Barbenheimer meme example depicting Barbie and Oppenheimer from the two 2023 movies shaking hands.

The Barbenheimer Phenomenon: How Memes And Viral Marketing Impacted The Success Of The 'Barbie' And 'Oppenheimer' Movies

The long-awaited movies from directors Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, Barbie and Oppenheimer, are here and they’re crushing it at the box office.

In just two weeks, Barbie (starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling) has brought in over $400 million, with Oppenheimer (starring Cillian Murphy) bringing in over $200 million — an equally impressive feat considering the film is a three-hour-long historical drama.

The films were released on the exact same day in July and were ushered into the world with a flurry of memes that started going viral over a year before the movies were released.

While it's highly likely they would've done well on their own, it's safe to say that memes and social media trends had a massive impact on the success of the two films, especially at a time when lots of major Hollywood productions seem to be flopping (we’re looking at you, Indiana Jones).

But how did viral marketing and other organic internet phenomena actually aid these movies? Here’s a look at how memes helped to push the films to the top of the box office and become some of the highest-grossing movies of 2023.


Barbie and Oppenheimer Go to War

It was first announced that Barbie and Oppenheimer would release on the same date (July 21st, 2023) back in April last year, a full 15 months before the release of the films. The news quickly went viral on Twitter as all the major pop culture and film accounts began reporting on it.

The most viral of these posts shared a colorful, pink-all-over teaser image of Margot Robbie smiling for Barbie next to a drab, black-and-white image of Cillian Murphy for Oppenheimer.

trin @lovelltrin it's time to officially choose a side, there will be no switzerland. FILM Film Updates @FilmUpdates Apr 26, 2022 Greta Gerwig's BARBIE and Christopher Nolan's OPPENHEIMER will both release on July 21, 2023. 9:41 PM Apr 26, 2022 ●

These images helped paint Barbie and Oppenheimer as complete opposites in style and tone. One is advertised as a light and bubbly movie about a children’s toy, while the other is advertised as a grim, serious historical drama about the man who helped pioneer the atomic bomb.

Naturally, people began to pick sides, pledging their allegiance to see either Barbie or Oppenheimer on July 21st, essentially pitting them against one another.

Both movies come from highly praised directors, Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, meaning expectations were high from the start. Nobody was really bashing these films when they were announced, they were simply excited for their arrival.

But the fact that they were both coming out on the same day, in many people’s minds, meant they could see only one on opening night, creating a brief online war. Then, things changed.

Going to Going to see see Barbie Oppenheimer (2023) (2023)

Barbenheimer Brings Audiences Together

The memes regarding each film quickly changed directions when a Twitter user coined the term "Barbenheimer," a portmanteau of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" that became the go-to name for a Barbie and Oppenheimer double feature going into 2023. Rather than pick which movie to see on opening night, many decided they would go and see them both.

People began making posts announcing their plans, sharing fan art and memes combining the two films and their aesthetics and, most importantly, they actually started preordering tickets to each film, with numerous reports coming out announcing that Barbie and Oppenheimer's presale tickets were among the highest of all time.

Upon release, many were photographed going to each film in costume, trying to replicate the vibes of the two distinct movies (eccentric and pink for Barbie, old-timey and black for Oppenheimer). Rather than fight a war, the two highly anticipated films joined together to dominate the box office together in a way only possible through the internet.

DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT DYING? C YES. 元 the lilman ken TE Cold dr

The Barbie and Oppenheimer Splitscreen Meme Solidified Their Union

As an extension of all the Barbenheimer memes, the Barbie Oppenheimer splitscreen soon took off online. The meme combines two similar promotional photos for each movie right down the middle, the first showing Barbie looking down in a cowboy hat and the second showing Oppenheimer looking down in a fedora (the former smiling and the latter distressed).

dhanush #WonkaSweep @Dhanush747 Sarah Bellum @tamsully12 May 24 WITHOUT GOOGLING Name a famous historic battle. 12:58 PM . May 28, 2023 1.9M Views 8,055 Retweets 199 Quotes 64.2K Likes 681 Bookmarks :

The meme is used to represent one bright, bubbly thing in contrast to another dark, brooding thing, like two contrasting yet good in their own merit albums or video games.

