For weeks it seemed like America’s national color was hot pink.
Or we were all discussing the Bhagavad Vita in relation to the atomic bomb.
When Americans look back at the summer of 2023, two movies will always come to mind: Barbie and Oppenheimer. Since the two films were both released on July 21, the internet dubbed the event “Barbenheimer.”
To get a pulse on American culture, there may be no better measurement than summer box office reporting. In a down economy, what movies were people willing to spend their hard-earned dollars on?
But gauging the success of films goes beyond the financials. It’s important to examine their impact on culture. A recent example is Top Gun: Maverick, which raked in $1.49 billion last summer and churned out popular music, sparked fashion trends, and elevated the celebrity of its stars.
So let’s analyze this summer’s box office results for a glimpse into the state of our culture.
The hits: Barbie and Oppenheimer
Barbie successfully rode the wave of popularity to easily become the summer’s biggest box office success. Leveraging the celebrity of stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and backed by a zealous marketing campaign, Barbie raked in $155 million domestically on its opening weekend. It’s currently sitting at over half a billion dollars domestically and $1.18 billion worldwide. Directed by Greta Gerwig, Barbie is now the first solo female-directed film to hit the billion-dollar milestone.
In contrast to Baribie’s exuberance, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was a noticeably darker and grittier film, but that of an auteur director famed for his filmmaking. Nolan’s name was bound to draw a larger audience, not to mention the ensemble cast starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, and more.
But no one could have predicted the atomic bomb origin story would be such a success, smashing box office projections and bringing in $82 million on its opening weekend. The film is currently at $649 million worldwide, a significant number for an R-rated science biopic.
So, aside from the marketing efforts and the internet phenomenon of Barbenheimer, what made the iconic doll and nuclear scientists the cultural figures of the year?
Post-pandemic event films
Barbie and Oppenheimer quickly became event films, movies whose cultural weight is so significant they garner large crowds anxious to be a part of something larger than the film itself.
An event movie becomes must-see media, e.g., the Super Bowl, an American Idol finale in the mid-2000s, or a new season of Stranger Things.
A driving force behind event films is our innate, God-created desire to do life with community (Psalm 133:1). In a time when loneliness is prevailing, particularly among millennials and Gen Zers, “Barbenheimer” offered the opportunity to join millions of Americans to share the experience together (often fully decked out in pink).
Not to mention, movies are one of the most important mediums for dispensing ideas into the culture. And neither director missed that power to persuade, presenting not-so-subtle agendas that drove larger cultural discussions around anti-feminist patriarchies and nuclear weapons.
Fun summertime conversation starters, right?
The flops: The Flash and Disney
A handful of summer movies were expected to be reliable money-makers, but they just didn’t find their place within the culture.
The Flash was hyped up to be the superhero movie of the year but failed to bring in even double its $200 million budget, totaling only $268 million as of this writing. This stands as an abysmal failure for Warner Bros. DC Studios. Not even heavy marketing around the return of Michael Keaton as Batman could save this sinking ship that was damaged by legally embattled star Ezra Miller. The film’s reception may have also been compromised with reports of behind-the-scenes drama and announcements that the current slate of DC films would not matter in the long term with new leadership coming in to relaunch the superhero stories.
But the biggest loser this summer is Disney.
Disney’s summer featured:
- a lackluster run of The Little Mermaid,
- a deplorable $29 million opening of Elemental, the lowest ever for a Pixar flick, though its strong legs and international popularity are pushing it to break even,
- a giant financial loss on the mega-budgeted $295 million Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,
- and a disaster in the star-studded Haunted Mansion that found no place in a Barbieheimer-filled release period.
All four films were expected to be tentpoles, but they failed to gain traction. This could be due to a number of reasons: inadequate marketing, poor word-of-mouth, and enlisting an eighty-year-old Harrison Ford and a theme park ride to make movies that the general public may not have been interested in to begin with.
Additionally, their decision to release films directly to Disney+ over the last three years has trained audiences to expect to see them at home in due time—a compelling arrangement for parents who would rather not take the whole family to the movie theater.
Other films that were not flops but were certainly disappointments include Fast X, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and even Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, which were all large-budget movies that struggled to turn a profit.
It may be time for studios to take a step back and recognize two things.
One, they should stop stacking so many movies into the summer. They are cannibalizing each other. In a world with movies available on streaming platforms at home, there is far more friction in convincing Americans to spend money multiple times in the summer.
They should also lean into new ideas from creators. Barbie and Oppenheimer offered audiences a fresh cinematic experience, serving as a break from superheroes and other large-franchise intellectual property (IP).
We aspire to appreciate creativity and exceptional art. After all, God made us in his image, and as the ultimate creator himself, it’s no wonder that we yearn to enjoy the best of human creation (Genesis 1:27).
The surprise: Sound of Freedom
The biggest surprise of the summer was Sound of Freedom, the low-budget movie about a “former government agent turned vigilante who embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue hundreds of children from sex traffickers.” The film’s total box office haul is currently at $167 million, a shocking number for such a movie, but also an affirmation that there’s an energetic audience for faith-based films looking to make a positive impact on the world.
Starring Jim Caviezel, the film hoped to bring mass attention to the terrible realities of child trafficking—and it did just that. Initially filmed in 2018, Sound of Freedom struggled to capture a theatrical release. Then Angel Studios, known for creating The Chosen, purchased the movie’s rights earlier this year and implemented crowdfunding.
Boosted by right-wing media personalities and influential Christians, Sound of Freedom’s primary marketing strategy was leveraging word-of-mouth and hoping the importance of the subject matter would spur Americans to see the movie.
And this makes sense given the morals and values of many Americans. We want to serve, love and protect—key features of Sound of Freedom. Americans want to feel like they are making a difference in the world, and this movie grants the viewer that through education, inspiration, and the opportunity to be influential via a pay-it-forward model, allowing audience members to front the dollars for more Americans to see the film and be influenced.
The success of this movie encapsulates the heart of Americans who want to stand up for what is right and respond to Jesus’ call to protect the most innocent (Matthew 18:6).
Americans want quality in their films, not just quantity. Lousy CGI, lazy scripts, and repeated IP led to casualties for studios this year. We want to come out of the theater full of emotions, impacted by the heaviness or silliness of the film.
Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Sound of Freedom all stood out for being clever, unique, and high quality.
But movies can only do so much. Films are just the spark for viewers to join in on broader cultural conversations. Movies can sway our opinions and spur new thoughts.
However, it’s up to us to explore those thoughts and stand for what we know is true.
If you saw any movies this summer, did you have new perspectives, new ideas, new understandings? If so, have you turned to Scripture to see what the Bible says? Have you discussed them with your circle of influence?
Did you stand for truth?
God can turn anything into a display of his glory, and he can certainly do that with movies.