Summer 2023: A retrospective in movies

As everyone knows, this past summer has been filled with highs, lows and everything in between. From climate disasters and Hollywood strikes to advances in both AI and green tech, the world has seen a lot. The movies released this past summer might be referred to with a similar introduction. This past summer, we have seen many surprises in the world of cinematic entertainment, but chief among these surprises seems to be the success of the “Barbenheimer” movement.

We have witnessed the rebirth of the double feature. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? The term “Barbenheimer,” — is it offensive? Where did “Indy” go? What about Tom Cruise, Ethan Hunt? “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” “Blue Beetle” bombed. Nothing seemed to work out like the predictions said that they would. Where did “Asteroid City” go? Anybody caught a Studio Ghibli special feature this past summer?

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in “OPPENHEIMER,” written, produced and directed by Christopher Nolan.

We did see action movies galore, action movies filled with nuances and quirks, but the top two domestic grossers this past summer, contrary to expectations, were a) a movie about a world-famous doll, and b) a biopic about the man responsible for building the atomic bomb. What do the successes of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” say about our tastes in movies?

It has been a long-standing and widely accepted belief that Americans love to kick back, snuggle up with a box of popcorn or a candy bar and immerse themselves in the worlds of high action, science fiction or fantasy, the worlds of the movies that the major studios have been putting out and pushing each and every summer for nearly a century. But a movie where Albert Einstein holds long conversations with a bone-thin physicist? A movie where a man with bleach blond hair and a skin-tight pink jumpsuit walks into an elementary school and walks out with children’s books on the patriarchy?

It seems to me that this is the opposite of what we might call a bad thing.

Let’s get away from being pegged as suckers for jump scares, for gunfights, for explosions or for any other form of excessive violence. But how unpredictable was it that audiences would gravitate toward the heady subjects present in both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” this past summer?

The key to the successes of these two films above the others: their marketing strategies. Yes, in the case of “Barbie,” the last half-century has worked in its favor. And yes, in the case of  “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s reputation alone is enough to sell a film.

There must have been something else. “Mission: Impossible” has been strong as a franchise for decades. “Indiana Jones” is a household name. “Blue Beetle” is, well, “Blue Beetle” is in an unfortunate place.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” on the other hand, is… well, riding the tail end of the “Barbenheimer” wave.

The genius stroke on someone’s dime: to take the titles for both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” and to combine them: “Barbenheimer.” From the popularity of shows like “The Office,” “Arrested Development” and “Ted Lasso,” it has become clear that Americans enjoy subversive and/or somewhat twisted senses of humor. 

The enduring popularities of both “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are greater examples of how strong our love for both tongue-in-cheekiness and awkwardness are. In combining the titles for both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” the promoters and the marketers of these films have worked to mine our love for both inside jokes and slightly morbid comedy. The ability that you had to tell your pals that you were heading to “Barbenheimer” would always lead to snickers and chuckles, followed by the questions: Which one first? “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer?” Which is the order that you think is better?

So why, then, have “Indy” and “Mission” failed? Their titles might hold little inherent humor, but their contents do. Movies from both franchises are known to contain examples of situational comedy. But the major events of these films revolve around heroes enduring dangerous or violent circumstances. And both franchises have the weight of countless screen years behind them.

You might argue that “Oppenheimer” revolves around stopping violence, but that’s just it: there is zero violence on a practical level in “Oppenheimer.” There is very little violence in “Barbie.” At least, both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” contain much less violence than “Indy” and “Mission” do. In addition, neither “Barbie” nor “Oppenheimer” is a part of a franchise, or is a sequel, or a spin-off. Are we shifting away from violence and sequels, or is this just the fortune of this past summer?

The age-old debate: We need more original content vs. sequels and franchises are what keep theaters open. The conclusion from this past summer: Maybe things will change, but that should be unimportant to you. Next time you go to the theater, take your friends to something new. The trends only change because of what you choose.

Gavin King

1 Comment

  • Gavin King, I was taken by your writing style and your point of view. Who needs to be captive of mediocre, boring serials? We do need to encourage a higher level of entertainment. Nice work.

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