I did the ‘Barbenheimer’ doubleheader. Here’s what I learned

Mid-century-styled silhouette of Barbie where her ponytail is in the shape of the "Fat Man" nuclear bomb.
The Times headed straight for the “Barbenheimer” front lines — and lived to tell the tale.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Two films, both alike in dignity. In fair Los Angeles, where we lay our scene. From box-office grudge to towering IMAX screen, where oily movie popcorn makes moviegoer hands unclean.

After more than a year of anticipation, the long-awaited cinematic showdown — “Barbie” vs. “Oppenheimer” — came to a head on Friday and over the weekend. While the box office may ultimately crown a victor, the biggest winners were no doubt the countless movie fans who expressed their love through homemade T-shirts, viral posters and mash-up memes.

In order to discover exactly what happened when these two instant blockbuster behemoths finally hit the big screen, The Times set a course straight for the “Barbenheimer” front lines.


The plan was simple: Book back-to-back tickets for Christopher Nolan’s three-hour downer and Greta Gerwig’s cotton-candy-colored confection. Our first order of business was to decide the optimal viewing experience for the ultimate “Barbenheimer” commitment.

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Shot on specially designed film stock, “Oppenheimer” is being projected in 70mm IMAX at only 19 U.S. theaters, with one located at the AMC CityWalk in Universal City. That was a no-brainer.

For “Barbie,” on the other hand, I sought a more holistic sense of vibrancy. Naturally, the Westfield Century City mall — a location that would end up proving perfect for one of the film’s biggest jokes — came to mind. Anticipating the solemn tone of a World War II epic, I chose to end the night on a high with Gerwig’s fizzy pop fantasia acting as a chaser.

With tickets in hand, it was time, as J. Robert Oppenheimer did, to put theory into practice. Would I find diehard Nolanheads mingling with pink-clad Gerwig stans at their local megaplex? Would L.A. traffic undo my impossible multi-movie mission? And most importantly, would all that online buzz translate into opening night excitement?

Several filmgoers dressed in pink pose outside a movie theater.
A group of “Barbie” partisans pose at AMC Century City on Friday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)


Let’s hear it for Nolan!

At the CityWalk, a mix of pink-clad “Barbie” fans and moviegoers in non-themed outfits formed a line that extended out the front door. It’s here that I hit my first and only hurdle: The theater’s computer system was glitching and some guests, myself included, were unable to be scanned in. “Today of all days,” one manager grumbled. “Gonna be an experience for sure,” chirped an employee with a telling edge of weariness.

These cinema workers told me they had seen a “ton of people” in their “Barbie” best, but couldn’t pinpoint any “Oppenheimer” fans based on attire, despite viral outfits that mashed up both films garnering attention on social media. The AMC employees admitted that they had no intention of committing to the “Barbenheimer” double-feature.

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After sorting out the ticket snafu, all attention turned to the “Barbie” merch on display at the concession stands. Movie-accurate Barbies in plastic boxes and hot pink Corvette-shaped popcorn holders were lined up for the taking, as guests contemplated $65 combos. Though the majority of themed outfits clearly leaned in “Barbie’s” favor, at least one “Oppenheimer” supporter had pledged his allegiance directly to the filmmaker with a bespoke T-shirt emblazoned with the words “In Nolan We Believe.”

The crowded IMAX theater for “Oppenheimer” buzzed with sold-out energy, but not everyone in attendance had double-feature fever. One moviegoer said she and her companion bought their tickets earlier that morning and had yet to reserve tickets for “Barbie.” Maybe the online hype was hollow, or maybe seeing two movies these days is simply too costly for the average consumer. I wanted to ask more questions, but the lights dimmed and Nicole Kidman’s AMC ad had the packed house in a trance. Then, in a moment of silence after the pre-movie fanfare ended but before the first studio logo appeared, one theatergoer in the back shouted, “Let’s hear it for Nolan,” and the audience roared with applause.


Even though “Oppenheimer” is light on laughs, the rapt crowd often reacted in cheers, especially during a third-act turn when Emily Blunt’s taciturn character jolts the movie into its final minutes. Nolan’s film might not have inspired the same sartorial expression that Gerwig’s had, but this audience of big-screen devotees was no less enthused to partake in one of its first L.A. screenings.

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This weekend is an event.

Following an uncharacteristically traffic-free drive across town, I arrived at the Century City theater lobby, decked out in extensive “Barbie” signage that could only be described as partycore. Guests of every age, shape and size were united by one color. Movie fans in pink power suits, pink sequined skirts, pink overalls, pink cowboy hats, pink bell bottoms and pink flip flops (I could go on) waited in line for more than 20 minutes to pose for photos in a life-size Barbie box or shoot choreographed videos for social media.

“This is an event,” remarked one moviegoer. “This weekend is an event,” another replied, neither an employee of Warner Bros. Groups of people who arrived separately fixed each other’s hair before snapping pictures and walking off, bonded by “Barbie’s” sheer force of will. “What’s your theater [number]?” one guest asked another group. “Thirteen,” they replied, to gasps. “Taylor’s number!” they shouted, referencing Taylor Swift’s repeated use of the number in Easter eggs.

On opening night, everyday movie fans participated in step-and-repeats on the trendiest red — well, pink — carpet of the year.


Women in pink pose for the camera
Izzy Ster, from left, Adele Marchenko, Maya Gardner, Maddi Moran and Clare Larsen, friends in a USC comedy sketch group called the Suspenders, dress in the spirit of “Barbenheimer” at AMC Century City on Friday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Pay your writers!

Championing these beloved-before-they-were-ever-released films wasn’t the only thing on moviegoers’ minds. At a sold-out Friday evening screening of “Barbie” in Burbank, the crowd erupted into a chant at the first sight of the pink Warner Bros. logo. “Pay your writers!” theater attendees sang, echoing the words of WGA members on strike.

It’s unfortunate that, during the first real box-office record-breaking phenomenon since the pandemic, moviegoers are staring down another barren stretch, as studios delay their upcoming releases amid the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

If there’s anything these devoted and industry-savvy audiences demonstrated, it’s that the “Barbenheimer” effect is real. The last thing they want is to lose their movies — again.


“I’m just happy to be back here,” said one “Oppenheimer” viewer minutes before our theater was swept up by Nolan’s big-screen epic. And six hours later, I was glad to be back too.