We Have Exactly a Year to Shut Down the ‘Barbie’ vs. ‘Oppenheimer’ Wars


Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan will both be putting out highly anticipated movies on July 21, 2023. Already, fans aren’t just debating what film they’re more excited to see — they’re arguing over which kind of film is more worthwhile. It’s the latest salvo in an ongoing, exhausting discourse wrapped up in assumptions about gender and art

Social media is ideal for endless debates: Every day, there’s a slew of new tweet prompts inviting strangers to argue over the silliest stuff imaginable. Are waffles better than pancakes? Is a hotdog a sandwich? And over on Film Twitter, you’ll see certain movies, filmmakers and actors pitted against one another, each showdown meant not just to illustrate your allegiance but also your taste. 

The Very Online who are still waging the “Marvel vs. Martin Scorsese” battles aren’t just fighting about their preference: They’re trying to tell you something essential about themselves, while giving those who hold an opposing view ammunition to use against them. (You side with Marvel? Oh, you must be an idiot who likes superhero movies. You Team Marty? Clearly, you’re a pretentious poser.) Really, there are no winners in these internet fights, just a lot of wasted time — which, honestly, is probably fine with the people who have nothing better to do than engage in these dustups while standing in line waiting for their Starbucks order.

Early this morning, DiscussingFilm got some fresh debate going when they sent out this tweet:

It’s wild to think that, one year from now, we’ll be treated to two potentially terrific options at the multiplex, with both Barbie and Oppenheimer hitting theaters on July 21st, 2023. Cleverly, though, DiscussingFilm didn’t just alert moviegoers to these films’ release pre-anniversary, asking, “Which will you be watching first?” And the internet took it from there, with thousands of people sounding off on their top choice.

While random tweets are hardly representative of the moviegoing public, what’s striking is not only that a majority of the responses are in favor of Barbie, there’s a definite attitude underlying many of the pro-Barbie tweets. No doubt that’s because Oppenheimer is the latest film from Christopher Nolan, an acclaimed, visionary auteur who’s made so many great movies … but also inspires the sort of obnoxious film-bro fandom that you have to separate in your mind from the considerable quality of his work. These were the same idiots who took issue with Harry Styles fans getting excited about seeing their boy in Nolan’s Dunkirk, lecturing them on the “right” way to appreciate a film made by a genius they were clearly too dumb to get on their own. 

A similar sexist behavior may very well play out as we await Oppenheimer, which stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, when it squares off with Barbie, the latest from Greta Gerwig, who previously made Lady Bird and Little Women. It’s actually cosmically perfect that, a year from now, the epitome of the “film-bro movie” will be squaring off with the epitome of the “girl movie.” And, already, people want you to know which side of this gender/film debate they’re on.

Some patterns emerge in the responses. Whether genuine or performative, a fair share of men want it on the record that they’re down with Barbie, perhaps signaling that they’re rejecting an antiquated, often-associated-with-male belief that “real” movies have to be about weighty subjects — and that a comedy about Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) shouldn’t be considered a “serious” film. Although there are some impressive actresses in Oppenheimer — including Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh — there’s still a feeling (sight unseen) that Nolan’s latest will be yet another prestige biopic about a Very Important Man hanging with his bros doing Very Important Things. (The fact that Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s wife only adds credence to that assumption, although it’s worth pointing out that Katherine Oppenheimer was an extremely accomplished person in her own right.) Even the two images DiscussingFilm included in their tweet speak to this perceived imbalance between serious/worthy cinema and fluffy/silly movies: Barbie is cotton-candy bright, while Murphy is black-and-white dour. One screams “fun,” while the other declares “This is art.” 

Among the most wholesome, adorable responses are the ones in which users create fictional scenarios around different groups of straight men (usually tough guys) getting together to watch Barbie, their sexuality not threatened in the least by the idea of watching a movie based on a girl’s toy. And why should it: Gerwig has proved herself to be a top-notch filmmaker, and while the movie’s plot is still under wraps, it certainly seems like Barbie might have something to do with Barbie having to interact with the real world — which, if that’s true, is a very intriguing premise. Plus, for those who might look down on the movie, it’s co-written by Gerwig and her longtime creative and romantic partner Noah Baumbach, who with The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story has crafted the kind of arthouse fare that hardly qualifies as empty-headed escapism. That Gerwig is getting a chance to work with a big studio in Warner Bros. to make something that might be edgier and more interesting than the usual summer tentpole is worth celebrating. Surely the film bros can get behind that. 

The DiscussingFilm tweet is a lighthearted opening salvo in what’s probably going to become an exhausting discourse around these two movies. I’m already dreading both Gerwig and Nolan being constantly asked if they’ve seen the other person’s film — or how they feel about going head-to-head against one another. But I’m also fearful of having to endure a bunch of preemptive dunking on Nolan’s movie just because it does look more serious, as if Nolan is conspiring to maintain an old-school idea that only somber biopics about huge world events can be considered worthy cinematic endeavors. Nolan didn’t make Oppenheimer to keep Gerwig from making Barbie — if anything, I’m just grateful to live in a world where both movies are a reality. 

Ideally, they’ll each be big hits, with neither’s box-office triumph over the other suggesting that one kind of film is superior. There are lots of women who love Nolan films and can’t wait to see Oppenheimer. I can’t be the only cineaste who is counting down the days until I get to check out Barbie. (And think of all the dads who loved Gerwig’s Little Women.) The only correct answer to DiscussingFilm’s prompt tweet is “Both,” which is what a huge amount of responders said. After two years of pandemic-affected releases, it’s exciting that we’re slowly returning to the good old days when, occasionally, you’d get two big movies opening the same weekend that both looked great. 

I’m reminded of the summer of 2006, when Fox decided to go head-to-head with Warners’ Superman Returns by releasing The Devil Wears Prada. Sure, one was more of a “boy movie” and one was more of a “girl movie” — whatever such nonsensical designations even mean — but they both thrived, arguing that such hard-and-fast rules around gender and movie preference should probably be relaxed. We live in a culture that pits movies against one another, so it’s inevitable that Barbie and Oppenheimer — and the larger cultural issues they symbolize — will be drawn into a silly, stupid fight. It’ll be fun to compare and contrast the two. But don’t get hung up on thinking that your preference represents your stance on serious versus playful, somber versus subversive, art versus entertainment, “boy films” versus “girl films.” Sometimes, it’s OK if they’re just movies.

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