Barbenheimer: The Hollywood meme that became cultural.

Barbenheimer: The Hollywood meme that became cultural.

“Barbenheimer” surpasses Box Office Expectations and sparks controversy over its Japanese release. 

News Published 2023.09.26 | Woohui Kim

On July 21, 2023, Hollywood giants Warner Bros Pictures and Universal Pictures simultaneously released films that couldn't be more different from each other. On one side of the spectrum was “Barbie,” an eccentric, vibrant comedy centered around dolls, while on the other was 'Oppenheimer,' a profound 3-hour-long biopic about the scientist responsible for creating the atomic bomb. This cultural phenomenon would soon be known as "Barbenheimer," acclaimed as the savior of Box cinema. 

(Photo = Vanity Fair)

Prior to the release of “Barbenheimer”, theaters forecasted a bleak outlook, marred by a string of subpar years. For example, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic halted theater attendance, resulting in a meager $2.3 billion in earnings, down from $11.4 billion in 2019. A Gallup poll in 2021 further emphasized this declining trend, revealing that Americans watched a historically low number of 1.4 movies annually. However, it wasn't until Barbie and Oppenheimer turned the tables. AMC Entertainment told the New York Times that over 40,000 people purchased both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" in its opening. Additionally, Comscore reported that "Barbenheimer" brought in $246.2 million at the box office, on par with the biggest movie openings ever. 

(Photo = Beverly Press)

Yet movie analysts unanimously agree that “Barbenheimer”'s remarkable financial success is not solely due to its impressive ensemble casts, high production values, and Oscar-nominated filmmakers. What truly set the stage for its unprecedented triumph was the electrifying buzz generated on social media platforms before the film's release. Enthusiastic fans shared unofficial photoshopped movie posters and fervently discussed their plans to watch the films. These conversations extended beyond movie-watching, including debates about cosplay attire, preferred cocktails, and even the choice of snacks from whimsical “pink candy floss” for Barbie to the enigmatic allure of “pitch-black licorice” for Oppenheimer. This vibrant social media engagement not only created a sense of anticipation but also fostered a culture, propelling “Barbenheimer” to its colossal opening success.

(Photo = Kyodo News)

Despite its domestic success, controversy surrounds the release of Oppenheimer in Japan. After all, Japan was devastated from nuclear bombings by the United States during World War II, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hence, it was unsurprising when Twitter users in Japan reacted with anger when they came across online mash-ups of Barbie and Oppenheimer. Anti-campaigns also went rampant, spreading the hashtag #NoBarbenheimer to dissuade people from regarding "Barbenheimer" as a meme. Subsequently, the Japanese Warner Bros subsidiary demanded the company's headquarters to take "appropriate action" to stop its aggressive Barbenheimer promotion.

Warner Bros apologized for "its recent insensitive social media engagement" and removed replies deemed offensive. Universal Pictures also decided not to convey Oppenheimer's release date in Japan. Consequently, some speculate if the movie will ever be unveiled in Japan to avoid offending its scarred history of nuclear attacks. 

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