Maybe Don't Do Barbenheimer

Barbenheimer — the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer — has brought a raft of stories about seeing both films back to back, including this one. But after seeing both, I have another thought: See them both, yes — but give each of them some time.

Both Barbie and Oppenheimer are those wonderful kinds of movies that you pay to see once, but get to relive over and over as you ponder their messages and meanings. I expected that of Oppenheimer, but not really of Barbie, and I was wrong.

If you haven’t seen Barbie or Oppenheimer, maybe you share some of the preconceptions I had going in to each film: that Barbie will be frothy, silly and fun; and that Oppenheimer will be a grimly serious spectacle. Both of these Barbenheimer expectations are pretty reasonable: Oppenheimer is about the father of the atomic bomb famous for quoting the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” And Barbie is about a pretty doll coming to life.

But Barbie has a tremendous amount to ponder, as we probably could have guessed from the fact that it’s directed by Greta Gerwig and written by her and Noah Baumbach, whose last two films have been about divorce (Marriage Story) and death (White Noise). The film announces it has more on its mind than cool costumes when Barbie needle scratches a Dream House dance party by asking, “You guys ever think about dying?” It isn’t a trite “girl boss” message movie, either: There are no easy answers.

Oppenheimer, meanwhile, is as funny as it could possibly be, albeit in a very wry way. One scene with Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman gets a decently big laugh for Truman’s bluntness, and another line about a honeymoon in Kyoto gets a laugh for how audaciously it explains why people can’t be trusted with atomic bombs.

Barbenheimer, of course.

Barbenheimer Thoughts

I saw Oppenheimer on Tuesday, and have spent days puzzling over the universal questions it raises, including: Are scientists responsible for their creations? Is violence the only answer to violence? What is the morality of using death to potentially prevent more death?

These questions are actually in some ways easier for me to answer than the ones in Barbie, because I have some distance from them: I will never be an atomic scientist. But I am a man, in a world full of men, women, and people who decline a binary commitment to either gender, and gender expectations come up in my life, and I suspect yours, all the time.

I saw Barbie a couple of hours ago, and was impressed by how it offers a smart, messy, and yet always funny critique of gender roles that directly affects everyone in their daily interactions. It poses fundamental questions about fairness, expectations, and sharing responsibility, even if its questions are dressed up in metaphor and jokes. It challenges us to come up with better ways for men and women to coexist, fairly and equitably.

It also questions whether the Barbie model is inherently harmful to young girls, or if some Barbieland may exist where Barbie can be a force of only positivity. The latter questions aren’t really about Barbie the doll, but about the unrealistic ideals she embodies.

Together, the films subtly and smartly ask us to look at our own sense of destructiveness, particularly if we’re male.

If those last words freaked you out, please don’t be that guy who flies off the handle and gets overly emotional like some soft baby doll. Both movies are thoughtful and entertaining non-lectures, and both deserve to be seen, and for viewers to enjoy thinking about them afterwards. Just maybe not at the same time.

Barbenheimer, in Summary

Barbenheimer is a wonderful thing, but each half of it deserves time to process.

Barbie and Oppenheimer are now in theaters.

Main image: Barbenheimer.