Barbie vs. Oppenheimer: A Discussion

Art by Joven Wu
Art by Joven Wu

On July 21st, 2023, Barbie and Oppenheimer were released in theaters. Despite not having much in common in terms of tone, style, or content, the films were collectively referred to as “Barbenheimer” and many people made it a point to see them together. Both films were extremely successful: Barbie made 1.442 billion dollars worldwide by November 3rd, and Oppenheimer made 948.7 million dollars worldwide by November 7th. Due to the high quality of both films and their shared release date, a rivalry developed between fans of the two movies, who tend to pick a favorite. Out of 90 surveyed HSMSE students, 27.7% enjoyed both movies equally, while 33.3% preferred Barbie and 26.6% preferred Oppenheimer (the rest hadn’t seen or hadn’t enjoyed either). While Barbie seems to be more popular, it’s still a pretty close race. We’re here to settle the debate.


64 years after the first Barbie doll came out, the 2023 Barbie movie was released, following Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) through their journey of self-discovery while exploring ideas of existentialism, autonomy, and feminism. It quickly became the highest-grossing film in 2023 as well as the highest-grossing film ever directed by a solo female director (Greta Gerwig, who also directed Little Women). The movie contrasts the real world against the imaginary world of “Barbieland,” where all the Barbies have apparently perfect lives. The main conflict arises when Barbie finds herself experiencing feelings of existentialism and thinking about death, which no one seems to do in the “perfect world” that Barbieland represents. She travels to the real world to mend her relationship with the girl that plays with her and in turn discovers the truth about society: it is far from perfect. During the movie, fans find themselves on an emotional rollercoaster. Watching Barbie, you’ll relate to the speech that brings the Barbies back from hypnosis, laugh at the many hilarious moments such as the Kens’ battle on the beach, and tear up during the movie’s ending montage.


Oppenheimer, which has now become the highest-grossing biopic of all time, covers the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy). It explores his work on the first nuclear bomb, his association with the communist party, and his disputes with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) over nuclear weapon policy and personal matters. Other characters include Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), General Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon), and Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Christopher Nolan, also known for The Dark Knight and Dunkirk, skillfully weaves together scenes from before and after the dropping of the first atomic bomb in order to paint a full, albeit somewhat hard to follow, picture of the physicist’s life. Oppenheimer is noted to be very true-to-life: most of the scenes portrayed in the movie really happened, sometimes word for word. There were a few small changes, and the film is more focused on Oppenheimer as a person than the events of WW2, but overall it is historically accurate. The cinematography is masterful, especially when it comes to capturing facial expressions, and new black-and-white IMAX film had to be created to shoot the movie. Most of the acting is amazing, but Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer is the best of all. Oppenheimer is good from beginning to end, and it is definitely a must-see. 


The authors of this article appreciated both movies, but Charlize preferred Barbie and Astrid preferred Oppenheimer. We sat down together to discuss the two movies and understand each other’s point of view:


Astrid: What stands out to you about Barbie, Charlize? What do you think makes it such a good movie (and possibly the best movie of 2023)?


Charlize: Barbie had such deep meanings underneath its colorful and silly exterior. For example, people dressed up in bright pink to watch the movie, which seems like a small thing but creates a unique sense of unity. Also, the director also made it so easy to understand topics in the movie. Kids could watch it, and adults could relate to it. The now-iconic speech about being a woman made people feel seen.


Astrid: I definitely think that Barbie had a lot of good ideas about the meaning of life, the idea of being yourself, and the relationship between genders. However, it had so many themes and plot points in it (Barbie vs. Ken, Ken vs. Ken, the treatment of women in the workforce, the real world vs. Barbieland, being a woman, being a man, being a person, etc.) that I was confused about where the movie was going with all its ideas. My current takeaways are that “putting one gender over another harms everybody” and “it’s important to be your own person, don’t follow along with everybody else,” but there was just too much content for me to understand without watching the movie at least three times. Oppenheimer was also confusing to me because of the way the timeline was broken up, but I felt like Oppenheimer was more cohesive than Barbie. What the director wanted to show about Oppenheimer — that he was a human being reckoning with the consequences of scientific discovery — was really clear to me.


Charlize: Oppenheimer was way too long, though. It should have been condensed and clarified more. Everyone these days has a really short attention span, and it was hard to focus the whole time I was watching even though the movie itself was well done. Barbie was only about two hours long, so it was easier to pay attention. I actually really enjoyed seeing so many themes in Barbie — it thought it was super interesting.


