It’s been quite a while since a pair of films took over the box office. This summer was a major disappointment, with films like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Fast X failing to generate more than a mere shrug from moviegoers. The Flash bombed so hard that media outlets coined a new phrase to describe its failure — a “flopbuster.” Even Tom Cruise couldn’t escape crushing disappointment, as his highly anticipated Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One never caught fire and currently holds a meager $450 million worldwide total after nearly three weeks of release.
Many assumed that moviegoing had finally kicked the bucket. Films like Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water were considered outliers, nothing more.
Then something happened. The clouds parted, and the cinema gods blessed us with Barbie and Oppenheimer — two drastically different yet incredibly successful motion pictures that have sold millions of dollars worth of tickets. To date, the brightly lit, female-centric Barbie has collected an astonishing $780M, while Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s ultra bleak, R-rated, three-hour examination of J. Robert Oppenheimer, has totaled $405M. I don’t know which is more impressive.
These aren’t aberrations in the matrix, either. Audiences love these films, as noted by their impressive Week 2 holds. So, what gives? Why are people flocking to these films and turning their noses up at all others? Here are three ideas.
People often lament the lack of originality in Hollywood these days, pointing to the onslaught of superhero sequels, remakes, and tired reboots as proof. While the summer movie season typically arrives with a plethora of simple-minded, CGI-driven spectacles, studios still find ways to squeeze in an original idea or two.
Take 2019, for example, a year dominated by Avengers: Endgame but that also featured Jordan Peele’s Us, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and the animated classic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Even I was shocked by the amount of original content on that list.
The year 2023, however, hasn’t been quite as fresh. By the time Barbie and Oppenheimer opened, audiences had endured a third Guardians of the Galaxy, a tenth Fast and Furious, a Little Mermaid remake, a fifth Indiana Jones, a seventh Transformers, and a seventh Mission: Impossible. None of these movies were terrible, but they all feel too similar and unnecessary.
With her bright pink aesthetic, snappy dialogue, and cultural appeal, Barbie felt like a breath of fresh air. Say what you will about the film itself, but Greta Gerwig’s take on the iconic Mattel doll at least tried something different.
Ditto with Christopher Nolan’s fantastic Oppenheimer, which ditched the CGI nonsense in favor of a profound, hard-hitting story about a complex man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It’s an intelligent, three-hour film, which contrasts sharply against the zany, juvenile antics of The Flash.
No, it’s not fair to compare the two, but judging by Oppenheimer’s massive $400M (and counting) box office take versus The Flash’s paltry $268M total, it is fair to say audiences needed something that tickled their brains.
Despite the enormous budgets attached to this year’s summer offerings, a surprising amount of shitty content was on display. The Flash features some of the most shockingly bad visual effects I’ve ever seen on a big-budget release, while the last third of Indiana Jones looked like something ripped straight out of a low-budget TV show. Even The Little Mermaid failed to dazzle audiences with its underwater effects.
However, everyone agrees that Barbie looks fantastic. The set designs, costumes, and overall production quality are refreshingly solid, crafted by people who give a damn. Gerwig’s ambition is also on full display, taking a simplistic concept and coating it with enough heady material to spark interesting conversations among moviegoers.
Ditto with Oppenheimer boasts gorgeous cinematography, crisp direction and editing, astonishing sound design, and some of the year’s best acting. Both films are unique works of art rather than products slapped together by an assembly line of marketers. People do care about quality, Hollywood.
Are Barbie and Oppenheimer performing so well due to the late July release date that allowed the marketing team to build anticipation throughout the summer months slowly? Would either have been as big if they opened in May or June?
#Barbenheimer was very real, but it needed time to develop from a silly meme into a full-on movement. No matter what film hit theaters between May and July, you could always find a #Barbenheimer meme or gif floating around the internet. It was impossible to miss.
On top of that, the marketing made each film look like the main event of the summer.
Oppenheimer’s trailers were big, loud, and captivating, promising an intense experience designed around a crucial time in world history. Barbie started with images of Margot Robbie smiling in a pink car and slowly trickled out one great scene after the other, peaking with the humorous scene in which Ryan Gosling’s Ken asks Barbie if he can stay the night at her house.
Moreover, neither cast lashed out politically in interviews, at least not in a way that grabbed headlines. Instead, we got Robert Downey Jr. cracking up Christopher Nolan, Margot Robbie discussing how they pulled off Barbie’s gags, and Tom Cruise posing in front of posters for Oppenheimer and Barbie, imploring audiences to see them both.
Again, this all started in May (maybe earlier) and continued throughout the summer. Audiences saved their money for the main event and dismissed all other offerings. Even when Mission: Impossible arrived to the positive tune of critics everywhere, the crowds still clung tightly to their wallets, anxious for the big ones to drop.
Luckily, both pics satisfied their fan bases enough to warrant multiple viewings. Would Barbie have reached similar heights so soon after The Super Mario Bros. Movie? Would Oppenheimer have kicked the summer season off better than Fast X? Debatable. Timing is everything regarding blockbusters, but anticipation mixed with quality content goes a long way.