More Barbenheimer, please.
As the summer approached, people who look forward to movies noticed something: Barbie and Oppenheimer were opening on the same day. It seemed incongruous. This led to jokes. Then to memes. Then it became an event—Barbenheimer. People would go and see them both, back-to-back, on the same day. You could plan outfits that would somehow be appropriate for both. You could buy t-shirts.
I think this is one of the best things that happened to our country this summer. I’ll confess, I had to see the movies separate weekends (and I don’t think back-to-back weekends count as a true Barbenheimer experience). But I just loved the whole Barbenheimer phenomenon. By the way, this essay will offer no criticism of either Barbie or Oppenheimer. Both are enjoyable, albeit in very different ways. I am happy that they are breaking records rather than Fast & Furious 97 or Transformers 25 or something like that. Each of these movies was crafted by someone who cares about their art.
For the past few years, people have been saying that movies are over. COVID killed the already struggling theaters. No one wants to pay that much for popcorn just to see something on the big screen. The screens at home are getting pretty big, too. Then, last summer, apparently a lot of people didn’t mind going to the movies to see Top Gun: Maverick. Now, Barbie is the highest grossing film directed by a woman ever. And Oppenheimer is having an extended IMAX run. Movies aren’t all the way back, but this interesting back-to-back option has certainly gotten a lot of people out of their home recliners and into the theater recliners.
It is good for us to go to the movies. Movies are fun. We go to be entertained. We go to eat snacks we shouldn’t. We go to sit close to people we know and close to some strangers. We go to have an experience we can’t have at home, even if we sit in the dark and eat popcorn. You can read more about what makes movies magical in the work of Pauline Kael, but you probably already know about it from personal experience.
Movies are at the heart of our American identity. Since people have been making them, we’ve been trying to be the top country for movies. Mostly, we’ve succeeded. They don’t just represent us around the world, they do things for us at home. Movies got us through the Depression and they’ve helped us define our times. You can break down the American twentieth century into eras based on directors. Movies have helped us see ourselves in ways both realistic and aspirational. And the truth is, even though streaming movies are getting better, there’s something about the years that get put into a film like Oppenheimer.
Big movies, summer blockbusters—they’re not just an American tradition, they’re a collective cultural experience. When we’re streaming, we have seemingly a million options. Your local theater probably isn’t running more than 12 different films in a weekend. Not everything even has an IMAX option. A hit movie is something that Americans can enjoy together—or hate together, if that’s how you’re inclined (you know who you are). The limitations placed on how many movies are showing in a weekend, or over a summer, are what allow us to share them.
Something like Barbenheimer is a shared cultural experience. (The Taylor Swift tour is another one.) Such shared experiences give us common topics of conversation. People still talk about when Jaws came out or when Star Wars did or how they dressed up for a Lord of the Rings movie. People today love Marvel movies so much that they will actually watch a shaky video of a theater audience reacting to an Avengers: Endgame scene. Clips like that have become famous in themselves.
We need more things that millions of Americans can enjoy together. We’re not all reading the same books. We’re not all watching the same sports—or cheering for the same teams. We’re definitely not all watching the same news. More and more of us are playing pickleball, but it’s not yet universal. It’s good for us to have some shared things.
Every now and then, we can almost all see the same movies. Kids get this all the time. Which of them hasn’t seen Encanto? It gives them something they can all talk about, or sing about, with each other. With adults, that kind of thing is less common. So, if you’ve only seen half of Barbenheimer so far, consider seeing the other movie. And it’s ok to see them on separate days, Oppenheimer is really long (but worth it).
Image: RyanAl6 for Wikimedia Commons