barbie in front of atomic bomb. filmgoers are linking Barbie and Oppenheimer together because the movies have the same release date. Many are planning a Barbenheimer double feature on July 21.

Universal Pictures/YouTube Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube remix by Jason Reed

The rise of Barbenheimer, the cinematic-social media crossover of the year

Barbenheimer has led to ticket sales, artwork, double feature plans, stolen artwork, and spam.


Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 19, 2023   Updated on Jul 23, 2023, 6:59 am CDT

We saw our fair share of odd movie pairings before Barbenheimer. It’s not unusual to see filmmakers supporting each other’s movies alongside their own, especially amid the uncertain cinematic landscape struggling to recover from the pandemic. We’re not even strangers to memes being so pervasive that they try to make the leap to real life (with varying results).

Over the past 15 months—especially the past few weeks—Barbenheimer has become a beast unto itself. One that some hope will revitalize the thrill of going to theaters again, tell studios we want more than a certain kind of movie, and maybe even save cinema itself. Even more impressively, it’s a meme that lept off our screens and into our hearts, providing us endless amusement.

There are few commonalities between Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s character study of a man whose work ended a war and destroyed the lives of thousands, and Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s self-aware satire of one of our childhood’s most famous brands. Based on promotional material we’ve seen, the two movies are in different genres and feature different tones. They are also targeted toward vastly different audiences. Nolan and Gerwig might be two of a small selection of filmmakers whose names help sell the movie as much as who’s in them or the story they’re telling. But circumstance (and perhaps some industry pettiness) brought these two films, both alike in dignity, together: A theatrical release date of July 21, 2023.

Now that we’ve arrived at the week of the release date, Barbenheimer mania is everywhere. There are memes galore, debates about viewing order, fanart, T-shirts (and a prevailing T-shirt spam problem on one social media platform in particular). But some people have plans to pull off one of the strangest double features. The latest box office tracking projections have Barbie debuting anywhere from $90 million to $110 million and Oppenheimer at around $49 million. According to AMC Theatres, over 40,000 AMC Stubs members purchased tickets for both movies on the same day, which doubled from last week.

And, in one case of the meme coming to life, a TikTok posted by a Barnes & Noble located in Olympia, Washington, showed off a decked-out shelf display that includes a mashup movie poster, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (the biography Oppenheimer is adapted from), and more Barbie merch than anyone would know what to do with.

@bnolympia what are you taking with you- wrong answers only 💖#barbenheimer #barbiemovie #oppenheimer ♬ Barbie Girl – Lady Aqua

“As we’ve been planning events, at least for the last year, we knew this would be the big event for 2023,” Stephen Taylor, the founder of Colorway Productions, a New York-based film co-op that provides film production services, told the Daily Dot. “Just ‘cause both Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig, as directors, bring a lot of interest, but also the various cast members and the stories that they’re gonna be telling on the 21st. This is something that we’ve had like on our radar for quite some time.”

Barbenheimer: The release date that led to a cultural shift

Regarding which movie snagged the coveted July 21 release first, that’s easy to determine: It was Oppenheimer.

In October 2021, the trades announced that Nolan would write and direct Oppenheimer, which ended up at Universal Pictures after a bidding war. Those reports also revealed Cillian Murphy (who had already appeared in several Nolan films) would star as J. Robert Oppenheimer as well as the release date. The move also signaled that Nolan was leaving his long-time studio, Warner Bros., for Universal due to Nolan’s displeasure over Warner Bros.’ decision to release its 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on streaming, which was in response to the pandemic.

Barbie may have been in development longer, with several different directors and stars attached to it before Gerwig took the helm with a script written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling star in the movie. But Warner Bros. officially set the matchup on April 26, 2022, when it debuted a first-look photo and announced Barbie’s release date at CinemaCon.

The immediate write-ups of the Barbie first-look photo zeroed in on that eventual box office matchup. Variety’s article mentioned the film opening against Oppenheimer, while Collider’s write-up zeroed in on the apparent slight toward Nolan. “The cast around this film is just insane, and it is hilariously starting to look like WB’s counter-response to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer—which just so happens to hit theaters on the same day,” Collider’s Shane Romanchick wrote at the time.

