The summer movie season of 2023 has been a remarkable one, thanks to two unexpected blockbusters that have shattered records and sparked a cultural phenomenon. Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ and Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ have together grossed over $2.2 billion worldwide, making this the first summer since the pandemic to surpass $4 billion in domestic revenue.
The Rise of ‘Barbie’
‘Barbie’, starring Margot Robbie as the iconic doll who questions her existence and embarks on a journey of self-discovery, was not expected to be a major hit when it was released on July 21. The film faced stiff competition from Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’, a biographical thriller about the physicist who led the development of the atomic bomb, which opened on the same day. Critics and audiences were skeptical about how Gerwig, best known for her indie dramas ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Little Women’, would handle a big-budget fantasy comedy based on a toy franchise.
However, ‘Barbie’ proved to be a surprise sensation, earning rave reviews from critics (76% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (A on CinemaScore) alike. The film appealed to a wide demographic, especially women and young girls, who praised its empowering message, witty humor, and colorful visuals. Robbie’s performance as Barbie was widely acclaimed, as she showcased her range and charisma in a role that required her to play multiple versions of the character. The film also featured a star-studded supporting cast, including Ryan Gosling as Ken, Kate McKinnon as Barbie, Issa Rae as Barbie, and Dua Lipa as Barbie.
‘Barbie’ became the highest-grossing film of the year, both domestically and globally, with $612 million in North America and $1.36 billion worldwide. It also became the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, surpassing Patty Jenkins’ ‘Wonder Woman’, which made $821 million globally in 2017. The film also broke several records for Warner Bros., such as the biggest opening weekend ($154 million), the biggest July opening ($154 million), and the biggest PG-13 comedy ($612 million).
The Impact of ‘Oppenheimer’
‘Oppenheimer’, starring Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Matt Damon as Leslie Groves, was expected to be a major hit, given Nolan’s reputation as one of the most successful and influential filmmakers of his generation. The film was Nolan’s first collaboration with Universal Pictures, after he parted ways with Warner Bros. over their decision to release their 2021 slate simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters. Nolan insisted on a theatrical-only release for ‘Oppenheimer’, which was filmed in IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large-format film, including sections in IMAX black-and-white film photography.
The film received critical acclaim, with an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an A- on CinemaScore. Critics praised the film’s screenplay, performances, visuals, and score, while acknowledging its complex and challenging narrative. Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer was hailed as one of his best performances, as he captured the brilliance, charisma, and inner turmoil of the man who helped create the most destructive weapon in history. The film also featured an impressive ensemble cast, including Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, Josh Hartnett as Senate Aide Scott Grimes as Counsel Jason Clarke as Roger Robb Kurt Koehler as Thomas Morgan Tony Goldwyn as Gordon Gray John Gowans as Ward Evans Macon Blair as Lloyd Garrison James D’Arcy as Patrick Blackett Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr Harry Groener as Senator McGee Gregory Jbara as Chairman Magnuson Ted King as Senator Bartlett Tim DeKay as Senator Pastore Steven Houska as Senator Scott Director Christopher Nolan Writers Christopher Nolan Kai Bird Martin Sherwin
‘Oppenheimer’ became the third-highest-grossing film of the year worldwide, with $850 million, behind only ‘Barbie’ and Sony’s animated ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’, which made $1.05 billion. It also became Nolan’s third-highest-grossing film ever, behind only ‘The Dark Knight’ ($1 billion) and ‘Inception’ ($828 million). The film performed especially well in China, where it made $230 million, becoming the highest-grossing World War II-related film in the country.
The Barbenheimer Phenomenon
The simultaneous release of ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ on July 21 created an unprecedented situation in the movie industry, as both films were highly anticipated and critically acclaimed. Instead of competing with each other, the films complemented each other, creating a synergy that boosted their box office performance. Audiences were drawn to the contrast between the two films, as they offered different genres, tones, styles, and themes. Many moviegoers decided to see both films as a double feature, dubbed as the Barbenheimer phenomenon, which became a viral trend on social media.
The Barbenheimer phenomenon also sparked a cultural conversation about the state of cinema in the post-pandemic era, as both films demonstrated the power and appeal of theatrical experiences. Both films were praised for their originality, creativity, and diversity, as they challenged the dominance of superhero and franchise films that have dominated the box office in recent years. Both films also addressed relevant and timely issues, such as identity, feminism, ethics, and history, in an engaging and entertaining way.
The Barbenheimer phenomenon also had a positive impact on the movie industry as a whole, as it revived the summer movie season, which had been severely affected by the pandemic. The success of both films encouraged studios to release more films in theaters, rather than on streaming platforms or with hybrid models. The success of both films also inspired filmmakers and audiences to embrace more diverse and innovative stories and storytellers, rather than relying on formulaic and predictable narratives.