Examining Myth and Morality in “Barbenheimer”

Why the two films bring out the best and worst of each other.

Note: This review contains spoilers of Barbie and Oppenheimer. 

Illustrated by Annika Watson

The phenomenon of “Barbenheimer” occupies a weird and wonderful place in American film history. The films could not be more different from one another in tone, aesthetic or argumentation, but by releasing both at the same time to appeal to a wider audience — a marketing tactic called counterprogramming — “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” excelled in every way possible. Meme-ified to no end, “Barbenheimer” developed a palpable hype around both films, which is more unique than most probably realize. Studios usually try to hype their own films to the detriment of their competitors. “Barbenheimer,” on the contrary, was able to find a strange synergy between Christopher Nolan’s biopic behemoth and Greta Gerwig’s glamorous comedy.

On July 21, crowds flooded theaters across the country to see the two pictures — an exciting sight in the post-COVID years. Even more unusual was the popular method of seeing the two as a double feature. The results were monumental: “Barbie” has grossed well over $1 billion worldwide, “Oppenheimer” recently became the fifth highest earning R-rated film of all time. Both were acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.

Concurring with most others, I adored each in their own way.  

“Barbie” functions effectively as a star-studded, riotous satire. My laughter erupted even within the opening scenes: an extended “2001: A Space Odyssey” tribute and a day in the life of Barbieland. Ryan Gosling’s Ken steals the screen with his endless ill-fated attempts to impress Margot Robbie’s Barbie, his hilarious montage of discovering masculinity in the real world and the unforgettable performance of “I’m Just Ken.” Robbie delivers flawlessly in her role as stereotypical Barbie, utilizing not only her mirror-like resemblance to the doll but a profound understanding of the childlike wonder and social controversy of Mattel’s product. By wryly delving into the imperfections of the matriarchy in Barbieland—and hegemony in general— director Greta Gerwig advocates for a form of feminism that exalts the marginalized sex into a stance of true equality with the other. The film delivers the audience into a manic, energized world brimming with excellent humor, colorful set pieces and resonating messages thoughtfully crafted by Gerwig.

“Oppenheimer” was the only movie I saw twice this summer, and for good reason — it is Christopher Nolan’s best film. A three-hour biopic that feels more akin to David Fincher’s “The Social Network” in terms of fast-paced dialogue and a John Steinbeck novel through its gravitas, “Oppenheimer” offers endless potential for discourse. The film’s climactic test of the successful Trinity atomic bomb, emphasizing suspense, visuals and sound, cements itself easily on any list of the greatest scenes in cinematic history. 

Audio plays a huge role in “Oppenheimer.” After the dropping of the bomb, the dawning upon Oppenheimer, faithfully portrayed by Cillian Murphy, about his creation within the Los Alamos reception hall is enthralling, particularly in its usage of audio. Thundering feet on bleachers, screams, dead silence: Oppenheimer’s epiphany of the bomb he has fathered is devastating. 

Even Cillian Murphy’s eyes act as an entire character. They are first the eyes of a hopeful visionary — able to see a world unknown to all and revealed only by God — and become that of a prophet who knows too well the chain reaction of apocalypse at hand. All in startling blue.

Though quite different, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” have much to offer when considered side-by-side. First, they both derive some inspiration from myth. “Oppenheimer” opens with a line detailing the story of Prometheus, the being who stole fire from the gods, gave it to man, and was tortured for eternity for it. The mythical nature of Oppenheimer falls in line with this story; the film itself is based on the book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Similarly, “Barbie” holds ties to Pygmalion, the Greek myth of a male sculptor falling in love with his female statue. As chief film critic of The New York Times Manohla Dargis notes, the film offers quite a nice riff of the tale. “In ‘Barbie,’ by contrast, it’s the imaginations of the girls and women who play with the doll that give it something like life,” Dargis notes.

For all its satirical merits, the best parts of “Barbie” resemble the tone and gravity of “Oppenheimer.” After traveling into the real world and meeting sharp rejection simply for who she is, the titular character sits on a bench near an elderly woman, played by Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth. The moment is a tearjerker, a poignant, human moment amid the frenetic pink and plastic. In a movie about the problematic Mattel doll, a toy rebuked for being a distortion of female appearance created by patriarchal business, the goal seems to be advocating an appreciation for intrinsic worth. Nothing shines brighter in support of this point than when Barbie turns to the old woman, tears streaming, and says shakily, “You’re beautiful.” I was left wondering if this should, or even could, have been the primary tone of the film, and not the entertaining but overstimulating satire.

The “Barbie” message of equality and inherent value can be applied to great effect in “Oppenheimer,” especially in its singular flaw. For how grand Nolan’s epic truly is, its sexualized depiction of Florence Pugh (and her character Jean Tatlock) was excessive and dehumanizing. Though Oppenheimer’s sexuality and infidelity is critical and needed portrayal, the nudity displayed was nothing short of another added appeal to see the film — to witness Christopher Nolan’s inaugural sex scene. The first sexual encounter between Oppenheimer and Tatlock introduces the physicist’s iconic line: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

The ugly pain and weight of that phrase — so overused in “Oppenheimer” meme culture — meshes well with the “Bhagavad Gita” profanely being read in a sexual context. Oppenheimer later says this quote in voiceover during the Trinity testing sequence, seemingly recalling the woman he loved and destroyed through his absence. The Hindu quote not only becomes additional grounding for why Oppenheimer later tries to unite the world in atomic agreement, but it also highlights his understandable resignation, emotional uncertainty, and character collapse at becoming the embodiment of death for the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the future of humanity. It is a shame, however, that the line’s introduction occurs during a moment that supports another problem of contemporary humanity: the objectification of women in the media. I find it bleak that people who agree wholeheartedly with “Barbie” fail to recognize this.

Myths are used to explain the world, to remember a culture or history and to edify an audience. Like the myths they relate to, both films also exist to edify. Prometheus’ tale reminds us that, through the tragic character of Oppenheimer, we now have the power to destroy ourselves. The fire of our apocalypse seems to have already ignited, nearly 80 years ago in Japan. The connection to Pygmalion’s story in “Barbie” beckons us to question our love for man-made creations that marginalize and degrade people. It wants us to put our love in something truly beautiful. These films also edify each other. Why does the thoughtful message of “Barbie” need to be drenched in humor to appeal to audiences in the first place? Why does “Oppenheimer” masterfully address a major societal issue while simultaneously feeding into another? 

Notwithstanding these flaws, the strange synergy of “Barbenheimer” is something special.

Grant Dutro

Grant Dutro

Grant Dutro is a junior Economics and Communication double major with a minor in English. Originally from Cincinnati, OH, in his spare time he likes watching movies, reading, exercise, and listening to music.

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