“The sheer contrast of these two star-studded films writes itself a great story to tell,” Sophie Katsali, who co-hosts That Final Scene (a podcast that dissects the endings of movies and TV shows) and is a social media strategist for global brands, told the Daily Dot in an email. “Barbie isn’t just another comedy or musical—it really is the embodiment of meme-fication, nostalgia & [over-the-top]ness all together. On the other hand, Oppenheimer is Nolan’s most serious film to date, tackling a severely challenging and controversial subject. I don’t think the reason is gendered at all.”

It’s not the first time one of Nolan’s movies faced off against a movie targeted at women. The most notable one was the summer of 2008 when The Dark Knight squared off against Mamma Mia!, but back then, it was less about which movie would win but rather allowing both films to coexist. This matchup, however, comes with some baggage. Much of the conversation on social media was also framed around the idea that you could only choose one. (Despite Nolan and Gerwig being both popular and beloved filmmakers in their own right.)

Where did the term Barbenheimer come from?

The oldest surviving tweet with the portmanteau “Barbenheimer” is in response to a tweet from the Discussing Film Twitter account by Twitter user @Fruityfruit6 on April 26, 2022. When posed with the question, “Which [film] will you be watching?”, @Fruityfruit6 simply wrote “BARBENHEIMER” in all caps.

Rosen Thorne and New York Times Opinion culture editor Adam Sternbergh were early to suggest a Barbenheimer double feature, while one of the earliest Photoshops arrived just one day after news of the box office matchup broke.

A year later, the face-off was still framed as a battle over which movie would win at the box office. “The ‘BARBIE’ and ‘OPPENHEIMER’ war is still on,” Discussing Film declared. “Both films have no plans to shift release dates.” According to Insider, Nolan was reportedly upset over Barbie being scheduled for release on the same day as Oppenheimer and tried to get Warner Bros. to move Barbie’s release date to no avail.

Barbenheimer: From antagonists to co-leads

For some, it would never be a question of either/or. It would always be both.

“It was always the case that we wanted people to come and see both,” Jon Attfield, an illustrator whose Barbenheimer fanart recently went viral and who works part-time at the Phoenix, an independent movie theater and digital arts center in Leicester, England, told the Daily Dot in an email. “How would you be able to decide which one was your favourite if you didn’t see both? Playing up the competitive side of things was a great way to engage with visitors to the cinema, but the winner of this will always be the cinema industry.”

Colorway also operates Reel Life, which has hosted a series of events that allow the film community to connect and network without the formality of being on set. It’s through Reel Life that Colorway is hosting its first-ever double feature with Barbenheimer. Taylor said the film community was always receptive to the meme.

“The filmmakers and people that work in film that I’m around generally were already pretty on board with embodying the meme,” Taylor told the Daily Dot. “But once I was just like talking to my friends I hang out with that don’t work in film, and they were also pretty much carrying the same vibe about it. I was like, OK, so this isn’t just if you’re into film or if you’re into like these directors. Everybody feels on the same page about how to go see these movies.”

The two movies are natural visual contrasts, which could be shown just by placing the two posters next to each other—something that happened at this year’s CinemaCon. And while it’s not the first time a meme took hold of a movie like this, it had a much different result. After the release of Morbius in 2022, ironic “It’s Morbin’ Time” memes emerged around the idea that nobody saw Morbius in theaters, prompting Sony to put the movie back in theaters. It bombed a second time.

Morbius memes didn’t lead to box office sales for a reason. Morbius was a bad movie, and Sony (the studio behind it) didn’t see the more ironic tone of the memes. Barbie and Oppenheimer have more going for them to make the meme go the distance. 

“I feel that Barbenheimer has been successful because it’s probably two very respected, critically acclaimed filmmakers, and there’s pretty big confidence that they’re going to be good,” Galen Powell, Colorway’s president, told the Daily Dot. “And it’s not just that, but I think really what’s gotten people so excited for Barbenheimer is just the dichotomy. It’s two totally different movies, and they almost could not be more different. One is just this pink, cuddly, girly, fashionable tale about favorite toys from our childhood, and the other is about one of the darkest chapters in humanity’s history and the creation of the atomic bomb. So it’s just like a match made in heaven. Opposites attract.”

Barbenheimer: Fan creations and the stolen T-shirt brigade

Whether to embody the competition or the solidarity of Barbenheimer, people have been mashing up the two movies since the beginning. Each piece or recreation may go more viral than the next. It’s created a headache for the people who make them—and pretty much anyone on Twitter who wants to engage with Barbie or Barbenheimer.

