Barbenheimer Fever Is Taking Over DC

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Photographs courtesy of Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures.

She’s Barbie. He’s the father of the atomic bomb. Both will make history on July 21.

Cinephiles and pop-culture aficionados are preparing themselves for the same-day premieres of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, with some viewers choosing to watch the films back-to-back. The “Barbenheimer” double-feature phenomenon (also sometimes referred to as “Boppenheimer”) has spawned both memes and ticket sales: According to Variety, AMC has determined that more than 20,000 participants in its rewards program have bought tickets to see the two movies on the same day.

Moviegoers around DC are among those consumed by the atomic pink explosion, carving out a full day to watch both films. “This is like the premiere event of the summer—if not the year,” says ANC commissioner Josh Jacobson. He will be viewing Barbenheimer in Alexandria with around 40 people, screening the movies in an AMC theater the friends rented for the event. Patrons were summoned via invitation platform Partiful, setting the tone for a day that is as much about the shared social experience as the content onscreen.

Jacobson isn’t the only one who has turned the double feature into a group outing with logistics to arrange. In Senate staffer Caitlin Rooney’s group of five, the congressional scheduler was tasked with snagging tickets and organizing the day. Rooney’s crew will start their journey with Oppenheimer at Regal Gallery Place. Once the movie ends, they’ll decamp to lunch at Oyamel, return for Barbie, and then likely spend the evening reflecting at Lucha Rosa, the Moxy hotel’s pink-laden rooftop.

Government affairs professional Scott Greenler is also embarking on a full-day adventure. Like many people, he’s drawn to the unexpected juxtaposition of the films, letting the disparate vibes shape his plans. “We’re going to start the day off at a greasy spoon diner with some retro aesthetics, retro vibes, black coffee and bacon—a place that might have let you smoke cigarettes inside in the ’50s to get us in the right mood for Oppenheimer,” says Greenler. Once they are sufficiently in character, the group will go to Regal Gallery Place to watch Cillian Murphy frown for three hours and nine seconds, followed by a palate cleanser in the form of brunch and cocktails at Lucha Rosa (perhaps accompanied by a costume change), and then an afternoon screening of Barbie.

Barbie's pink aesthetic is shaping people's plan for the day. Photograph courtesy of Warner Bros.
Barbie’s pink aesthetic is shaping plans for the day. Photograph courtesy of Warner Bros.

For some film buffs, finding a theater that can play Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm is a priority, throwing a wrench into double-feature plans. There are only 19 theaters in the United States playing the film in those dimensions, and the closest location is King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Sam Abbott, who works at an economic policy think tank and lives in Petworth, is making the trip to see the film as Christopher Nolan intended. Afterwards, he will have an opportunity to compare that version to the one in plebeian theaters: Abbott is watching the movie again at Alamo Drafthouse the next day, followed by Barbie. (Yes, that is around eight hours of film total, not including trailers.) “With Oppenheimer, they’ve been doing such specific marketing about what version of the film you’re going to see,” says Abbott. “I guess all the marketing has really worked on me, is what I’m saying.”

Would you travel to King of Prussia to see this face in IMAX 70mm? Photograph courtesy of Universal Studios.
Would you travel to King of Prussia to see Cillian Murphy smoke a cigarette in IMAX 70mm? Photograph courtesy of Universal Studios.

While Abbott’s order is dictated by his travel plans, others are reckoning with the pop culture version of the chicken and the egg. Do you start in the Barbie Dream House or first visit Oppenheimer’s lab? “[Barbie is] like dessert first,” says Madeline Ducharme, an audio journalist in Northeast DC. “And in this case, dinner is nuclear obliteration, so I don’t want to do that second—I want to eat our Christopher Nolan vegetables.” She’s going to watch the movies at Alamo Drafthouse in Brentwood on opening weekend, but plans to start her Barbenheimer adventure the night before at a Barbie-themed party. Jacobson, the ANC commissioner, agrees with Ducharme’s order, albeit for the opposite reason: “You have Oppenheimer, it sounds like it’s going to be a lot, but it’s about explosions, and explosions are cool, right? And then you have Barbie, and Barbie is going to be this deep, existential dread about human existence. So I figured I should start with the more lighthearted thing.”

Others believe the fantasy world of Barbie will be tainted by Oppenheimer’s dire stakes, which is why Hyattsville designer Kolin Behrens is electing to watch Greta Gerwig’s production before Christopher Nolan’s film. “I want to experience the full enjoyment of Barbie, rather than using it as a recovery from Oppenheimer,” he says. And some are opting not to choose at all. Kalorama-based lawyer Ray Li and political consultant Valentina Perez are seeing Barbie and then Oppenheimer on opening night at Regal Gallery Place. On Saturday, they’ll do it again, possibly turning it into a Barbie sandwich if they really enjoy the movie. The couple has watched around 13 triple- and double-feature movies together over the past two years, but they describe Barbenheimer as their Super Bowl, tied for the most important day of the year with their upcoming nuptials.

Both films feature main characters wearing hats. Photographs courtesy of Universal Pictures and Warner Bros.
Both films feature main characters wearing hats. Photographs courtesy of Universal Pictures and Warner Bros.

Once the order has been established, there are sartorial choices to be made. Selecting an outfit to suit two vastly different films is, of course, a challenge in and of itself. Many moviegoers are opting for a look that nods to both cinematic universes. Ducharme, the audio journalist, ordered a pale pink Barbie t-shirt that also captures the nihilism of Oppenheimer, featuring Margot Robbie’s party-stopping quote “Do you guys ever think about dying?” in the movie’s playful font. Emma Stohlman, a congressional staffer in Columbia Heights, is going the DIY route for her dual showings at Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing location. She bought a white shirt from Target and is using stencils and fabric pens to write “She has become death the destroyer of world” (a Barbie-washed nod to the J. Robert Oppenheimer quote) and underneath, “He’s just Rob” (an Oppenheimer-fied take on “he’s just Ken”).

For those looking to attend the showings in full regalia, Greta Gerwig’s fantasyland lends itself to more artistry than the subdued grey suits and hats of Oppenheimer. Senate staffer Rooney and her friends are going all-in on looks for Barbie, their second movie of the day, and each member of the group will pay homage to the doll of their choice. “It means hot pink outfits, and everyone is going to have a blowout, their makeup done, sitting at 10:30 in the morning, watching Cillian Murphy earn his next Oscar,” she says.

Two movies, one day? Better bring the
Two movies, one day? Ken do! Photograph courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Internet hype and the silliness of watching two films that feel, on the surface, like diametrically opposed productions is certainly a driving force for Barbenheimer in DC. But Rooney taps into another element at play: People genuinely believe both movies will be really, really good. It’s why Vanessa Santos, a public relations professional in Bethesda, is booking a babysitter for the day so that her and her husband can make their first foray back into theaters since the onset of Covid and the birth of their two children. It’s why Li and Perez, the couple doing back-to-back double features, are considering a trip to King of Prussia for a third showing of Oppenheimer. It’s why groups are planning post-double-feature debriefs to discuss what they’ve just experienced, emerging from two disparate universes that both look backwards, one through the lens of history and the other through nostalgia. And, like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Barbara Millicent Roberts, there’s a sense of being a part of something bigger than oneself. “Both of these movies have enough hype that they will have really great audiences,” says Rooney. Or, in Barbie translation: There’s going to be a whole lot of Ken-ergy.

Daniella Byck

Lifestyle Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in 2022. She was previously with Outside Magazine and lives in NoMa.

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