Barbenheimer, Morbin' Time, and how memes influences watching movies

Before the pandemic, when the MCU was still a somewhat coherently written set of movies released periodically; I used to go to the movies with my friends or on my own and have a good time. But I have avoided going to the cinemas ever since, and watched movies in my home or on sleepovers. This is not unique to me, and this collective experience influenced movie watching and how it interacts with meme culture from last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to be less devastating.

Early 2022, Morbius was released as a part of the increasingly convoluted and verbose MCU; headed by terrible human being and sender of used condoms to coworkers under the guise of method acting Jared Leto. The movie was expectedly a terrible mess and almost unwatchable. But it started a wave of shitposting by people who were done with Jared Leto and the superhero craze headed by MCU. People joked about Morbius grossing “a morbillion dollars”, a direct contrast to its abysmal performance; and the hashtag MorbiusSweep was trending, and “it’s morbin’ time” or “I’m going to morb” became the catchphrase used by shitposters. This ironic attention to the movie led to its re-release, where it performed abysmally.

Meme culture and cinematic viewing intersected again, now during the release of the sequel of the Minions, Minions: The Rise of Gru later that year. Moviegoers, who were mostly young adults, began to show up in theaters in tailored suits en masse to watch the movie primarily intended for children. Videos of men filling up the movie hall and cheering while dressed formally went viral on tiktok and twitter, prompting others to do the same. Some theaters even ended up banning this spectacle altogether. It should be noted that people watching Minions in suits were genuinely interested in this movie; while the people who joked about Morbius having a 200% rating on Rotten Tomatoes did it ironically.

Among these trends related to cinema releases and the memes around them, it was announced that the Barbie movie directed by Greta Gerwig was slated to be released on 21st July 2023. This date coincided with the release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. It has been said that Barbie and Oppenheimer releasing on the same date is Warner Bros trying to screw over Nolan as he did not work for them for this movie, and this has reportedly annoyed Nolan.

It should be noted that people have been excited about the Barbie movie since pictures of the filming started circulating, and the bright colours seen were a contrast to the trend of using less lighting and muted colours in film and television. This excitement only increased as the release date drew near, as did the memes about the movie and watching it. Memes were made about characters who are associated with different (and sometimes toxic) forms of masculinity and sometimes associated with sharp formal attire, like Patrick Bateman, the gang of Peaky Blinders, and Walter White; asking for Barbie movie tickets. This developed into memes made by men talking about how they will watch the movie, both ironically and unironically. The movie about childrens’ dolls now appealed to both the people that grew up playing with them, and the cis men who set gender norms aside to enjoy themselves.

For the few months leading to Barbie’s release, the memes about the movie started to refer to Oppenheimer and their simultaneous release. References to the contrasting themes and aesthetics were made, and discussions of watching both the movies on the same day started popping up. The discussion included heated arguments about the order of watching the movies, and the type of clothing to wear to these events (usually bright pink clothes for Barbie and somber dark outfits for Oppenheimer). This led to the now known phenomenon of Barbenheimer, which has been acknowledged by the cast and crew of both the movies; and have been utilised by corporations to seek profit besides the people making memes about it.

Although people have made memes about different movies and the tropes within them, using meme culture to shape the viewing experience is relatively new and has seen an uptick in the “post”-pandemic era. It should also be noted that the memes do act like endorsements and promotions of the movies in question, even though they start from a place of either genuine appreciation or intense disgust. The Barbenheimer phenomenon, especially the Barbie movie, has been used by corporations to push products to consumers, and it is succeeding. Time will tell if this new niche in popular culture will be co-opted by the capitalists to fatten their pockets, or it will remain a unique reflection of the joy people receive from the art of cinema.