Barbenheimer: Barbie v The Bomb

By Stephen Aspeling22 May 2024

Barbenheimer: Barbie v The Bomb

There was a time when movies were movies… before talking creatures, alien robots and caped wrecking crews took the world by storm. Yes, this was a simpler time when you couldn’t simply “fix it in post” – an age when actors had to have a little thing called “talent”, as Michael J Fox so deftly quipped. Well, as much as the superhero “theme park rides” have continued to vex real artists like Martin Scorsese, there’s a band of directors who believe that if you build it, they will come. This isn’t some obscure Wayne’s World reference but a notion that you can have your popcorn and eat it too. 

Directors like Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig aren’t sitting back and complaining about Marvel’s box office dominion, they’re trying to make films that will ironically save us from the onslaught of superhero blockbusters. Gerwig has been rising through the ranks of indie films alongside the likes of Noah Baumbach, which is why no one would have guessed she’d even consider going to the blonde side.  

Barbie movie on Showmax

Knowing what we know now, Gerwig is the real hero – having rescued a Barbie movie that was stuck in development hell for yonks by turning it inside out and taking the wheel of a campy, delicious and timely fantasy comedy joy ride. Nolan’s deliberately old school and has been on this journey for a long time, single-handedly trying to save cinema with the puzzling and mesmerising Tenet only to pre-empt the explosive cinematic event that is the epic historical thriller, Oppenheimer

While technically 14 years apart, with the atom bomb being deployed in Hiroshima in 1945 and Barbie making her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York in 1959, their films share the same release date. A strange coincidence, both enjoying a months-long build-up from sneak peek photos to never-ending casting news, the pop culture hype, slow-boiling anticipation and media frenzy of it all could have resulted in a sparkly pink mushroom cloud of doom. Instead of coming out swinging, the filmmakers realised that they could combine their powers for mutually assured satisfaction in an operation (or cultural phenomenon) known as Barbenheimer. 

Essentially making sure there was something for everyone, their same-day release meant audiences could plan a double feature or nail their pink colours to the mast by picking one to rule them all. Hype was the common denominator, making two of the biggest films of the year share the podium as cinemagoers got a welcome alternative to how-they-got-their-superpower origin stories and anthropomorphic cuteness overload. The good news is that you can now do a double feature movie marathon or watch these epic movies at your leisure.  

Oppenheimer on Showmax

Christopher Nolan is lightyears away from the shiny happy people vibrations of a glitzy Barbie movie, known for his brooding, monumental and cataclysmic films. Grappling with the epic character portrait that is Robert J Oppenheimer’s story, this black-and-white drama of seismic proportions is as intellectual as it is eye-popping. A moral minefield where the complex yet brilliant Oppenheimer had to navigate his way towards ending a war without betraying his country, or completely losing his mind, it’s laden with haunting and slow-burning suspense. Keeping the grey cells firing in our heads, Oppenheimer was designed for maximum impact, doing wonders with sight and sound to immerse us in the fragile times and exact its payload in the most visceral way short of indoor pyrotechnics. 

Oppenheimer on Showmax

While Christopher Nolan seems to have hit the right balance when it comes to unearthing arthouse movies with commercial appeal, Greta Gerwig is finding a similar space. Both directors are master collaborators and have tuned into a frequency that enables them to make bankable films without compromising their creative integrity, yet in essence, they’re worlds apart. Nolan ventures on the dark side of the human psyche with a clinical approach to filmmaking while Gerwig has a lighter and more human touch.  

A distinguished gentleman who arrives on set with a suit and without a cellphone, his professional conduct sets the tone for his productions, an atmosphere that translates to screen across every department. This is why Nolan’s movies are more suited to drama, shying away from humour to deliver on grandeur and gravitas. Being an actor, it’s not surprising that Gerwig aims for a more naturalistic approach to directing her actors, allowing them to bring their own performance to screen. Having a long history that typically involves some form of comedy or dramedy, the director’s work is incisive yet comedic in nature thanks to sharp witty dialogue. 

Both actor-focused and collaborative, it’s not surprising they tend to attract the who’s who of Hollywood as evidenced by the stellar casts behind Barbie and Oppenheimer. Great directors get the best out of their actors and create the right conditions for them to shine, which typically means more golden statuettes come awards season. This means that when an effective actor-director combination happens, it’s likely to happen agai,n much like Greta Gerwig has done with Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan – and Nolan has done with Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy.  

Barbie movie is now on Showmax

Landing Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as her co-leads, Gerwig has two of the generation’s best actors effectively playing humanoid dolls. A staggering achievement that took some convincing with a spill of comedy legends including: Will Ferrell, Kate McKinnon and Michael Cera, it’s equally incredible to read Nolan’s cast list for Oppenheimer. Who better to carry the crown than longtime collaborator Cillian Murphy, whose gaunt facial features and enigmatic presence underscore Oppenheimer’s dark and somber tone. Having Murphy as the iconic lead, it’s no wonder the ensemble dominated movie news in the build-up with Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek and Robert Downey Jr to name a few. 

Picking a clear winner from Barbenheimer ignores the whole point of this cultural phenomenon because it was designed to ensure there were no losers. Barbie cleared $1.4 billion at the box office, making it the popular choice but even though Oppenheimer didn’t crack the $1 billion mark, it surged ahead at the Oscars, which is naturally geared towards drama over comedy. The real winner is you, because these films reignited the hype and fun of the movie-watching experience. Now that they’re both available for your streaming pleasure, it’s time to play catch up or gather your movie posse and watch them all over again – with feeling.