Barbie is on top of the world. Every week since its release on July 21, it’s broken a record: The year’s biggest opening weekend; the largest opening for a female director ever; Warner Bros.’ highest grossing domestic release in history, surpassing Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But now, it’s breaking a big one: Barbie has become the highest-growing movie of 2023 reaching $575.4 million domestically this week, according to Variety.
It has already grossed $1.3 billion globally and will soon surpass Super Mario Bros. in its worldwide gross as well.
It’s a big number for any film, but it’s especially significant for Barbie. When I wrote a cover story about the film earlier this year, box office prognosticators initially predicted the movie would make $55 million its opening weekend. It nearly tripled that estimate with a $162 million haul in just those first few days after release. It’s also the first time Warner Bros. has managed to snag the title of biggest release of the year since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II.
Will Barbie be topped this year? Probably not. Here’s why and what it may mean for the future of Hollywood movies.
Unfortunately, Hollywood tends to take away the wrong lessons from the success of idiosyncratic films. After The Dark Knight became a blockbuster, Hollywood decided that gritty was always good—even if it didn’t fit the material (think: Snow White and the Huntsman, the body horror Fantastic Four movie, and Zack Snyder’s dark take on Superman, comics’ most hopeful superhero). Avatar’s history-making numbers spawned a trend of films rendered in 3D for no particular reason. And the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe spawned dozens of imitation cinematic universes, like Universal’s failed “Dark Universe” that ended as quickly as it began after Tom Cruise’s (gritty) The Mummy remake bombed.
In this instance, the same logic would follow: a toy movie performed well, so toy movies will inevitably proliferate. Mattel executives told me that they had already planned to build the brand’s own cinematic universe long before Barbie was ever released, but now other studios are rushing to turn toys into films: Hasbro launched a new entertainment division in August.
It’s difficult to imagine any other movie based on a toy ever reaching Barbie’s heights. Barbie is an icon. She has name recognition across the world equal to Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola. And, sure, Hot Wheels may be popular, but won’t a Hot Wheels movie just be a racing movie, even if J.J. Abrams is at the helm as executive producer?
Mattel certainly isn’t shying away from taking risks: I’m particularly interested in Daniel Kaluuya’s involvement with what sounds like a very meta Barney movie (as in, yes, the big purple dinosaur); whether Lena Dunham can find a quirky take on Polly Pocket; and if a Magic 8 Ball horror movie can actually prove to be scary. And yet just about every girl in the world has played with Barbie at some point and has (often complex) feelings about her. I could be wrong, but I don’t think many people have strong feelings about the Magic 8 Ball.
Beyond Mattel’s film division, other studios are looking for major takeaways. One obvious one, that I’ve argued before: Make movies for women, and audiences will come! Barbie leans heavily into femininity—the assault of pink has been relentless, and yet people seem to have not tired of it. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Randall Park hit the nail on the head: “I feel like, just in general, this industry is taking the wrong lessons. For example, Barbie is this massive blockbuster, and the idea is: Make more movies about toys! No. Make more movies by and about women!”
I fear that even if studios heed Park’s advice, in the short-term that will mean Disney hyping up the fact that The Marvels is a female-fronted superhero film, even though superhero movies have traditionally catered to a young male audience, regardless of who stars in them. Or studios might paint a sheen of pink on other films without stuffing the stories without Gerwig’s complex considerations about male fragility, female frustrations, and whether we can reach a state of equity.
Gerwig happened to make two masterpieces before Barbie about the complex interiority of women: Lady Bird and Little Women. She found a way to pack considerations she has already articulated beautifully in those films into a blockbuster movie, a feat pulled off by a select few artists. (Ryan Coogler’s interrogation of race in the context of an increasingly globalized world in Black Panther and James Cameron’s blunt but effective advocacy for saving our dying planet in the Avatar films come to mind.) It’s easy to make a blockbuster. It’s hard to make a thoughtful one.
Perhaps most depressing for theater owners: Gerwig’s next project is a series of Narnia movies…for streamer Netflix.
Barbie was special. Credit the Warner Bros. and Mattel marketing teams that partnered with seemingly every clothing line, decor company, and makeup brand on earth to turn our social media timelines pink.
Or praise director Greta Gerwig, who could have made a toy commercial and instead stuffed a fun summer romp with meditations on God and feminism and Sylvester Stallone’s bizarre wardrobe.
Or acknowledge that TikTok played a massive role in turning a rivalry between two movies that could not be more different into the Barbenheimer phenomenon that made moviegoing fun again. Think about how many people spent more than five hours in a movie theater—sometimes in the same day—over the course of a hot summer weekend.
In short, Barbie was fun. And we were all in desperate need of fun. Barbie simply had to be experienced in a theater, ideally with friends, and definitely with a flock of other pink-clad moviegoers.