“Barbenheimer” saved the movie universe this week by handing eager audiences an eyeful of two very different planets. Neither “Barbie” nor “Oppenheimer” was “just another,” meaning: not just another sequel to a proven, if fading, franchise. Or just another superhero, trapping in a quantum realm somewhere in a Marvel soundstage in Atlanta, looking for a decent return on the usual $300 million investment.
Co-writer and director Greta Gerwig‘s triumph made $162 million in the U.S. alone from the July 21-24 weekend. That’s the biggest domestic opening ever for a non-superhero film or sequel. Oh, and Monday? Typically the dead zone? The weirdly delightful “Barbie,” a 1959-born doll’s adventures in angst and yearning, broke records for the Warner Bros. opening week-Monday box office, the studio’s previous record-holder being “The Dark Knight” (2008), directed by Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed … “Oppenheimer.”
That one made $82.4 million in its first four days, and on fewer screens than “Barbie,” and with a three-hour biopic. Meanwhile, looking a little lonely, there’s poor “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” coming off an alarming 64% attendance drop in its second week.
It got “Barbenheimered.” But more than that: However sleek and enjoyable, the seventh “M:I” picture essentially took one for the team made up of all the nervous Hollywood studio franchises with which audiences may be getting just a tiny bit fed up.
The word “Barbenheimer” began as a jest and became, in the words of Slate film critic Dana Stevens, a warning. “Hollywood needs to read the room,” she told me, “and listen to what people want.”
Stevens, 57, recently published a terrific book on Buster Keaton and is also a regular on the Slate Pop Culture Gabfest. Our Zoom conversation, from our respective kitchens in Chicago and New York, has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What just happened? And why does the weekend feel like great news for the film industry, but news the industry will somehow fail to capitalize on?
A: Well, we’ll see, but for now it’s the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats phenomenon. Instead of being pitted against each other, both these movies actually built excitement about the other one. The entire weekend was really huge for the industry, a $300 million industrywide take, fourth biggest in history. To me, that says something very heartening about the film industry. People are really ready, desperate, even, to go back to the movies. It’s a sign of health for the entire industry, even if what just happened wasn’t planned, or easily repeated. It was gratifying to see two movies land like that.
I don’t know, I just woke up Sunday morning and smiled.
Q: So what’s the right call now for the industry? Right now it seems like there’s a preoccupation with the idea of getting as many films off the fall release schedule as possible, because of the strike, and what that’ll do to curtail the promotional machine underneath those new releases.
A: I’m not an industry analyst. And I certainly don’t understand shareholders and whatever’s being done to preserve their profits. But why, when you have this clear, huge message from audiences — We want movies! In a theater! Give them to us! — why would you take the films sitting on your shelf and not release them until next year? It doesn’t seem like the studios understand this is an ecosystem that has to be preserved. It seems so self-sabotaging. I’ve had people try to explain it me, that they need the stars there (at festival premieres or pre-opening junkets) to promote the movies. But right now it seems like the movie industry should be throwing more spaghetti at the wall, different shapes of spaghetti. Not less.
This unsustainable economy of the “tentpole” picture, the big franchise movies — we’ve known for a while it’s not working. And this week is non-depressing proof that something better could come from the wreckage of the film industry right now. … To have one weekend where two movies show up like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” it’s a great sign of health. It’s like somebody’s on the operating table with a defibrillator, and suddenly they jump up, whistling a tune —
Q: And that tune is “I’m Just Ken.”
A: Right! That sign of health, I think, is also about keeping the theatrical windows (the number of days between theatrical and streaming availability) nice and long. Nothing flattens interest in a movie faster than being able to see it the same day in theaters and at home. … If you have a life, you’re not going to go see a movie that’ll be streaming in two weeks.
To me, the most startling statistic was that “Barbie’s” opening weekend outgrossed both “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” two extremely successful comic-book franchise movies directed by Greta Gerwig’s rival director this weekend, Christopher Nolan. Calling them rivals feels odd, given the mutual boost their movies gave each other. But to have a film created by and aimed at women creating greater box-office success than those two very male-coded movies — that makes it feel like a real shift in the zeitgeist. It’s fitting, too, that “Barbie” is, in part, about a world where women’s sensibility reigns, and the Kens have to struggle to find their place within that.
Q: I think both movies offer some surprises. Not to be too glib about the material, but there’s certainly a huge visual “wow” with the most striking scenes in “Oppenheimer,” and millions are making it a priority to see it in a theater because of that. With “Barbie,” I think people are getting a movie that’s funny and surprisingly touching, but stranger than they’re expecting, whatever they’re expecting. The appeal of both films is pretty complicated, in other words.
A: Right. I think that speaks to a debate I saw online somewhere about the word “original,” and how it does or doesn’t apply to “Barbie” in particular. Is “Barbie” original when it’s based on something, in this case, a toy? Well, yes, actually. It’s a non-sequel, and there hasn’t been a big movie — at least a non-made-for-TV movie strictly for kids — about that toy before.
Then there’s the other meaning of “original.” Both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are movies with original, distinctive filmmakers’ voices. They feel like movies made by someone who had their own ideas, not concocted by a committee trying to give us the next chapter of what they assume we want.
Q: They’re also big enough, and messy enough in a stimulating way, to generate a really interesting range of opinions.
A: Messy’s a good word for it. They could both fuel a good dinner conversation. “Oppenheimer,” for example, I couldn’t say I even enjoyed sitting through that movie; I was often annoyed with it, actively. But I couldn’t forget it afterward. As soon as I felt annoyed, some other stretch of it, like the Trinity test, just awed me. It’s the kind of movie you want to see again. I’ll probably see both movies again.
Q: As far as the inevitable sequel to “Barbie” goes …
A: “Barbie 2,” “Barbie 3″ — bring ‘em on. I do kind of hope Greta Gerwig doesn’t do them, though, as wonderful as she is. I don’t want her to fall into the IP hole Robert Downey Jr. fell into as an actor, where he got so identified with “Iron Man” and the Marvel world he didn’t do anything else, practically. For years.
Q: We’ll end with the big question, restated: What’s the best thing people running things can learn from the success of these two films?
A: Let the creators create! And make space for interesting filmmakers who’ve proven themselves at getting audiences excited in their work, whatever kind of work they’ve done, and let them realize their own original projects. But in order to make that possible: Make a fair deal with your actors and writers, so there’s a big pool of talent eager to make more work for you. Successful movies keep the industry alive, keep movie theaters open, and please audiences, while also allowing all these people to make their livings.
Why not just pay these people who are screaming outside your offices?
(Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.)