How Barbenheimer Became The Cinematic Showdown Of Summer 2023

One's about the development of a fashion doll. The other's about the development of nuclear weapons. One's a winking comedy. The other's an earnest drama. One's co-written and directed by a millennial California woman, and the other's written and directed by a Gen X British-American man. One stars the reigning highest-paid actress in Hollywood while the other stars an under-sung actor of the stage, screen, and TV. One used so much pink paint, the world nearly ran out. The other detonated real explosives. So how did these two end up released in almost perfect synchronicity? 

At first glance, Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" and Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" might not have much in common. But they do share some relevant themes and a high standard of filmmaking. In their own way, both interrogate the ideals of America in the mid-20th century (the Barbie doll hit shelves in 1959, while the bomb was dropped in 1945). They're both made by some of the most prominent and respected artists working in the industry today. And they'll both hit theaters on the exact same day, a now infamous fact that turned these total opposites into adversaries, and then into something else entirely. 

"Barbie" v. "Oppenheimer" has been getting the kind of attention that's usually reserved for culminating superhero movies or championship sporting events. What started as an in-joke among film buffs has grown into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. This is how the cinematic showdown of the summer came to be.

Greta Gerwig gets the Barbie gig

A live-action feature film based on the iconic doll has been in development since at least 2009, when toy conglomerate Mattel partnered with Universal on the project. "Barbie" volleyed between multiple studios, writers, directors, and stars over the next decade. Sony and Diablo Cody tried their hand at capturing her magic, but the closest a "Barbie" movie came to becoming a reality was in 2016 when Amy Schumer was hired to play the title character. Scheduling conflicts and creative differences reportedly derailed Schumer's "Barbie" less than a year later. Other big names (Anne Hathaway and Patty Jenkins among them) were bandied about, though nothing came of it. By 2018, the rights to "Barbie" had transferred to Warner Bros., and by 2019, Margot Robbie, Greta Gerwig, and Noah Baumbach were all attached. 

Initially, Gerwig and Baumbach were tapped as writers and given total creative freedom in the development of a new screenplay, which they refined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gerwig wasn't officially named as the film's director until summer 2021, and filming didn't begin until spring 2022, with a targeted release of 2023. Both Baumbach and Gerwig are well-respected filmmakers who make quirky yet prestigious realistic dramedies ... not big-budget movies based on toy brands. The pair previously collaborated on "Greenberg," "Frances Ha," "Mistress America," and "White Noise," with a number of critical darlings and awards contenders to their name. Their involvement (Gerwig's especially) indicated that "Barbie" wouldn't be just a cynical cash grab. 

Christopher Nolan leaves Warner Bros. for Universal

Just as Greta Gerwig was saying yes to Warner Bros., Christopher Nolan was breaking up with what had long been his studio. Nolan's "Tenet" was the first major film to premiere in theaters during the pandemic after several postponements. It received decent-to-good reviews and grossed more than $350 million, but the expensive and ambitious sci-fi thriller was a rare disappointment for Nolan, who continued to champion the in-person theatrical experience and the rights of creatives during a time when streaming services were ascendant. In 2021, Nolan publicly criticized Warner Bros. for sending films directly to HBO Max. That same year, he started shopping around for a new studio with which to produce his next film, a biopic based on the inventor of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Despite the underperformance of "Tenet," Nolan was still one of the very few people in Hollywood who could sell audiences on original, adult-oriented material. Just about every major player — from legacy studios like Paramount to upstarts like Apple — was interested. 

Nolan left Warner Bros. because he was upset that he'd been left out of decision-making processes during COVID-19 shutdowns and because he disagreed with the studio's day and date release strategies. Anyone courting the auteur had to meet his demands, which included a $100 million budget with more for marketing and a 100-day theatrical window. In the end, Universal — the studio that had first owned the rights to "Barbie" — landed "Oppenheimer." Frequent Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy signed on to star, with a planned release date of July 21, 2023.

Casting news breaks

By late 2021, both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" had their creative teams and lead actors in place. Gerwig and Nolan's reputations meant the two films, both set to debut in 2023, would be among the most anticipated of that year. Each was a massive undertaking. Though neither had Marvel Cinematic Universe-scale budgets, "Barbie" had an estimated price tag of $145 million, while the practical effects-heavy "Oppenheimer" cost $100 million. They were each, in their own way, sweeping stories that required large casts. 

Deadline announced that Ryan Gosling would be playing Ken opposite Robbie's Barbie in October 2021. By early 2022, America Ferrara, Simu Liu, Kate McKinnon, Alexandra Shipp, and Emma Mackey had been added to the ranks. Next came Will Ferrell, Michael Cera, Issa Rae, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Emerald Fennell. During filming, Mackey let slip to Variety that most of the actors would be portraying various iterations of Barbies and Kens, but otherwise, plot details remained a mystery. 

As for "Oppenheimer," Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, and Matt Damon all took significant pay cuts to co-star in Nolan's deadly serious period piece. The ensemble was rounded out by Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Matthew Modine, Alden Ehrenreich, Gary Oldman, and about a dozen more famous faces. 

"Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" boast two of the most stacked casts in recent memory. Gerwig's is full of promising up-and-comers, though Robbie and Gosling have four Oscar nominations between them. Nolan's more seasoned group has 13 acting nominations and three wins.

Barbie moves in on Oppenheimer's release date

Audiences got their first glimpse of "Barbie" at CinemaCon on April 26, 2022. The now-famous image of Robbie as the living doll behind the wheel of a pink convertible was made public, as was a firm release date of July 21, 2023. Its mid-summer spot on the calendar made perfect sense. Barbie's world — canonically set in Malibu — is carefree, sunny, and beach-themed, and based on the promotional still alone, Gerwig's "Barbie" looked to be following suit. 

Cinephiles and Hollywood insiders remembered that Universal had already claimed July 21, 2023 for "Oppenheimer" when Murphy was brought on board the previous fall. That tidbit had gone unremarked upon by fans and the press at the time. Nolan's movies ("Inception," "Dunkirk," "Tenet," and all three "Batman" films) tend to premiere in June or July, and part of his deal with Universal stipulated that the studio couldn't premiere another one of its own titles within six weeks of any of Nolan's films. Back in October of 2021, there'd been no competition to speak of. 

But by April 26, 2022, moviegoers knew that — if everything went according to plan — "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" were going to come out on the same day. These were two of the most promising movies of the post-COVID era, in production at a time when the entertainment industry was still trying to get back on its feet; the stark differences between the two projects made any comparisons all the more amusing. 

A rivalry is born

Immediately after the CinemaCon announcement, "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" became trending topics on Twitter. Media outlets picked up on the discourse and took to publishing think pieces about the supposed rivalry: Interested parties felt compelled to pick a side. 

Though the showdown was mostly in good fun, there was some real substance to the debate. "Barbie" vs. "Oppenheimer" inevitably pitted femininity against masculinity, Gerwig stans against Nolan heads, and as one Twitter user put it, joy against depression. The conventional Hollywood wisdom has been that male-led movies are for everybody, while female-led movies are for a narrower demographic. Nolan is more of a household name, but Academy recognition has often eluded him. Of his 11 features (all of which are rated fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), only two ("Inception" and "Dunkirk") have been nominated for best picture, and Nolan has only been nominated for directing once ("Dunkirk"). Gerwig — who has just two solo directing credits ("Lady Bird" and "Little Women") — can claim the exact same stats. When Nolan does receive criticism, it's often for failing to center women in his stories and for being too self-serious. To an extent, "Barbie" v. "Oppenheimer" could be seen as a referendum on genre and gender as they pertain to moviemaking economics, acclaim, and awards. 

Since "Barbie" migrated from Universal to Warner Bros., and Nolan migrated from Warner Bros. to Universal, some commenters speculated that Warner Bros. hopped onto the same date as "Oppenheimer" in retaliation for the director's exodus and critical remarks, hoping the doll would outshine the bomb. 

The trailers drop

The feud between the fashionista and the physicist was purely theoretical until audiences saw actual footage of the films. A high-concept "Barbie" teaser trailer appeared on YouTube first, on December 16, 2022. Savvy fans quickly recognized that the ad was a tongue-in-cheek riff on Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Robbie's Barbie looms large in an arid, rocky landscape wearing her classic black and white strapless bathing suit, cat eye sunglasses, and tight bang curls as little girls play rough with and then destroy their baby dolls. The "Barbie" trailer was bold, and it got people talking, but there were only five fleeting and out-of-context clips of the movie itself tacked on at the end. 

"Oppenheimer" — the original claimant of the July 21 date — dropped its first trailer on December 18, 2022 — a mere two days later, which added to the already widely held impression that Gerwig's and Nolan's films were in competition with each other. The teaser played before screenings of James Cameron's "Avatar: The Way of Water," many of which were shown in IMAX. That, in and of itself, was an excellent advertisement for "Oppenheimer," which was shot on large-format IMAX film stock. The reaction was largely positive. Fans heaped praise on the visuals and Murphy's performance, and "Oppenheimer" was floated as a likely Oscar contender. Though people had more fun with the "Barbie" teaser on the internet, the "Oppenheimer" trailer was viewed far more often. Current totals stand at 11 million for "Barbie" versus 42 million times for "Oppenheimer." 

Barbie wins the marketing war (but Oppenheimer benefits)

"Oppenheimer" may have won the trailer battle, but "Barbie" absolutely obliterated it in terms of viral marketing. In April, the studio released "Barbie" character posters that resembled Mattel packaging. Dua Lipa's read, "This Barbie is a Mermaid," Simu Liu's: "He's another Ken." Within hours, these easily copyable pieces of digital pop art became fodder for memes, with user-made versions poking fun at everything from the campy horror hit "M3GAN" to Gwyneth Paltrow's ski trial.  

