Greta Gerwig's third directorial feature, Barbie, has left theatres and all it has been surrounded by is discourse. From its pre-release marketing hype and going head to head against Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, to the discourse surrounding its politics and not-so-subtle themes, all people have talked about for the entire summer blockbuster season is Barbie fever. Not only is it notable for being a major Hollywood studio blockbuster directed by a woman, but also for being the highest-grossing film of the year. The film has also been met with widespread audience and critical acclaim, with people praising everything from its well-written screenplay to its talented cast's excessive yet somber performances. Indeed, it is another feather in upcoming filmmaker Greta Gerwig's hat. However, what can we expect from its successes? Was the idea to release it on the same day as Nolan's Oppenheimer simply a marketing ploy? Does it mean huge Hollywood blockbusters will finally allow spaces to tackle real-world issues? And What does it say about more big-budget blockbuster films led by people from marginalized backgrounds?
Greta Gerwig's Barbie is her third major feature film and is colossally bigger than her other two films. Her first film, Lady Bird was made on a budget of 10 million dollars, and Little Women, her second film, was made on a budget of 40 million dollars. To compare, Barbie was made on a budget of 145 million dollars. This is no doubt a repetition of the decades-old Hollywood tradition of big studios hiring independent filmmakers who have seen success with their previous films to make huge IP-driven films. Interestingly, this also happened with Paramount, who hired Francis Ford Coppola to make The Godfather after similar successes with smaller films. Marvel Studios has been doing the same thing for this decade. However, the difference was that a huge part of the marketing was about how much freedom Gerwig herself had in the making of these films, and this is incredibly apparent in its in-depth exploration of themes of mortality and gender issues.
This is clearly an example of the studio trusting an auteur to do what she does best, and her succeeding with flying colours. The film itself is stellar. But did Warner Brothers, the company behind Barbie, immediately hire more auteurs, or people from minorities, and give them a large budget to create the films that they wanted? In fact, quite the opposite. Rather than taking more risks with new filmmakers, they announced a spin-off cinematic universe, the trend of an interconnected series of films that tell a greater story, with Mattel toys, including UNO and Hot Wheels, as a part of the same universe as Barbie. In this way, there is a disconnect between the film's message and what its success has led to. While the film's message itself is about individuality and discovering oneself, the film finds itself to be one amidst the various products that WB only views as a tool to grow their profits, rather than as an individual piece of art.
This reading of Barbie as a product is not novel. It can be seen in WB's controversial decision to release it on the same day as Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, inadvertently creating a Frankenstein's marketing monster dubbed Barbenheimer. This cultural phenomenon may have been the result of a split between the studio and Nolan that happened during the pandemic. In 2020, with theatres shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Warner Brothers announced that they would be releasing all of their upcoming films on their streaming service, HBO Max. This decision was met with heavy criticism by those filmmakers whose movies were getting dumped on the platform. Among these was Christopher Nolan, whose latest film Tenet was supposed to come out in theatres in July 2020. Being a more well-known filmmaker, he had some pull around the studio and secured a theatrical release amidst the pandemic. However, this decision caused a loss of faith in the studio on the filmmakers' side, which led to him parting ways with them. Tenet finally came out in August 2020 to a slow box office reception, which also served as a litmus test for theatres in a world battling a pandemic, and the results were not good. This led Warner Brothers to push their streaming service harder, and Nolan ultimately finalized his departure from the studio. This materialized when it was announced that Nolan's next film Oppenheimer, would be produced and distributed by Universal Pictures. This was followed by a set release date of 21st July 2023.
One can argue then, that WB deciding to release Barbie on the same date as Oppenheimer was simply a calculated decision to release a blockbuster movie during the blockbuster season. After all, the much-awaited sequel to the Mission Impossible franchise was also going to release merely a week before the film. However, the WB calendar already had a film set for the 21st of July 2023 and it was Dave Green's Coyote vs Acme, a Looney Tunes comedy film starring John Cena. However, upon realising that a Barbie film would compete far better with their former partner at the box office, they shelved the Looney Tunes film for Barbie. This move, then, comes off as petty and vindictive towards a filmmaker who simply wanted to preserve his beloved art form and spoke out against a perceived injustice to the film. And the film would have made a good competitor to Oppenheimer, given how thematically different the two are. While Barbie is a bright, happy, musical comedy with an ensemble cast that would appeal to a wider audience, Oppenheimer is a dark, moody, atmospheric biopic that mostly consists of people talking, aimed at adults. While Oppenheimer did perform fairly well at the box office, thanks to the cultural juggernaut meme that was Barbenheimer, it was still beaten by Barbie at the box office. It is hard not to imagine that Barbie ate into Oppenheimer's profits.
Barbenheimer then, is indicative of another disturbing Hollywood trend; the tendency of audiences to only watch films that are heavily memed about, not ones they are actually interested in. This is different from when people talk about and generate buzz about upcoming films out of genuine love and passion for the films. Rather, there is a tinge of irony and self-awareness when these films are discussed. Everything is a joke, and nothing is meant seriously. While this may be right for a musical comedy, for a meditative drama like Oppenheimer, it spells disaster as it leads to false expectations among audiences. Scores of people complained about Oppenheimer's various perceived 'faults', but were merely a case of false expectations set by the memes around the film. Films are not taken for what they are, but how ironically they can be talked about. Worse still, various companies are trying to manufacture the Barbenheimer buzz by releasing two diametrically opposing films on the same date, ultimately leading to less profits for both films in the long run.
This is not a fault of the film, Barbie. I have maintained and still maintain that the film is a masterpiece, a brilliant work of art, and an incredible expression of individual artistic talent from one of the best creative voices in the field of cinema. This is, however, looking at the studio behind it. Just like how Barbie questions her makers in the film, it is important for us, the audience, to question the film's makers too. It is apparent that they have taken the wrong message from the film's success. It would not be unforeseen to have a slew of mediocre toy-based films that attempt Barbie's social commentary but fail to do so, because of the control that the studio will exert over it. Hollywood may take the wrong lessons from Barbie's success, but what more could one expect from an IP-driven film, made to increase sales of children's toys?