This meme helped further solidify the idea that Barbie and Oppenheimer are best enjoyed together despite their differences, rather than enjoyed separately because of those same differences.

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Ken and Oppenheimer are Literally Me

Beyond the magic of Barbenheimer, we can also look at the individual aspects of each film and how the memes surrounding them helped promote each movie. In the case of Barbie and Oppenheimer, the lead actors and their portrayals of each character – Ryan Gosling as Ken and Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer – played a significant role in inspiring memes across social media as "Literally Me" types.

A “Literally Me” is, essentially, a flawed, outsider character with redeemable qualities that is portrayed as relatable, often ironically. Ryan Gosling has historically portrayed some of the biggest "literally me" characters online, including his characters in Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines and Blade Runner: 2049. He’s just so cool that everyone wants to be him.

Self harm: Burn Scars: Animal Incidents: Childhood Memories: Show us your story. Surgery: Other: Posted by u/FakeMovieBro 1 year ago 2 2 ATTENTION ALL FILM BROS! A new movie in the "literally me" universe has been added! CILLI LLIAN MURPHY THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS A FILM BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN OPPENHEIMER IN THEATERS AND SPECIAL ENGAGEMENTS IN 70mm, 35mm AND IMAX PLM ISVACY CHRISTOPHER MOLAM 7.21.23 S.

That idea carried through in Barbie, thanks largely to Gosling’s public embracement of the character. Whenever Gosling was asked about the role, he always had mountains of positive things to say about it — talking as if he was meant to play Ken and it was the most exciting opportunity of his life.

Gosling’s dedication painted a good picture of what we could expect from the film, assuring fans that he was putting his whole "Goslussy" into the role. Gosling’s presence in the film and his memeability online even potentially helped encourage more men to see Barbie without feeling too embarrassed about it, knowing they’d be getting a good performance from the man many of them idolize (or at least, ironically idolize).

Cillian Murphy’s role as Oppenheimer seemed to have a similar appeal online, inspiring “literally me” memes about the character on Reddit dating back as early as February 2022.

The fedora, cigarette and moody looks combined with the well-known dread that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt for his part in the creation of the atomic bomb resonated with a lot of men and memers. He’s a flawed, cool character with a troubled past looking for redemption, fitting him right into the “literally me” archetype and fostering lots of memes leading up to the film’s release.


The Barbie Movie Posters Were Made to Meme

In a brilliant marketing move, one of the most viral memes to come from Barbie also doubles as advertising for the film. We’re of course referencing the Barbie movie poster parodies.

The posters were originally released to promote the film in April. Each poster features one of the characters from the film and a tagline describing the character in a comedic way, with the movie’s title stretching across their bodies.

Not only was this a great way to show off the film’s stacked cast and give potential viewers some insight into their characters, but the simple and consistent design of the posters also made for an easy, exploitable meme format.

Barbie's marketing team seemed to realize this and promoted an AI tool,, that allowed anyone to make a custom Barbie poster with their own selfie or any other image they desired. This tool allowed people who aren’t so versed in Photoshop to get in on the memes, inspiring a massive number of parody Barbie posters applying just about every character under the sun to the format.

The posters spread across social media apps and likely introduced many to the movie, inevitably leading some to the original posters, where they would then learn about the star-studded cast and maybe even decide to go see the movie for themselves.

© 2023 WBEI This Barbie is going to play a game Barbie Only in Theaters July 21 © 2023 WBEI This Barbie is gonna make 1 Barbillion dollars. Barbie Only in Theaters July 21 This Ken is the other movie you're seeing this day © 2023 WBEI Barbie Only in Theaters July 21

The Front Row at Oppenheimer IMAX Experience

In the weeks leading up to Oppenheimer, excited fans began sharing the idea that sitting front row during the IMAX showing of the movie would be a literally mind-blowing experience after a meme showing a single sold front row seat at an Oppenheimer show went viral.