Hunter Hudson, whose pink-and-black split Barbenheimer T-shirt went viral, told the New York Times that he initially made the shirt for himself and his friends and was flooded with requests from other people to buy his Barbenheimer shirt. He’s since sold multiple runs of the shirt and is currently running what he calls the “Last restock EVER.” 

Attfield initially went to Phoenix’s marketing team to create a Street Fighter-esque animation showing Barbie and Oppenheimer facing off one another (which he eventually did with Les Hayden).

But Phoenix, the movie theater and digital arts center, also wanted to commemorate Barbenheimer with a special issue brochure and asked Attfield to create a cover for it. The result, which went viral and shared across the internet, merges Robbie and Murphy’s faces amid the backdrops of their respective movies. But in their eyes, you can see a nod to their polar opposite: In Robbie’s eye is a smoke explosion, while Murphy’s has a heart.

“I wanted it to be bold and attract attention so made focused on the two protagonists looking back at us, sharing the frame like they are both sharing the opening date here in the U.K.,” Attfield said, who was floored by the response to his artwork. “It was important that the[y] were both balanced equally on the page, yin and yang again. That’s why the reflections in their eyes are of each other, they are different sides of the same coin.”

You can only purchase Attfield’s prints (the Barbenheimer split or full renderings of each half) in person at the Phoenix and not online. But that hasn’t stopped Attfield’s art from appearing on T-shirts and unauthorized prints on multiple sites. Sean Longmore, who created a Barbenheimer movie poster for Layered Butter, faced similar issues with stolen work. He and Layered Butter even uploaded a low-quality photo of the poster to help combat people using the art to sell T-shirts. (That hasn’t stopped those knock-offs from popping up.) 

Attfield has been working to get those knockoff shirts and prints removed, but he acknowledged that because he’s one person trying to remove these listings. Because of the sheer volume of spam, “the deck is very much stacked against you.”

“It’s something I haven’t had to deal with much before, it’s so frustrating, and you end up going down a rabbit hole of seeing just how many people have stolen your work,” he said. “Thing is, anyone buying these knock-offs are gonna end up with rubbish as the image stolen from the internet will not be of high enough quality to reproduce on merchandise. Everyone loses apart from the scammers.”

Barbenheimer T-shirts bots on Twitter

The problem is larger than stolen artwork. For the past few weeks, it’s common to have several accounts posting unsolicited links to buy T-shirts anytime you post about Barbie or Barbenheimer. (Those accounts are often verified, boosting their replies to the top.) Many of those T-shirts feature stolen artwork, including Longmore’s. The issue spawned memes.

Powell says he didn’t run into spam issues because Reel Life sells tickets to its events through Instagram (which directly links to the Eventbrite page). But on Twitter, it’s like facing off against a whack-a-mole.

“I want to say I’m shocked that Twitter has left these links up on their platform for so long, but then again, I would be lying,” Katsali observed. “It is definitely pervasive for these movies, and I think the reason for that is it’s because merging two IPs/logos/designs is inherently visual and, therefore, makes for a good T-shirt design.”

My attempt to contact some of the accounts spamming T-shirt links went unanswered. In response to a request for comment on its spam link problem, Twitter replied with a poop emoji, an automated response that’s been in place since March after Elon Musk fired Twitter’s entire communications team.

“I think it’s certainly a much bigger problem given how popular Barbenheimer has become,” Attfield said. “People see everyone talking about it and engaging with it and try to cash in on that popularity. That’s fine, but when you see people’s work, which they spend so much time and effort to create, being used by so many different scammers without permission, it’s really disheartening.”

Barbenheimer gets the filmmakers’ seal of approval

The biggest benchmark on Barbenheimer breaking through might have come from those who make the movies.

“If I remember correctly, the notion of ‘pick both’ started to pick up after 1) Matt Damon said in an interview that people should watch both (when asked about the rivalry of the two) and 2) the meme ‘the duality of a man’ took off on social,” Katsali said. 

Tom Cruise, a champion of the theatrical experience, made a show of purchasing tickets to three other summer blockbuster movies as he was promoting Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning: Part One. On social media, he posted photos of himself and director Christopher McQuarrie buying tickets for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Barbie, and Oppenheimer

“I love a double feature, and it doesn’t get more explosive (or more pink) than one with Oppenheimer and Barbie,” he wrote.

Gerwig and Robbie followed suit as they posed with tickets for those other films, along with Dead Reckoning: Part One.

