Not only did the one-two punch of Barbie and Oppenheimer, crowned by America as “Barbenheimer,” leave audiences enraptured this past weekend, but the double feature’s opening box office performance could have seriously challenged the movie might of superhero blockbusters.
At least in 2023.
A pretty pink halo surrounded director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” propelling the movie to a stupendous $155 million box office domestically ($337 million globally), giving the film the largest opening weekend of 2023 and the biggest-ever debut for a female director.
The Barbie-licious halo effect even extended to the very testosterone-driven fields of Yankee Stadium in New York City, where Aqua’s one-hit-wonder, blasted around the stadium during a Yankees-Kansas City Royals game on Sunday.
Then you have the diametrically opposed experience of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” The lengthy biopic about Robert Oppenheimer, who led the United States’ Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon during World War II, earned $80 million domestically ($174 million globally) on its opening weekend.
Together, the two films pulled in $511 million combined in box office sales over their opening weekend, according to Boxoffice.com, citing data from Warner Bros., the producers of “Barbie,” and Universal Studios, which is behind “Oppenheimer.” (Warner Bros. is owned by CNN’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Compare that with this year’s superhero movies “The Flash” (from DC/Warner Bros.), which premiered June 16 and has pulled in $107 million in US ticket sales so far, or “Shazam! Fury of the Gods (from Warner Bros.), with $58 million in domestic box office sales since it premiered on March 17.
Staying in the genre, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” has thus far raked in $375 million domestically since its June 2 release and the superhero team in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” have so far helped the film collect $359 million in box office sales domestically since it premiered on May 5.
“The superhero movie is not the novelty that it used to be,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst with Boxoffice Pro, said in an interview with CNN.
“I still think they will succeed on their own terms, like ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Spider-Man,’ which have done really well this summer, but, I do think we are now entering a time, especially as this weekend is showing, that audiences don’t just crave good superhero movies, they just crave good movies,” he said.
Barbie and Oppenheimer delivered good storytelling at the “perfect time,” said Robbins.
“It’s also lightning in a bottle,” he added. “It’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to duplicate the Barbenheimer craze.”
The lesson for studios from Barbenheimer’s success could be this: “Audiences are willing to go and see fresh content. Studios may want to invest in more variety going forward,” he said.
The dismal performance of “The Flash” (DC Comics first introduced the speedy superhero in 1940) and the “Shazam” sequel (based on the superhero character also from the 1940s) shows how studios have to figure out how to make storylines and characters stand out to younger audiences who haven’t grown up with them, said Robbins.
The drubbing that these superhero-themed movies have taken in theaters points to the constant evolution of moviegoers, too.
“It’s an interesting time for the industry. Especially now and throughout the pandemic, and the post-pandemic era, we’ve seen audience taste evolve a little bit,” he said.
The movies themselves contributed somewhat to it, said Robbins.
“In 2019, Marvel really crescendoed at the perfect time with ‘Endgame.’ It felt like not the official ending but the end of an era for the Avengers and that entire franchise,” he said. In the last few years, Marvel has still had hit after hit at the box office, but the audience reception has not been quite to the level.”
But it doesn’t mean the superhero movie genre has completely lost its mojo.
“Audiences will still show up for superhero films. ‘Spider-Verse’ is a perfect example of an edgy style animation that’s a new take on a more of a representation of what a graphic novel or comic book would feel like, in movie format,” said Robbins.
“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” however, had no problem pulling in the crowds with counterprogramming perfection at theaters.
“Both of these films would have been successful on their own terms had they opened on different weekends and not tapped into the zeitgeist like they did,” said Robbins. “Both movies also really enhanced each other because of that social media buzz over the last few months.”
Michael O’Leary, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said despite being so different, both movies do have a lot in common that appealed to crossover audiences.
“They have a compelling story that interests people. They have amazing actors and actresses to bring those stories to life, and they are told by world class directors who knew how to connect with an audience,” said O’Leary.
“At the end of the day, what people need are compelling characters in a movie. That’s what you had with ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer.’ Perhaps Barbie is moving into the superhero realm with her popularity over the last weekend,” he quipped.