So far, the biggest movies of the Summer of ‘23 feature more of the ubiquitous Marvel Universe, an animated Spiderman, a tenth iteration of Van Diesel’s Fast and Furious and two aging actors reprising their most famous roles, an 80 year old Harrison Ford returning in the 5th and final version of the Indiana Jones saga (with help from digital de-aging and spirited support from Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and 61 year old Tom Cruise performing wondrous feats on a motorcycle in the latest replay of the Mission Impossible franchise.
But none of these can come close to matching the fevered anticipation of the next blockbusters about to hit the nation’s screens this week: Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s epic based on the Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus, the life story of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, and Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s “biopic” of a fictional character released in a box in 1959, who has represented both the best and worst versions of American women, but whose iconic status as a brand cannot be denied as her franchise has represented an estimated $24 billion in lifetime sales.
Although their subjects cannot be more obviously different, many moviegoers plan to devote five hours of their lives on July 21, their coincidental opening date, to view both movies. And maybe that is not as incongruous as it seems. After all, both Oppenheimer and Barbie represent complex and controversial figures in American history and sources of endless fascination.
Oppie, as he was known to his friends, led the Manhattan Project that developed the Bomb and watched in dismay as it was utilized against an already defeated Japan at the end of World War II. He later opposed further nuclear proliferation, including development of the hydrogen bomb, and was stripped of his national security clearance ostensibly over his earlier Communist sympathies. He lived the rest of his life as a broken man although maintaining his position as head of the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton-based think tank that most famously was the home base for Albert Einstein and his work after he fled Nazi Germany in 1933.
As for Barbie, she has been a visible presence in most American girls’ homes since her introduction but, with the development of the feminist movement, has been a more contentious figure for her unrealistic proportions and made-for-high heels feet that have been viewed as a vision of unrealistic female perfection and a personification of the artificial materialistic world she lives in.
But times change and both Oppenheimer and Barbie have been somewhat rehabilitated. Oppie, in the post-red hunting world, is now seen as a symbol of a defender of humanity for his efforts to limit the effects of the monster he created by advocating for limitations on further nuclear development and his opposition to the creation of bigger and more destructive bombs.
And even Barbie herself has evolved. She has been transformed into a model of an independent woman: owning her own home before women could get mortgages, breaking gender barriers by becoming an executive, an astronaut (beating Neil Armstrong to the Moon), a Marine Sergeant, a Major League Baseball star and a Presidential candidate among numerous other professions. And her astounding proportions have been scaled down with even her upturned feet modified to enable her to sport a pair of flats. Even the conservative right has to be perversely happy that she has never given the sexually ambiguous Ken more than a peck on the cheek before sending him home night after night.
With sufficient imagination, maybe these seemingly incompatible entertainments could have been a single movie. One could envision Physicist Barbie working side-by-side with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos to beat the Nazis to the Bomb. Oppie loosening up at weekend beach parties with Barbie and her pals (including an envious Ken suspiciously eying up the womanizing Oppie). Barbie facing off with Joe McCarthy over her life-long “pink” tendencies. Oppie defending Barbie as a national hero. The possibilities are limitless.
But could such a movie have a happy ending? For all her positive qualities, Barbie has still caused generations of woman to have negative views of their own bodies and a desire for bigger closets to house their massive wardrobes. For all her faults, however, I doubt that we will ever see Threat to Humanity Barbie. But we are destined to continue to live with the Bomb. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a barbecue at Barbie’s Beach House than face Armageddon.