The most climactic battle in cinematic history will occur this summer on July 21, 2023. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will duel it out in cinemas everywhere to be crowned the ‘queen’ or ‘king’ of the year’s most crucial box-office weekend. 

Both films feature star-studded ensemble casts and are directed by acclaimed filmmakers. The scheduling of their releases has taken the online film community by storm and revealed a petty rivalry between two gargantuan movie studios, Warner Bros. Pictures and Universal Pictures, releasing Barbie and Oppenheimer, respectively.  

Fan insights

Since the announcement, the internet has had tremendous fun memeing the situation. There is a diverse set of opinions surrounding this contentious clash: those of the Barbie fanatics, the Oppenheimer enthusiasts, and those excited to make a double-feature adventure of the whole ordeal. 

Barbie fans are excited to witness the cinematic debut of a beloved cultural icon. Although much of the plot remains a mystery, the available details disclose a satirical tale of Barbie’s self-discovery following her exile from Barbieland. A chunk of the film’s buzz comes from the casting of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken. 

The initial look at Gosling’s Ken sparked a meme tsunami. The humour, derived from Gosling’s appearance, drew comparisons to Scooby-Doo star Freddie Prinze Jr. Other fans dubbed Ken a “literally me” character — a self-deprecating phrase to describe someone’s attachment to a character who is emotionally repressed, socially awkward, and lonely. Gosling is notable for playing such figures, including K from Blade Runner 2049 and the Driver from Drive.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has also received plenty of online fanfare. The film explores the life of J Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb. In contrast to Barbie, the memes for Oppenheimer were not directed at Cillian Murphy, who stars as the titular scientist. Rather, director Christopher Nolan has been the target, famous for his use of practical effects in the current era of CGI-heavy blockbusters. 

For example, in Tenet, Nolan and his crew crashed an actual Boeing 747 into an aircraft hangar for an action set piece. Fans were speculating as to how Nolan would be able to mimic a nuclear explosion without the aid of CGI. Many memes joked that Nolan detonated a real bomb that would have killed billions, with fans comparing it to a similar act of mass murder committed by Marvel’s Thanos.

The final fan group has traded tribalism for camaraderie. Memes have emerged poking fun at the contrast between the aesthetics and subject matter of both films. These admirers have shared their outfit plans for opening night: hot pink to celebrate Barbie and black and dark grey for Oppenheimer. Fans have also debated the proper viewing time for the films, but the consensus considers Oppenheimer optimal daytime viewing to prepare for an evening with Barbie

In an interview with The Varsity, Raphaella Zymaras, a TA at the Cinema Studies Institute, offered her thoughts on this ‘war.’ “I plan on seeing both movies. And I definitely think that I’m more excited for Oppenheimer because of the fact that Florence Pugh is in it,” Zymaras said. “But my best friends are huge Barbie fans, and I’m definitely gonna be dragged there as well.”  

Speaking on the aesthetics and the viewing debate, Zymaras noted, “I think I’ll be wearing dark for both of them. I think that it’s funny to go into a Barbie movie wearing the complete opposite… So I think that people should switch it up a little bit.” Zymaras considered Barbie to be the perfect “cocktail film” to prepare for the more grim Oppenheimer. 

“I think Barbie has more hype because everyone is talking about it,” Zymaras reflected. “And Ryan Gosling’s in it, so why wouldn’t you want to watch?” 

The massive hype surrounding the films is evidence of a new age of movie marketing, one in which fans generate anticipation via viral memes. Another piece of event cinema was 2022’s Minions: The Rise of Gru. A popular TikTok trend emerged featuring teenagers attending screenings in their finest suits. Universal Pictures, Minions distributor, celebrated the efforts of these TikTokers, and who’s to say that something similar won’t occur this July?

A petty rivalry

The drama surrounding the release date also has implications for both studios.

Here’s a bit of background: Warner Bros. was Christopher Nolan’s studio partner for nearly 20 years, releasing his biggest successes, such as The Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar. But Nolan openly expressed his disapproval of the studio’s decision to distribute its 2021 slate simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max, a move motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nolan severed his ties with Warner Bros. shortly thereafter. 

Nolan and Warner Bros. had also previously fought over the release strategy for his sci-fi spy thriller, Tenet. The film’s release was delayed several times due to the pandemic but eventually hit screens in September 2020. Nolan hoped that releasing the film in theatres would generate a moviegoing resurgence, but Tenet’s disappointing box office results — a worldwide gross of less than 400 million USD against a 200 million USD budget — cost the studio approximately 50 million USD. 

Following Nolan’s split from Warner Bros., Oppenheimer eventually found a home at Universal Pictures, which agreed to a production budget of 100 million USD, a 100-day theatrical window, and 20 per cent of the first-dollar gross to Nolan. In October 2021, Universal announced a release date of July 21, 2023. Six months later, in April 2022, Warner Bros. declared that Barbie would also release on the same date! 

Both studios are hoping that their respective star-studded release will be crowned the movie of the year, a moneymaker that will win over audiences and critics alike. The question on everyone’s mind is: who will emerge as the top dog?

With six months to go until the movie showdown of the summer, all one can do now is anxiously wait until we all experience what could potentially be the greatest day in cinematic history.