And as Barbie and Oppenheimer’s press tours played out—the former a worldwide tour complete with dozens of brand collaborations and Robbie wearing recreations of Barbie’s wardrobe during every public appearance, the latter with a more traditional rollout—it was almost impossible to avoid talking about one without the other.

The SAG-AFTRA strike cut the press tours short (strike rules dictate that actors are not allowed to promote their projects). But some of the last soundbites from the actors are about which order to watch the two movies.

And even the strike, paired with the writers’ strike that’s been ongoing for over two months, embraced the Barbenheimer meme.

What does a Barbenheimer double feature look like?

While AMC is self-reporting a big interest in people booking Barbie and Oppenheimer tickets on the same day, it is mostly a fan-motivated effort. But Reel Life saw an opening and launched its first double feature on July 22. The day will start with an Oppenheimer screening in one movie theater and give theatergoers around one hour and 45 minutes for an intermission before convening at a different location for Barbie in the evening.

“Part of our event is we’re actually having a Barbenheimer dress-as contest,” Powell explained. “So it’s either wear[ing] your best Barbie outfit or best Oppenheimer outfit, and we’re going to have a vote on Instagram afterward to see who put together the best ensemble. But I’ve been looking myself, it’s not easy to find pink cowboy boots in my size, but I’m looking to really put something dynamic together. I’m looking to stew more on the Barbie side, but I’m going to see if I can tie some Oppenheimer elements in it as well.”

According to Taylor, Reel Life purchased 40 tickets across both screenings and put them on Eventbrite on July 2. Within one day, they sold 83% of the tickets, prompting Reel Life to buy a few more tickets to sell. By the fourth, the event sold out—and he noted an interest in the double feature beyond the film community. Taylor also acknowledged that one movie might have more presence than the other.

“I think Barbie might be a bit easier to dress up for just ‘cause it’s a bit more modern and probably in more people’s wardrobe already,” he said. “I’m hoping to see some good Oppenheimer [outfits], I guess you could call them cosplays, so some good Oppenheimer cosplay. But it probably will be a bit more difficult, or at least more formal.”

Katsali, who’s been contacted about brand opportunities around Barbenheimer (but not by either film studio), plans to see both movies on the same day (while her co-hosts aren’t). But she also noted that because of the nature of international movie releases, not everyone can even do Barbenheimer.

“Since my listeners are from all over the world, I’ve heard some frustration since many people want to do Barbenheimer, but the films’ release dates do not coincide in all countries,” she said. “For example, in Italy, Barbie comes out first and Oppenheimer follows, so I’ve heard people saying: ‘ugh I wanted to but I can’t here.’”

Attfield is working on opening day, so he won’t be able to attempt Barbenheimer right away. But he’s planning to see both movies with his girlfriend this weekend.

But everyone agrees: Watch Oppenheimer first, and then cool off with Barbie; according to Katsali, 76% of her listeners are going this route. Taylor and Powell know their fellow event-goers might need a breather with something lighter after Oppenheimer’s hefty subject matter. But Barbie’s existential satire might be heavier than it looks.

“I have big respect for people that want to do it the other way round,” Attfield said.

Can Barbenheimer be replicated?

Barbenheimer is an internet fever dream come to life that Warner Bros. and Universal never could’ve planned. And it might just boost both movies financially. But could another unlikely mashup lead to success? (Someone already made a mashup with Napoleon and Wonka, which are set for release in different months.)

“I really hope something like this happens again,” Attfield said. “Something like this once a year would be great. I think this demonstrates that two distributors can share opening weekends with films very different to each other in themes and content and people will want to come see them both. It’s a great chance for people that maybe wouldn’t be thinking of coming to see a certain type of film taking a chance on it.”

But others are less certain about whether another Barbenheimer attempt would work, with some believing that movie studios will at least try to make it happen—especially if they can pull it off with two movies from one major studio.

“I could definitely see them attempting to recreate something like Barbenheimer, but it not getting the same amount of regard or success because it didn’t meet the same criteria that Barbenheimer did,” Powell said. “And I truly believe that’s because it was a matter of happenstance and not something that studios themselves created.”

“And when that happens and they try to take a hold on the marketing for what they believe is possible, or what they believe is popular rather, most times they take kind of a heavy-handed and out-of-touch approach,” he added. “I don’t think that if it was recreated again, that it would be nearly as popular as this event now. I think it’s kind of more of a stars alignment type of thing, and they’ll just be lucky whenever that happens in the future.”

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*First Published: Jul 19, 2023, 2:32 pm CDT