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Let’s Imagine Some Future Barbenheimers
A Drama For Every Toy
Barbenheimer, if you haven’t heard, is a big success. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer hit it big at the box office during their shared opening weekend, as Barbie raked in $162 million and Oppenheimer collected $82.5 million. It’s a rare thing to see a $200m+ weekend in general and even more so in the post-pandemic era, and further surprising still to see that sum split between a PG-13 movie with wide appeal and an R-rated historical drama. Both dropped less than 50% in their second week as strong word of mouth and minimal competition helped give them “legs” at the box office. I personally thought Oppenheimer was going to flounder and every outlet would take the opportunity to go full New York Post and write a screaming headline variation of “Chris Nolan’s Atomic BOMB” so I’m glad to have been wrong.
This situation is, to my eyes, a self-evident lightning in a bottle moment. The Barbie movie looked fun, yes, but it also looked weird. I was interested from the moment I learned about it because I couldn’t believe Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach 1) were offered the project, 2) took the project, and 3) looked like they were actually going to pull it off. Oppenheimer looked like a heavy historical drama, yes, but Nolan’s track record is immaculate and the trailers sold it really well. Both movies looked interesting in a way so little does these days. Both films inspired genuine curiosity from the public, which is a rare thing in a time when interconnected comic book nonsense has made the default marketing message one of audience obligation rather than the promise of enjoyment. The fact that so many moviegoers wanted to pair the two speaks to a hunger for something challenging and different that crosses the bounds of genre.
(Disclaimer: I still haven’t made it to the theater. I haven’t seen either of these movies! Childcare is expensive!)
Wherever human spontaneity has translated into dollars, executives are slavering to capture, quantify, and recreate that moment on its most superficial level. Mattel is revving up a massive content machine, with plans in the works to turn every one of its brands into movies. One of my favorite critics, Vince Mancini, had a nice rundown over on his newsletter of these projects. They include Polly Pocket (written and directed by Lena Dunham), Barney (produced by Daniel Kaluuya as an ‘A24-type surrealistic’ movie), Hot Wheels (directed by JJ Abrams), Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots (Vin Diesel to star), American Girl, Magic 8 Ball, Major Matt Mason (starring Tom Hanks and written by Michael Chabon!!!), Uno, Wishbone (the reading dog, hell yes), Matchbox cars, Thomas the Tank Engine, and others even dumber.
But these IP-driven cash grabs are only half the equation. For the studios to have any chance of recapturing that Barbenheimer magic, each of these Mattel movies needs a gritty historical drama to pair with it. Below I humbly submit some possibilities for these double features.
May 24, 2024
Hot Wheels, directed by JJ Abrams—this Memorial Day, a car will drive a loop-the-loop.
Ford—Ansel Elgort stars as Henry Ford in this biopic that follows his early experiments with motors and culminates in the invention of the Model T, the atomic bomb of American transportation infrastructure. Ignition imagery similar to the Oppenheimer trailer’s here stands in for turning the key for the first time and the sparkplugs firing. His antisemitism is touched on but unsatisfactorily. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher reteam to write and direct.
June 27, 2025
Polly Pocket, written and directed by Lena Dunham—she knows a thing or two about Tiny Furniture!
Operation Anadyr—A minute-by-minute nailbiter depicting the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis from both the U.S. and Soviet perspectives. As Curtis LeMay pushes Jack Kennedy to nuke Cuba and Bobby Kennedy pushes for a false flag pretense for invasion, an unknown Soviet sub lurks near the island in complete radio silence. After Kruschev sends Kennedy his famous “loosen the knot” letter and tensions are resolved, the sub thinks it’s under attack and the political attache and one captain move to launch their nuclear missiles. In the moment of ultimate tension the other captain manages to dissuade them and prevent nuclear war. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Noah Kulwin and Brendan James to produce. (I actually want to write this one, please don’t steal this idea from me. Copyright Danny Sullivan™™ legally binding)
July 17, 2026
Barney—from Variety: “It’s just going to be unique—more of like a ‘Being John Malkovich’ or an ‘Adaptation,’” the Mattel exec says. The upcoming film will be about “identity and finding who you love and who feels alienated” and “what does it all mean?”
Black Death—Sean Bean stars as an English peasant in 1348 who witnesses the arrival of the bubonic plague in London. The disease’s physical manifestations are shown in gruesome detail. As panic spreads and the death toll climbs, Bean’s character confronts the depths of human depravity as he tries to flee the city and keep his family safe. Overt Covid parallels throughout. Written by the Game of Thrones guys, criticized for historical inaccuracy and reminding us of the bad times.
August 6, 2027
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots—remember Real Steel?
Nixon Agonistes—Finally, Gary Wills’ New Journalism doorstop comes to the screen as a whirlwind rush of muckraking and politicking in the run-up to the 1968 Republican convention. We see Barry Goldwater rallying his troglodytic supporters—overt Trump parallels—and Reagan waiting in the wings just in case Nixon stumbles and he can step into the breach. Directed by Alexander Payne, written by Matt Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell. This one bombs.
April 21, 2028
Major Matt Mason—have never heard of this toy before. I guess he’s an astronaut who lives on the moon. Genuinely cannot wait to see the result of a collaboration between Michael Chabon and the guy who wrote I Am Legend.
Debt—David Graeber’s masterpiece of economic history arrives. Part Big Short, part Cloud Atlas, an ensemble cast traces revolutions in finance over millennia and punctures the myth of barter. Tom Hanks has a double-header weekend, starring in both; Timothee Chalamet plays hot young Graeber. Adam McKay writes and directs. Critical consensus calls it overly didactic and says the fourth-wall breaking has gotten hacky.
TBD Summer 2029
Masters of the Universe—please God make the adaptations of 80s cartoons stop.
Buckley—Sam Tanenhaus adapts his long-awaited biography of William F. Buckley, which has come out by now in this future scenario. In Citizen Kane style we witness his meteoric rise as a young man, the founding of National Review, and the birth of the modern conservative movement. His vulgar outburst in his debate with Gore Vidal provides a dramatic setback for him to overcome. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and directed by Lars Von Trier. The film becomes a culture war flashpoint, with audiences unable to tell if it’s an indictment or endorsement of Buckley
April 16, 1988—Studio Ghibli released My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies as an explicit double feature. You could not put together a worse pairing if you tried. I can’t believe this really happened.
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