Scott Sullivan @ScottSullivanTV Who's the absolute madman who booked a singular front row ticket to #Oppenheimer in @IMAX 70mm Universal CityWalk on the opening preview night? [032] Oppenheimer Universal Cinema AMC at CityWalk Hollywood | Thu, Jul 20 | 9:45pm | IMAX at AMC 4:20 PM Jun 1, 2023 26M Views . SCREEN A2A1 × 기 K ...

The image of the isolated front-row seat was attached to dozens of reaction images in June, each depicting the front-row sitter getting blown away by the explosion of the atomic bomb that would inevitably happen in the movie in glorious IMAX.

Sitting front-row at Oppenheimer was portrayed as a sort of unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience that stood to have a direct influence on ticket buyers, potentially encouraging brave viewers to secure that front-row ticket in IMAX specifically. IMAX even managed to contact the man who bought that front-row ticket and award him a film camera art print.

The meme was followed by numerous social media posts by Oppenheimer viewers showing themselves in the front row of the film, eagerly awaiting the explosion, offering a real-time look at the effectiveness of the meme in marketing the film.

ël_beerdo @Beerdo_El Whole row to yourself, zero chance of light from a phone distracting you? Seems legit to me Also, when the bomb goes off... II GIF ... 11:35 AM - Jun 2, 2023 431.6K Views

“Now I Am Become Death, Destroyer Of Worlds” Brought To Life

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer has actually been inspiring memes since as early as 2003 through the notable quote associated with the man himself, "Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds." The quote, which is actually from the Bhagavad Gita but was notably used by Oppenheimer, is often used to describe the inventor's regret over the destruction the atomic bomb led to.

Since the early days of meme culture, the quote has been attached to all manner of images and memes, often used in an ironic way over images of things that are trying but failing to be threatening.

These memes came back into fashion with the announcement and release of the film, offering meme lovers a way to delve deeper into the actual meaning of and history behind the quote. It’s always glorious to see a meme come to life, or in this case, a quote-turned-meme, adding another layer of enjoyment to the viewing experience.

"Now I am become family guy the funniest moments of пис тре jv 00 Jh V J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the family guy funny moments after witnessing the first shut up meg I AM BECOME DEATH, DESTROYER OF TRAITORS

Mugshot Redraws and Silly Catchphrases Make Barbie Relatable

Relatability is at the core of some of the most successful memes and some of Barbie's most successful meme formats hinge on relatability. Many of these memes came out after the movie’s premier, like Mojo Dojo Casa House, Long Term, Long Distance, Low Commitment, Casual Girlfriend and the Mugshot Redraws.

Each of these microformats has a key relatability factor that makes them so fun to meme. The idea of a Mojo Dojo Casa House can be applied to any room or home that gives off male energy. ‘Long term, long distance’ proved a relatable idea to many women as a self-deprecating meme who have been in, well, long term, long distance, low commitment, casual relationships.


The mugshot redraws are redraws of a specific scene in the movie in which Ken and Barbie get arrested, with Barbie looking distressed and Ken smiling. These redraws depict characters from various fandoms in the same poses, becoming a sort of ship dynamic that will likely live long past the movie’s hype.

The relatability and flexibility of these memes have given them a lot of life, keeping the movie in people’s heads and offering potential viewers a peek into the film’s humor, creating a curiosity gap where those potential viewers might go and see the movie to further understand the context behind the memes.

Dr Sean Travers @seanjetravers Take him to the mojo dojo casa house 7:06 AM - Jul 24, 2023 - 1.6M Views ... ali @strangeluvz long term long distance low commitment casual boyfriends :

What can We and the Film Industry Learn From This?

Rather than just being another set of movies that were released on the same day, Barbie and Oppenheimer became an event for film and meme lovers alike thanks to their massive online presence.

Everything from the casting to the relatability, both ironic and not, to the contrasting aesthetics of each film came together to create a perfect double feature that could only be properly advertised through the internet ‐ like when Doomguy and Isabelle came together for the shared release date of Animal Crossing and Doom: Eternal.

In the future, it will be interesting to see if production companies take the success of Barbenheimer and combine forces to try and prop each other’s movies up, rather than pit them against each other.

… speaking of which, it looks like "Saw Patrol" is already rapidly following in the footsteps of Barbenheimer.

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