran and Clare Larsen, left to right, dressed as “Barbenheimer,” a mix between “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” outfits.
July 21 wasn’t the first time ever that two movies were released on the same day. Hell, for some reason when I think “Double Feature,” I remember 2006, when at age 13 I snuck into Kevin Smith’s Clerks II before shuffling across the hall to watch the world-class comedy You, Me, and Dupree. But despite what must be countless others having memories and experiences like that, the world basically reacted like this was the first time—the films combined to make the first bow for “Barbenheimer” into the fourth-biggest box office weekend of all-time, with Barbie making $162 million in its opening weekend and Oppenheimer making $82 million. These are both exceptionally successful figures. With this weekend making so much money—and the SAG and WGA strikes ongoing—it should come as a great inflection point for change.
First of all, it’s imperative that the people responsible for making this weekend what it became (the writers and performers) get what they seek and what they deserve. But it’s also imperative to note that if we, the people, get what we want—interesting movies made by filmmakers with vision and a voice—that we’re going to go out to see it, possibly even in multiples.
Mr. Fake Oppenheimer was the first costumed person I saw, but far, far, far from the last. Walking around the streets of the Upper West Side, it became very obvious what each group of friends’ plans were for the day. All wearing pink and saying “Hi Barbie!” to each other was one easy tell. A shirt split down the middle, black and explosive on one side and pink and bright on the other—labeled “Barbenheimer” was another. Personally, I was rocking a pink short-sleeve button down, and had absolutely no regrets.
An attendee points at her Barbenheimer shirt outside the convention center during San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California.
By the time my first movie started—Oppenheimer in 70 MM IMAX—at 10:30, I already had two coffees. I knew it was going to be a long day, and needed all the energy juices flowing in me that I could get. I also knew this was a risky proposition, given that I was about to step into a 3-hour, detail-oriented movie. I tried using the restroom before the movie began, but my efforts were futile; about halfway through the movie, I had to miss the majority of a scene featuring Casey Affleck’s character because I just could not hold it anymore. No one ever claimed that a “Barbenheimer” day would be without a few road bumps.
Despite missing most of a brief scene featuring an Oscar-winning actor due to a bladder-related matter, I still found Oppenheimer to be an utterly brilliant movie (the ending absolutely floored me), and one that I otherwise would’ve spent the rest of my day thinking about. But there was more to be done. There would be a two-hour reprieve in my day, meant for lunch but also for walking around. At this point, though, the two coffees, hours of staring at a screen, and not nearly enough hydration had given me the true enemy of enjoying a day at the cinema: a big headache.
My hope was that lunch, some waters, and even a Gatorade purchased at a stand on the street would make the pressure forming inside my skull subside, but sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you hope. My time to watch Barbie had arrived, and so that meant back to the theater.
The theater felt crowded at 10:00 in the morning, but that was nothing compared to the charged energy filling the space at 3:30 (my showing was at 4:00). My theater was filled with a sea of pink, and when the movie began to roll, you could tell that this was a fired-up theater. There were cheers for a trailer featuring Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka—a weird thing, considering the movie looks… well, it looks OK. But I made perfect sense of it when I remembered that a pair of Timmy’s formative roles—in Lady Bird and Little Women—came in the movies of Greta Gerwig. This was a theater that knew exactly whose movie they were coming to see.
Before we get into Barbie the movie, we should also talk a bit about some of the conversation around Barbie the movie. There’s been a scattershot conservative campaign attempting to paint the film as “anti-male,” and that simply couldn’t be any further from the truth. What Gerwig has always done in her work is paint no characters, nor groups of characters, with a broad brush, instead looking individually at specific circumstances. In Barbie—very much a satire, and a funny one at that—Gerwig manages to make legitimate points about both women and men. These are points to be made, yes, but they’re also jokes. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
It’s also a movie, we should add, that did exactly what it needed to do. It was a bright, fun, enjoyable 2 hours, led by an unbelievable cast; anyone who’s seen The Wolf of Wall Street or Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood knows exactly what Margot Robbie can do, and she was predictably perfect, able to balance a laugh and a cry with the best of them. Ryan Gosling, as “Stereotypical Ken,” should genuinely get an Oscar nomination. And Gerwig’s script (written with her creative and personal partner Noah Baumbach) lives up to her reputation, far smarter and with greater attention-to-detail than a story based on a toy has any business being.
The theater was laughing. The theater, at a certain point, may have been crying. When the final credits started to roll, it was hard to imagine that anyone was having anything less than a great time.
Which is to say: for a couple hours, I managed to numb out the headache that was rapidly taking over my head. It was a little after 6:00, and I had seen both movies. To reference another cinematic series that hit theaters earlier this month, my mission was accomplished.
“Barbenheimer” could ultimately turn out to be a one-of-a-kind occurrence, and a memory that will live forever in amber. In 30 years, we may talk about both of these movies the same way that we talk about movies that are 30 years old now, like Jurassic Park or Groundhog Day. But does anyone remember what days those movies came out? Ultimately, “Barbenheimer” will probably prove to be something that we—the generation of people who are consciously able to do it, or, at least, remember it—hold onto forever. And something that others will just have to hear us, like right now, talk about.
Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.