As spring turned into summer, Barbiecore – beauty and fashion inspired by the doll's aesthetic — took on a life of its own. The fad was helped along by an astounding number of corporate collaborations. Aldo, Bloomingdale's, Chi, Forever21, Gap, Ulta, and XBox all sold exclusive merchandise. Shakes made from Cold Stone's "Barbie" branded ice cream turned boys into Barbies in a new TikTok trend. "Barbie" Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the Philippines and Burger King meals in Brazil were so popular, customers from other nations begged the companies to make them available elsewhere. Cinemark's "Barbie" cups and popcorn buckets sold out in theaters weeks before the film's release, and on July 14, 2023, a waitlist to purchase them online crashed the theater chain's website. "Barbie" items are eye-poppingly marked up on the secondary market, but the hottest ticket is the one that gets you into the July 19th Blowout Parties: Most seats for the early screenings were gone in minutes. 

Though there weren't as many "Oppenheimer" memes or merch made more valuable by scarcity, Nolan's film still benefitted from the frenzy. If "Barbie" was in the zeitgeist, so was "Oppenheimer" by association ... especially once the term "Barbenheimer" caught on.  

Barbenheimer is upon us

"Barbenheimer" — a portmanteau of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" — was coined on April 26, 2022, the very same day that the release date of "Barbie" was announced, in response to a DiscussingFilm tweet that asked readers to weigh in on which film they planned to see. Its usage became more common on the internet and in real life the closer audiences got to that fateful date of July 21, 2023. The term applied to the cultural impact of the day (or really, the weekend) itself and to the practice of watching both movies back-to-back. Enterprising designers sold custom shirts on Etsy for those who intended to turn "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" into a double feature, and "Barbenheimer" memes proliferated. 

Celebrities got in on the act. Tom Cruise bought tickets to both and enthusiastically endorsed the concept of "Barbenheimer." In response, Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie showed off their ticket stubs for "Oppenheimer" and "Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1." While Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, and Emily Blunt didn't post any pictures to social media, the director and his stars all said they expect to see "Barbie" and publicly supported their fellow filmmakers.  

Where there had once been the perception of intense competition, there was now anticipation about the combined cinematic event of the summer. AMC announced that 20,000 members of its loyalty program had already purchased tickets to both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer," and with demand increasing, the chain is staggering showings to accommodate customers. Though pre-sales favor one movie over the other, "Barbenheimer" is real, and it really did improve both films' prospects. 

Fans debate which to see first

As it turns out, movie lovers contain multitudes. Many of the same people who were eagerly awaiting "Oppenheimer" are also interested in seeing "Barbie," and vice versa. Especially considering the credentials of the casts and crews, this really shouldn't have come as a surprise. The "Barbenheimer" phenomenon may have even won both films some extra audience share, for fear of missing out on the communal experience. Although audiences no longer felt pressure to choose, one important question remained: which to see first? 

The cultural conversation shifted from which was the more anticipated film to what was the ideal order in which to see them. Among the many factors to consider are runtime, ticket availability, meal breaks, and most of all, mood. "Barbie" clocks in at just under two hours, while "Oppenheimer" is exactly three. "Barbie" tickets have been harder to come by, but "Oppenheimer's" longer runtime makes it trickier to schedule. Nolan's film promises to leave audiences devastated, while Gerwig's seems effervescent. Arguments can be made for both combinations. The "Oppenheimer" then "Barbie" camp thinks the latter will be a much-needed pick-me-up, while much of the "Barbie" then "Oppenheimer" camp is attending those early themed screenings. Suggested food and drink pairings including brunch and mimosas for "Barbie" and black coffee and cigarettes for "Oppenheimer." 

For anyone having trouble deciding, Tom Cruise is opting for "Oppenheimer" on Friday night and "Barbie" on Saturday, while Kate McKinnon recommends "Barbie" followed by "Oppenheimer" followed by "Barbie" again, then pizza. 

Who will be the victor?

According to Greta Gerwig, there are no losers in "Barbie" v. "Oppenheimer." The writer-director told Vanity Fair that, "It's all love," between the two casts and crews. That's an admirable sentiment, particularly as the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have joined together on the picket lines, but "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" will inevitably be compared to each other according to metrics like box office grosses, audiences' reactions, critics' reviews, and awards. 

"Barbie" is on pace for an opening weekend of around $80 million, while "Oppenheimer" is tracking at around $40 to $50 million. However, projections have been unreliable this summer; "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" did much better than estimates suggested, while "The Flash" underperformed. "Barbie's" PG-13 rating — unusual for a movie based on a doll — could limit its client base to teens and adults, though "Oppenheimer's" R-rating and heavy subject matter are even more restrictive. "Barbie" was also more expensive to produce, which means it has to outperform "Oppenheimer" to make back its money. That shouldn't be a problem. If fan enthusiasm is to be trusted, "Barbie" could easily exceed expectations.

Conversely, critical response and awards bodies may favor "Oppenheimer." Nolan's biopic is standard awards fare. On, it's currently ranked second as a potential best picture contender behind Martin Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon" ("Barbie" is running in 10th). At the time of writing, review embargoes haven't lifted, but first reactions to Nolan's film have been effusive, while Gerwig's tonally risky picture — which fewer critics have seen — could be more divisive. But the real winners are movie lovers, who get "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" on the same day, and who've had nearly two years' worth of fun leading up to it.