Barbenheimer marked an Internet sensation when it saw the concurrent theatrical premiere of a pair of blockbuster movies on July 21, 2023, across the United States and several other countries. The term “Barbenheimer” emerged as a fusion of the titles of these films, namely Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie” and Universal Pictures’ “Oppenheimer”. These two movies presented a stark juxtaposition: “Barbie,” a whimsical comedy directed by Greta Gerwig, delved into the imaginative world of the iconic fashion doll, whereas “Oppenheimer,” a grand biographical thriller helmed by Christopher Nolan, explored the life of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who spearheaded the Manhattan Project leading to the creation of the first nuclear weapons during World War II.
This striking contrast spurred a flurry of humor from online communities, manifested through memes and merchandise.
The name Barbenheimer can be described by the following equation:
Barbenheimer = Barbie + Oppenheimer
The origins of this sensation can be traced back to social media interactions before these films’ official release. The strategy of releasing these films simultaneously was an example of counterprogramming. As the release date drew nearer, instead of fostering a competitive atmosphere, suggestions began to surface, proposing a back-to-back screening of the movies, coupled with debates on the optimal viewing sequence. The casts of both films responded by actively encouraging viewers to partake in this unique movie-watching experience on the same day. Among the notable participants was renowned actor Tom Cruise, who procured tickets for both films even as his own recent release, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” continued its run in theaters.
Both of these films garnered extensive critical acclaim, surpassing the expectations set by box-office projections. Although the genesis of the phenomenon revolved around the perceived disparities between the two movies, some media commentators have discerned intriguing parallels. Notably, both films have been scrutinized for their explorations of existential themes and the theoretical concept of the Anthropocene epoch. Additionally, each movie boasts a director and screenwriter with Oscar nominations and an extensive ensemble cast, and both were produced by a husband-and-wife production company: Margot Robbie and her husband Tom Ackerley’s LuckyChap Entertainment for Barbie; Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas’ Syncopy Inc. for Oppenheimer.
Renowned film director Francis Ford Coppola hailed both movies as “a victory for cinema.”
Release Date Contention
Amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the cinema landscape, WarnerMedia, the then-parent conglomerate of Warner Bros. Pictures, made waves in December 2020 by revealing plans to exclusively launch all 17 of its forthcoming 2021 films on its streaming platform, HBO Max. This strategy, playfully dubbed “Project Popcorn,” aimed to adapt to the new circumstances. However, it drew swift condemnation the same month from renowned director Christopher Nolan, a long-standing collaborator with Warner Bros. since 2002’s “Insomnia”. Voicing his dissent to The Hollywood Reporter, Nolan lamented, “The eve before, many of the most revered filmmakers and celebrated stars of our industry saw themselves in league with the finest film studio. The dawn revealed they were, in fact, tethered to the most subpar streaming service”. In a pointed critique, he emphasized that Warner Bros. failed to grasp the extent of their losses and asserted that their resolution was devoid of economic rationale. Ultimately, Warner Bros. retracted their initial blueprint of an exclusive streaming release for their cinematic endeavors in March 2021.
Notwithstanding Warner Bros.’s initial trajectory, Nolan engaged in discussions with rival studios. His declaration in September 2021 disclosed that his forthcoming project, “Oppenheimer,” would find its distribution home at Universal Pictures rather than Warner. Stipulations for this collaboration encompassed a designated moratorium, wherein no other film would debut three weeks prior to or after the release, and a steadfast commitment to uphold a 100-day window exclusively for theatrical showings, thereby averting an immediate streaming arrival. The subsequent month saw Universal pinpointing July 21, 2023, as the momentous launch date for “Oppenheimer”. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. had originally slotted “Coyote vs. Acme” for release on the identical July 21 date. However, in April 2022, a revision emerged as the studio proclaimed that the film “Barbie” would take up that slot instead, effectively setting the stage for a direct clash with Nolan’s creation.
The crux of this strategic maneuver can be traced back to Nolan’s discord with Warner, which acted as the primary catalyst. Speculation abounded, with Insider suggesting that positioning the long-gestating “Barbie” project squarely against “Oppenheimer” might have been a retaliatory act against Nolan for terminating his longstanding affiliation with the studio.
Starting in January 2022, the first “Barbenheimer” posts emerged online, originating from a joke about the rapid casting competition between Universal’s “Oppenheimer” and Warner Bros.’s “Barbie,” as reported by Know Your Meme. @FilmUpdates, then on Twitter, later confirmed that both films would release on the same day in 2023, prompting fans to embrace the term “Barbenheimer.”
By December, a fan began a countdown to the release, and the phrase continued into 2023 as enthusiasts planned double-feature outings. The comedic dichotomy between a vibrant pink tale about Mattel dolls and a serious portrayal of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb development sparked humor, leading to a plethora of online memes combining both movies’ promotional images.
In an interview with BBC Radio 1 on July 18, Margot Robbie, who stars as Barbie in the titular movie, and Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken, shared their thoughts on the “Barbenheimer” memes.
Meanwhile, Twitter users were creating memes of their own.
Here is another creative meme:
Watch the following video editing. It’ll blow your mind.
The Barbenheimer trend encountered a negative reception in Japan, primarily due to the contentious nature of “Oppenheimer,” a film that hadn’t been screened in the country due to its sensitive subject matter. A notable incident unfolded when the official Twitter account of the live-action Barbie movie (@barbiethemovie) responded positively to fan-designed images featuring the atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud and flames, accompanied by a play on words (“It will be a blast”). However, this reaction triggered significant anger and disapproval within Japan. The cultural context stemmed from Japan’s profound educational focus on the devastation caused by nuclear weapons, as it remains the only nation to have suffered atomic bomb attacks. Thus, the use of mushroom clouds and atomic bombs in a lighthearted or humorous context was widely regarded as inappropriate. Compounding matters, these incidents transpired around the time of the 78th commemorations of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
In response, a Change.org petition was initiated, demanding an apology from the official Barbie Twitter account. This petition garnered over 22,600 signatures. The hashtag #NoBarbenheimer also gained traction on Twitter, amassing more than 100,000 retweets.
Warner Bros.’ Japanese division issued a statement of remorse on July 31, 2023 (JST) via its own Twitter handle for the Barbie film (@BarbieMovie_jp). This statement condemned the actions of the U.S. headquarters and urged them to undertake appropriate corrective measures. On the evening of July 31, 2023 (PST), Warner Bros.’ global headquarters released an official statement to media outlets, expressing regret for their “insensitive social media engagement”. Subsequently, the American Twitter account associated with the Barbie film began removing the contentious replies.
Mitsuki Takahata, the Japanese voice actor for Barbie in the film’s dubbed version, expressed her disappointment through her Instagram account. She disclosed that she was contemplating withdrawal from a scheduled promotional event set for August 11, 2023.