Astrid: I agree that Oppenheimer was long, but I thought it went by pretty fast for a three-hour movie. It was super interesting to me, and I liked how they covered so much of Oppenheimer’s life before, during, and after the dropping of the bomb. We got to learn not just about the bomb he created, but also his love life, his political affiliations, his opinions on creating more nuclear bombs, his personal and political challenges… The movie did exactly what it wanted to do, which was create a complete portrait of his character. I cried at least twice.


Charlize: I cried at the point in Barbie where she turns into a human and they show flashbacks to the memories of children growing up (those were actual videos from the cast’s lives). The Billie Eilish song made me cry. And I cried when Barbie sat at the bus stop with the old lady and told her she was beautiful. It was sweet and I liked how the moment acknowledged that beauty is subjective in so many ways. What part of Oppenheimer made you cry?


Astrid: I cried after the bomb was dropped, and during Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing when he says something to the effect of “why doesn’t anyone tell the truth anymore?” Oppenheimer is not a movie that wants you to love Oppenheimer or his work, but it gives insight into his mind and heart. When they showed scenes that were very hard for him or for the characters, I felt their emotions. Cillian Murphy is a really great actor and the character portrayals were almost perfect.


Charlize: I loved how Cillian Murphy played Oppenheimer as such a complex individual. But the acting in Barbie was really good too. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling completely embodied Stereotypical Barbie and Ken but also displayed a wide range of believable emotions. They embraced their ‘doll’ personas wholeheartedly. I also liked how the movie showed a huge range of dolls which was able to emphasize the feminist point of the movie. 


Astrid: Besides Barbie and Ken, who were some of your favorite supporting characters?


Charlize: My favorite supporting characters would have to be Allan and Weird Barbie. Allan is one of a kind and he acts as his own person, who stays the same throughout the many changes between the matriarchal and patriarchal societies. Weird Barbie was the only Barbie who completely understood how the real world worked, because she represented the opposite of stereotypical beauty and being shunned was nothing new to her. The two of them were excluded from both Barbieland and Kendom because they weren’t “normal,” even in a perfect world where all the problems of gender stereotypes are solved and everyone is supposed to be happy. The idea that perfect is impossible was such a key point for Greta Gerwig to make and she executed it perfectly. 


Astrid: I loved Weird Barbie and Allan too! I thought they were the two most relatable characters in the whole movie, and I love it when people are unapologetically (and sometimes awkwardly) themselves. Michael Cera and Kate McKinnon were amazing. There were also really great non-main characters in Oppenheimer, though. For example, Kitty Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss. Kitty Oppenheimer definitely doesn’t get as much screen time as she should — a recurring problem for women in Christopher Nolan films — but Emily Blunt makes every moment on screen count, playing Kitty as a complicated, opinionated woman who both stands up to her husband (“You don’t get to commit sin, and then ask all of us to feel sorry for you when there are consequences.”) and stands her ground in his defense during the security clearance hearings. While there definitely aren’t enough lines for the grand total of two women in the film (two more than in Dunkirk — yikes), I still think they play an important role in the story. Also, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss was a great power-hungry politician, and when he was angry you could palpably feel it as an audience member. The actors in Oppenheimer did a stunning job.


Charlize: Cillian Murphy versus Margot Robbie. Is it possible to say who made a better main character?


Astrid: I don’t think so.

Barbie and Oppenheimer are both very well done in terms of acting, music, cinematography, and directing — it’s hard to say that one of them is objectively better or worse than the other. If you look around HSMSE, you’ll find a wide range of opinions from many different people. Some people thought Barbie was terrible. Some people thought Oppenheimer was insanely boring. Some people are huge fans of both, while others aren’t interested in either movie whatsoever. Based on our poll results, the girls at our school seem to prefer Barbie and the guys seem to prefer Oppenheimer, but there wasn’t a high correlation between gender and movie preference. It was mostly just a matter of personal taste. Oppenheimer is an intense technical masterpiece, and Barbie is a funny yet meaningful exploration of gender and the meaning of life. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t form your preference based on polls, box-office earnings, or even this discussion: ask yourself which style and tone you’d be more likely to personally enjoy and watch that movie, or better yet, watch them both before you decide.

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