Where were you the third weekend of July 2023? Did you know anyone planning bright pink outfits, scrolling showtimes, arguing about the proper order in which to view two films?
Were you one of the thousands who spent five-plus hours at the movies, taking in an incongruous doubleheader? Could you log on to any of your social feeds without being bombarded by pink-and-black memes and merch, assuring you that you are Kenough?
It was a strange time — this summer of Barbenheimer. (Or “Barbieheimer.” Or “Oppenbarbie.”)
Whatever you choose to call it, this cultural moment arose out of a seemingly simple premise: two big summer movies, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” releasing on the same date. But the good people of the internet took this premise and ran with it, their tweets and fake posters and endless musing on just how different these two were — a children’s toy and the atomic bomb! What a thought! As their July 21 release date approached, Barbenheimer became inescapable.
Of course, much (digital) ink has been spilled about the exact “why” of this phenomenon, with think pieces popping up in outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic.
Theories and guesses abound: the strangeness of the pairing leading to increased curiosity about the movies themselves; a hunger for a return to “normalcy” at the movies following COVID lockdowns and the advent of at-home streaming. These are legitimate factors that help explain this bizarre cultural moment, but to me, one of the most compelling theories has to do with the quality of the films on their own terms.
These are well-made, stand-alone movies. They’re not sequels; they’re not continued installments in a superhero “cinematic universe”; they’re not attempts at milking a franchise for all its worth (no offense, but did we really need a 10th “Fast & Furious” movie?).
Just a few days after “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” opened, David Sims wrote that the two movies’ box-office performance was “a huge, heartening success for the film industry, after months of commercially unimpressive sequels. More than anything, it’s a clear sign that audiences are hungry for good products. Blockbusters aren’t obsolete, but studios can’t just rely on the latest franchise entry. … Barbie and Oppenheimer earned their audiences’ fervor by getting positive reviews and offering something truly compelling.”
To me, the key words here are those last ones: “offering something truly compelling.” What happens when audiences are trusted with challenging themes, weighty content?
In the midst of the critical and commercial acclaim, I found it fascinating how many critics and commentators wrote about the shared questions — with shared heft and high quality — of two titles that seemingly have little to say to each other.
“On the surface, the two couldn’t be more different,” wrote critic Alissa Wilkinson. “Below the skin, they’re practically siblings, both wrestling with power, apocalypse, and existential dread.”
As Kyle Buchanan noted, “For all their tonal differences, each film is a one-of-a-kind auteurist blockbuster pondering some pretty meaty existential questions.”
Critic Shirley Li also used the word “existential” in an interview: “For all the dichotomies that these two films represent, though, I think they also share a lot of themes. They ask existential questions: How do we exchange ideas? What prevents us from becoming the best versions of ourselves? What makes us human?”
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen went a step further in an essay titled “Barbie Answers Oppenheimer”: “If Oppenheimer asks: Why and how do men seek dominion over one another? What can the (male) mind imagine? Why does (male) genius corrode? Then the answer of Barbie is: Great questions. But what if we asked some different ones?”
This is just a scratch at the surface of the discourse, discussion and disagreement around these two films, individually and together. And in reading them, I remembered why I wanted to go to seminary.
Really, stay with me here.
I first thought about seminary when I was working an editorial job at a faith-based publication. My academic background was in English, not theology or biblical studies, and I was so curious about the books and ideas and questions that passed through the doors of our publication’s offices. I didn’t want to go into ministry, necessarily, but I did have that curiosity, and I also had a small soapbox I carried around with me regarding contemporary Christian writing: namely, that much of it is much too fluffy, that it holds out on the richest truths of the tradition in favor of repetitive, diluted content for the “lay reader.” (Maybe that soapbox wasn’t so small, actually.)
I started to wonder: What if I could go learn the shorthand and jargon of theological and biblical studies and then leave the academy and help create accessible, readable, theologically rich and robust resources for the lay Christian? What if I could work on books and articles that trusted their readers with challenging, thought-provoking material? What if, instead of adding to the fluff, I might work with others on imagining “something truly compelling”?
This strange summer at the movies reminded me, and a lot of other folks, of something: when we sense that we aren’t being spoon-fed but rather given something new and complex and rich, we just might get excited.
What happens when audiences are trusted with challenging themes, weighty content?