Barbenheimer: Is Barbie vs Oppenheimer the summer showdown that will save cinema?

ITV News' Charlie Frost explains the Barbenheimer phenomenon

Words by Lily Ford, ITV News Multimedia Producer

It's the showdown of the summer.

One involves a world-famous figure, top Hollywood talent, and a celebrated director with a reputation to uphold.

The other is Oppenheimer.

Barbie promises a hilarious, hot pink spectacle as America's beloved plastic It Girl chases a life in the real world.

While Oppenheimer documents the true story of nuclear catastrophe as the father of the atomic bomb grapples with his inner turmoil.

Two very different films - but not, perhaps, the contrasting audiences movie bosses had envisioned.

Their release on the same day - Friday, July 21 - has spawned Barbenheimer: the box office cultural phenomenon, that has hordes of cinemagoers vowing to see both in the same day and has inspired a wave of bootleg merchandise.

Margot Robbie stars as the world-famous Barbie. Credit: Warner Bros/AP

Everything you need to know about Barbie

Greta Gerwig's Barbie has been stated to be one of the biggest films of the year.

In an energetic adventure, the most famous doll in the world finds herself at odds with Barbie Land and journeys to the real world.

Australian actress and Academy Award nominee Margot Robbie leads the cast alongside Ryan Gosling's Ken - who is already receiving Oscar cheers from critics - and Will Ferrell as the CEO of toymaker Mattel.

And those aren't the only big names donning their brightest shades of pink this month: Simu Liu, Michael Cera, America Ferrera, Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, Kate McKinnon, and Dame Helen Mirren are just a few of the others set to star.

Gerwig's latest project rides off the back of critical and commercial success with her previous two projects, 2017's Lady Bird and 2019's Little Women.

Greta Gerwig (left) and Ryan Gosling, playing Ken in Barbie. Credit: AP

But this cast, along with a soundtrack featuring the likes of Billie Eilish, Sam Smith, Dua Lipa, Charlie XCX, Lizzo, and Nicki Minaj, has undoubtedly bolstered the unwavering confidence Gerwig's fans have in her directorial talent.

She co-wrote the screenplay with fellow distinguished director and her husband, Noah Baumbach.

The pair are taking on Christopher Nolan.


Christopher Nolan once again taps into a dark vein of storytelling for his 12th feature film.

The brain behind Batman's Dark Knight trilogy, as well as two of the most successful movies of all-time, Interstellar and Inception, Nolan wanted to tell the story of a man who "changed the world."

J. Robert Oppenheimer is widely known as the creator of the atomic bomb, used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that killed hundreds of thousands of people during World War II.

The biographical thriller is expected to follow Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, as the nuclear weapon becomes not just an idea, but a real option in war capable of mass destruction.

Peaky Blinders frontman Cillian Murphy, a long-time Nolan collaborator, stars in the eponymous role.

The Irish actor is accompanied by a range of A-list actors including Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, and Emily Blunt, who plays the scientist's wife, Kitty.

Nolan has confirmed that his film features zero CGI shots, promising a feast for the eyes and ears when audiences settle in front of the big screen.

It is also a three-hour watch - his longest ever project.

Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy on the set of Oppenheimer. Credit: Universal Pictures

Barbenheimer: A cultural phenomenon

It is a testament to the marketing teams for both movies that the unlikely duel has already inspired its own Wikipedia page under the now-widely known portmanteau, Barbenheimer.

Social media is a swarm of cast interviews, best fashion moments, memes, set secrets, and glimpses at the two biggest releases of the year.

Fans can now buy Barbenheimer shirts and caps, and mash-ups of both trailers have gone viral on social media.

A split image of Barbie and Oppenheimer's faces is everywhere - her on the left, blonde hair and cowboy hat a stark contrast to his solemn expression on the right, radiating gloom.

Why are people so excited?

It's not just the names attached - it's all in the details.

Robert Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer. Credit: Universal Pictures

For example, it emerged Barbie set designers used so much of one particular shade of fluorescent fuchsia paint that they contributed to a global pink paint shortage in the US.

The set even had a pink day each week where everyone was required to wear the colour, and Margot Robbie would walk around collecting fines to donate to charity if she caught crew not wearing pink.

Gerwig is even said to have organised a cast sleepover for all the Barbies before filming started.

Barbie's opposite, Oppenheimer, may not be able to match its peer's vivid exuberance.

But quirkier tidbits have been emerging from the Oppenheimer set.

Cillian Murphy had to sit out on cast dinners during production because "his brain was just too full," according to Matt Damon.

A photo from a New York rooftop circulating on social media this week delighted social media as it showed Murphy - known for his enigmatic on-screen persona- grinning alongside his smiling co-stars.

The picture almost rivals the kind of cast camaraderie and banter we've witnessed from the Barbie crew.

Does the hype mark a return to the age of cinema?

In the US, Barbie slightly pinches it in projections at a gross of $80–100 million (£62 - £77m) in its opening weekend, compared to Oppenheimer's $50 million (£39m).

But the numbers will remain definitively unknown until the release dates.

One might assume that the two have entirely different audiences, but the opposite has proved true.

This has even led to viral claims that fans will commit to a double-feature - catching Oppenheimer in the morning before mimosas and brunch ahead of Barbie later on.

Since the pandemic, very few projects outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have managed box office opening weekends like Barbenheimer is expected to produce.

What will the box office look like for both movies? Credit: AP

Cinema has also faced an existential threat from the return of the golden age of television as well as the rise of streaming services.

Has Barbenheimer reignited the desire to book blockbuster tickets for cinemagoers?

The overwhelming media attention counts for something - a hint that this kind of movie magic is capable of driving audiences back to the big screen.

Perhaps fans are simply doing what Murphy himself has said to do: "My advice would be for people to go see both, on the same day," he said in an interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.

"If they are good films, then that’s cinema’s gain."

The UK premiere of Barbie takes place in London's Leicester Square on Wednesday night, and Oppenheimer's on Thursday.

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