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What to know about the 'Barbenheimer' double-feature frenzy

Posters advertise "Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" in New York and California, respectively. They both hit theaters nationwide Friday.
Arturo Holmes / Mario Tama
Getty Images
Posters advertise "Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" in New York and California, respectively. They both hit theaters nationwide Friday.

The two big movies hitting theaters on Friday couldn't be more different.

There's Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan's sprawling biographical thriller about the man known as the father of the atomic bomb, which the director has said will leave viewers "absolutely devastated." And there's Greta Gerwig's Barbie, a fantasy comedy with original songs and enough pink paint to prompt a real-life shortage.

Together, they form Barbenheimer. Or is it Oppenbarbie? Boppenheimer? Whatever you call it, it's blown up into a cultural juggernaut.

Warner Bros. and Mattel unleashed a powerful Barbie marketing blitz, with over 100 official brand collaborations. Retailers and restaurants have followed suit, offering their own twist on "Barbiecore." And while Oppenheimer has taken a more subdued approach, all the hype appears to have given both movies a boost.

For weeks, people have been making memes and merchandise celebrating the mashup, effectively transforming a box-office battle into an unlikely double feature. And it seems many people are actually committing to the bit: The National Association of Theatre Owners projects that more than 200,000 moviegoers will attend same-day viewings of both movies across North America this weekend.

"This weekend has captured the cultural imagination in an unprecedented way," association president and CEO Michael O'Leary told NPR in a statement. "People ... are flocking to the theatres in groups, with family, friends, neighbors, to celebrate two different, but amazing motion pictures."

What's the deal with these movies?

Both movies come from directors with devoted fanbases, feature ensemble casts and grapple with existential dread — to varying degrees.

Oppenheimer tells the story of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Peaky Blinders' Cillian Murphy), who directed the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II and helped develop the country's first nuclear weapons. Nolan has described him as "the most important person who ever lived."

Upon seeing the first successful bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1945, Oppenheimer reportedly quoted a Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" — now available on a T-shirt in pink curlicue script, as it happens.

The three-hour epic is based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird. It's the 12th film by Nolan, whose previous blockbusters include The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Dunkirk.

Barbie, on the other hand, follows the Mattel icon (played by Margot Robbie) as she experiences an existential crisis: "Do you guys ever think about dying?" she asks on the dance floor at one point in the trailer. She and Ken (a very committed Ryan Gosling) leave idyllic-looking Barbieland behind to explore the real world and discover "the truth about the universe."

Indie director Gerwig wrote the screenplay with her partner Noah Baumbach. This is her third film as solo director, after Lady Bird and Little Women. The movie, which clocks in at just under two hours, amounts to both corporate propaganda and Malibu metacommentary, NPR's Aisha Harris writes.

Why are they coming out on the same day?

It's increasingly rare for two such high-profile movies to hit theaters on the same day.

Some think it might have to do with Nolan leaving Warner Bros. (after its controversial decision to release its 2021 movies in theaters and on its streaming service simultaneously) and make Oppenheimer with Universal instead. Their theory is that Warner Bros. chose to release Barbie the same day out of spite. When asked about this by Insider at a recent press event, Nolan chuckled and refused to answer.

Opposite blockbusters have been pitted against each other in the past, like 10 Things I Hate About You opening against The Matrix in 1999. And, in a much-discussed parallel, Nolan's The Dark Knight premiered on the same day as Mamma Mia in the summer of 2008.

Experts say releasing two different genres of movies on the same day can actually be good for business, especially if they appeal to distinct demographics. And it certainly appears to be fueling ticket sales for both Barbie and Oppenheimer, whose target audiences may not be as segmented as some originally thought.

One Twitter user went viral back in Aprilfor suggesting there would be little overlap. He was immediately inundated with tweets — many from women in STEM — proving otherwise.

The Barbenheimer frenzy has reached a fever pitch in the weeks since. Viral social media memes have poked fun at everything from the movies' opposing aesthetics to viewers' requisite costume changes to the sheer volume of the hype itself.

People have started making Barbie/Oppenheimer posters featuring a massive pink mushroom cloud. And sites like Etsy and Redbubble are selling all kinds of crossover T-shirts, mixing and matching the movies' slogans and visuals.

"It's Mattel versus the Manhattan Project and BarbenHeimer," Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Comscore, told NPR's Mandalit del Barco. "That just means that this is going viral, and that's good news for both Barbie and Oppenheimer."

What's the ideal viewing order?

There's been so much chatter about seeing both movies that it's even spurred a spirited online debate: Which one should you watch first?

Spending five-plus hours in a movie theater is no small commitment, and there's been a lot of discussionon how best to go about it. Do you start with Oppenheimer and some strong coffee, and finish with Barbie and a dance party? Or do you ease in with a Barbie brunch so you can drag your depleted self straight to bed when it's all over?

While public opinion seems to favor ending on a lighter note, there are compelling arguments to be made for each side, as Slate reports.

Some experts have weighed in, too. Robbie, Barbie herself, called it a "perfect double bill" at her movie's premiere last week. "I think actually start your day with Barbie, then go straight into Oppenheimer and then a Barbie chaser," she said.

Tom Cruise, whose latest Mission: Impossible movie opened in theaters last week, said at his premiere that he plans to see both, likely starting with Oppenheimer. Others have endorsed his approach. "If you see Oppenheimer last, then you might be a bit of a psychopath," Barbie actor Issa Rae said.

Gerwig told The Hollywood Reporter she also recommends treating Barbie as a palate cleanser. "I want to have mimosas and drinks and cocktails after Barbie, I don't want to, like, sulk," she said. "That's just my plan. As long as you're seeing Barbie, I don't care."

What's Hollywood saying?

Those who worked on the movies appear to be enjoying the rivalry-turned-alliance. A picture of Gerwig and Robbie posing with their Oppenheimer theater tickets last month, for example, sent the internet into another minor frenzy.

"I love that there's solidarity though, where people tried to pit us against one another but now it's turned into like a double-feature situation," Gerwig told THR. She also told USA Today she feels "very shiny" to be associated with Oppenheimer, adding that "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Nolan told Insider that many in the industry have been longing for "a crowded marketplace with a lot of different movies." He added, "That's what theaters have now, and those of us who care about movies are thrilled about that."

Oppenheimer actor Emily Blunt, who wore "Barbie" pink heels to her movie's premiere, similarly told USA TODAY the other film's cast has been "so supportive" toward hers. "It doesn't have to be competitive!" she said. "It's really cool and that's what we want: that full spectrum of what you can see in movie theaters. We love it."

An important note: Now that SAG-AFTRA is on strike, the actors are officially prohibited from promoting their movies. That's why the Oppenheimer stars walked out of the London premiere last week, and why Robbie's glamorous parade of Barbie-inspired red carpet outfits was cut short.

And don't worry, you can watch the movies without crossing the proverbial picket line. The actors' and writers' unions say it's OK to go to the movies (or even stream content online), The New York Times reports.

In fact, The Associated Press adds, the guilds have not asked fans to boycott productions — and are instead encouraging non-members to show their support by posting on social media and donating to community funds.

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.