Spin-Off: Now We Are Become Barbenheimer, Made Up Of Glitter And Guilt

The online discourse around Barbie and Oppenheimer started off as vibrant, but quickly devolved into binaries. Is it really that hard to appreciate one without discrediting the other?
Spin-Off: Now We Are Become Barbenheimer, Made Up Of Glitter And Guilt

One of the most joyous, spontaneously-sprung internet movements in the recent past involved two movies of unlikely double-bill status. One, a coming-of-age tale of girlhood awash with a pink palette and partly set in a fantasy world; the other, set largely during World War II and reckoning with the evils of men. Instead of pitting these two films (which released on the same date) against each other, why not do both, the internet countered. Barbie (2023) or Oppenheimer (2023) became Barbie and Oppenheimer — Barbenheimer, if you will, a Frankenstein portmanteau of glitter and guilt.

Barbie first and then Oppenheimer? Or Oppenheimer first and then Barbie? What order in which to see them? Drawing up pre-release viewing schedules meant slotting these films into silos, based on the little footage available, taking a cue from the marketing. Oppenheimer, which writer-director Christopher Nolan said would leave audiences “absolutely devastated” and unable to speak, seemed the logical first choice. Barbie, with its embrace of goofiness, lighthearted charm and revolving door of meme-able Ryan Gosling expressions, would be a soothing balm, an antidote to the dourness of the other film.

Spin-Off: Now We Are Become Barbenheimer, Made Up Of Glitter And Guilt
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But, having watched both movies, they resist easy categorization – Barbie’s existential crisis culminates in a depressive spiral that seeks comfort in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Oppenheimer is an operatic tragedy that still offers moments of levity and sharp banter (when a general rebuffs the physicist’s suggestion that he get a Nobel Prize for his work on the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer smugly responds that Alfred Nobel once invented dynamite). And the movies have overlapping ideas – both Barbie and Oppenheimer are major American icons grappling with the weight of their legacy, devastated by the devastation they have left in their wake. Barbie, sure that she and her fellow dolls have encouraged generations of girls to grow up believing in themselves, is horrified to discover that all they’ve done is prompt negative self-image. Oppenheimer, having convinced himself the Americans needed to build the atomic bomb before the Germans did, is left distraught by the blood on his hands after it’s used against the Japanese.

Both Barbie and Oppenheimer must wrestle with the ways in which they’ve shaped society for the worse. Both are haunted by recurring thoughts of death. Both films grapple with their protagonists’ image, though it’s unclear whether Oppenheimer is also preoccupied with thoughts of cellulite. And they’ve both provoked unending internet conversation.

On Twitter, where no cinematic main course is satisfying without a side serving of Discourse ™, the churn started during the pre-release publicity, frothing over after the films opened in theatres. Does Oppenheimer fail the Bechdel test? Are Cillian Murphy’s cheekbones responsible for sparking more body image issues than a doll with anatomically impossible proportions? Is Barbie anti-men? Has director and co-writer Greta Gerwig made a film that is too ‘woke’? Is the film's reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey "smashing bro cinema"?

Spin-Off: Now We Are Become Barbenheimer, Made Up Of Glitter And Guilt
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In the rapid-fire back-and-forth, what became clear was that for some people, neither movie was enough. Oppenheimer has been criticised for failing to include the Japanese point of view – we never see Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the movie, only Oppenheimer’s guilt over the bombings – while Barbie’s big feminist swings have been likened to an “Instagram infographic from a cringey girlboss page”.

It’s true – both films are characterized by a limited perspective. In Barbie, a doll suspended in a blissfully uncomplicated phase of her life discovers the messiness of the human experience, and mimics the transition from girlhood to adolescence. It has little to offer women who have already crystallised for themselves what it means to exist as a mass of contradictions. “You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas,” a character says at one point. Co-writer and director Greta Gerwig might as well have slipped in, “You have to make a Mattel film which is just subversive enough to not feel like product placement, but not too subversive that it alienates the suits.”

Yet there’s real satisfaction to be gained from Barbie’s cathartic ending, in which she realises she no longer has to ask for permission to live the way she chooses. However, two hours of gender politics and existentialism boil down to a simple exhortation to let women live? Who doesn’t concur?

Meanwhile, Oppenheimer unfolds from the singular point of view of a man wracked with regret over what he has wrought. Despite not presenting the Japanese perspective, the film makes clear the horrors unleashed upon them, first through a scene in which the physicist has nightmarish visions while speaking to a jubilant crowd and then later, when he is repeatedly questioned about the number of estimated casualties.

Spin-Off: Now We Are Become Barbenheimer, Made Up Of Glitter And Guilt
Box Office Report : Oppenheimer v Barbie

What the discourse has lost sight of is that both movies themselves are undeniable achievements. Barbie has had the largest US opening this year, and the largest ever for a female director. Oppenheimer has had the best US opening for a non-Batman Nolan film. It’s doubled its US box-office projections so far. Barbie has tripled it. In India, the films have sold a combined 1.9 million tickets on the ticketing website BookMyShow alone. They’ve sparked an enthusiastic return of the cinema-going experience, with theme dressing, sold-out 3.45am shows and repeat viewings. The films might not be the internet wants them to be, but, warts and all, they’re the best thing to have happened to cinema in a while. For now, that’s Kenough.

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