Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ and Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ share a release date, and a knack for sparking terminally online debate

This upcoming Friday is a federally unrecognized holiday for those who are fluent in pop culture. When news broke that Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan’s respective Barbie and Oppenheimer were set to release on the same day, prospective moviegoers were left in an understandable tizzy.

This highly-anticipated double bill essentially represents the polarity of Musk-era Twitter: pink, sparkly, self-appointed hot girls versus boys who like bombs. The movies couldn’t be more different—a large impetus behind the more feral aspects of the lead-up to their release. Fans have dubbed the movie duo #Barbenheimer, a trending hashtag that combines the filmic hyperfemme with doom and destruction as an internet-insider joke. Amid the palpable excitement lies a fair bit of controversy.

Recent complaints about a problematic age gap between actors Cillian Murphy, 47, and Florence Pugh, 27, have surfaced in response to the release of Oppenheimer. Last week, The Independent reported that numerous fans jumped to both actors’ defense, referring to the historical relationship between their characters, generally trolling, and ultimately, ruling the discourse an “incantation.” The flames of discourse were fueled by further reports that the film will feature “prolonged nudity” between Murphy and Pugh.

The original complaint relied on what one Twitter user felt to be an unfair Hollywood standard—where actresses aren’t allowed to show their age on-screen, even when the characters they play are close to it. Many fans disagreed with the premise, on the basis that each actor’s character is the likeness of a historical figure, who shared a 10-year age difference. Against the film’s nonfictional nature, the discourse around the gap has warped from one about gendered industry standards to one about a film’s responsibility to follow its source material in all its exactitudes—age gap included.

Writer, gallery associate, and avid re-watcher of Chinatown Andres Priest-Lopez weighed in: “I think people can only grapple with things in very small bits. The age gap is the real thing to take away from a movie detailing the complexities of the Manhattan Project, right?”

“Releases like Barbie and Oppenheimer are herding patrons back to the theater, if only to see what all the hype is about.”

In the wake of the Oppenheimer drama, Barbie became the unproblematic favorite—that is, until the magnifying glass zeroed in on its questionable on-set practices. Earlier this month, actor Ryan Gosling told People that co-star Margot Robbie would have mandatory “pink days” on set, where failure to wear the appropriate hue resulted in a fine. While the amount of the fine and the rigidity of its enforcement have not been confirmed, Robbie is said to have collected the funds herself, later donating them to an unnamed charity. Gosling clarified that Robbie’s pink days inspired a sense of camaraderie among male crew members specifically, who made their own shirts for the occasion.

As they did with Oppenheimer’s age-gap discourse, Twitter users weighed in, though more irreverently: Some claimed to have been PAs on the Barbie set, sharing tongue-in-cheek stories of how the pink fines affected them; some scoffed, and some sang Robbie’s praises. On the subject, filmmaker and Barbie skeptic Sam Dinerstein remarked, “The PR machine for the campaign is not far off, budget-wise, from a presidential run.”

The #Barbenheimer takeover is proof that the all press is good press proverb has become moot in the social media age: Controversy doesn’t drive people to the movies so much as being able to tweet your opinions about that controversy does. Earlier this year, CNBC reported that box offices are catching back up to pre-COVID numbers, with the first quarter at $1.8 billion—a figure that only lags behind 2019’s $2.4 billion yield by 25 percent. Movie theaters reopened in late-2020, and have been steady on the climb back to normalcy since. Releases like Barbie and Oppenheimer are herding patrons back to the theater, if only to see what all the hype is about.

All things considered, Friday is shaping up to be one of the biggest days for film in 2023, for fanatic audiences and the box office alike. In every Barbie girl lies a bomb, and in every boy obsessed with nuclear fission, a sparkly, pink shoe.