Most “Barbenheimer” talk around its box office has been about the records “Barbie” has set, as it rises up the ranks of billion-dollar movies and nears being the highest-grossing film in 2023 and in Warner Bros history. But as improbable and record-setting as “Barbie” has been, it is still nowhere near the one of the kind history “Oppenheimer” is setting in its individual run. In fact, there may be no run for a movie like this that compares in all of Hollywood history when all is said and done.
“Barbie” may be much more massive than most anyone expected and singular as the biggest hit for a solo female director of all time. Nonetheless, it was based on the biggest toy doll of all time and guaranteed some level of blockbuster success. However, such success does not usually come to a three-hour drama with sex and nudity, limited action moments, suspense primarily driven by talking and a non-linear narrative, and messages about the birth of the nuclear age that are not meant to make audiences feel comforted when they leave the theater.
Even when such a movie is helmed by one of the few directors left who can open a movie by himself, it’s not supposed to be this big. Nonetheless, “Oppenheimer” is now on pace to be the biggest movie Christopher Nolan has ever made that doesn’t have a Batman in it. Moreover, it is about to join the company of the biggest R-rated and biggest biopic films in history – all of which had advantages that “Oppenheimer” did not.
At its pace, “Oppenheimer” could join only six other R-rated movies that grossed over $300 million domestically. Yet two of them are “Deadpool” movies, one is in the “Batman” universe in “Joker,” one is based on a famed Stephen King book in “It” that was part one of a two-part story, and one was the famously controversial “The Passion of the Christ.” Whether they were based on existing famous IP or the Greatest Story Ever Told, these movies already had pre-existing fanbases that would flock to them again and again; ratings restrictions be damned. Nolan himself may have one of those, but even the likes of “Dunkirk,” “Interstellar,” and “Inception” were easier to sell beyond Nolan than something far less comic-booky, action-packed, and fantastical like “Oppenheimer.”
Among biopics, “Oppenheimer” is already the second highest-grossing worldwide biopic ever behind “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a far more conventional and distorted example of the genre. Domestically, it is also the second highest-grossing biopic ever, but behind “American Sniper” – perhaps the only other movie like it to take this path.
Like “Oppenheimer” it is helmed by an iconic star director who built his brand at Warner Bros, although Clint Eastwood actually made “American Sniper” for Warners while Nolan migrated to Universal for “Oppenheimer.” Like that film, “American Sniper” is a biopic about a famous/infamous American known for a historic kill count in wartime, although in this case, it is famed Iraq war sharpshooter Chris Kyle rather than atomic bomb creator J. Robert Oppenheimer. But while both movies drew debate over whether they glossed over their subject’s wartime actions – and that of the American military-industrial complex which made them possible – Eastwood was far more sympathetic towards Kyle for whatever reasons one might guess.
Maybe that more straightforward, action-packed, fly-over state-friendly approach helped “American Sniper” become such a phenomenon at the box office, unlike almost any movie like it that came before. Despite only opening wide at the beginning of 2015, it resembled a summer blockbuster more than an early-year movie, to say nothing of the other movies in the 2014 Oscar race.
As a result, it not only became the biggest film Eastwood ever made and the biggest domestic biopic of all time, it garnered a Best Picture nomination and Bradley Cooper’s third straight nomination. This made it almost unprecedented since true-life wartime movies of this kind, even ones made by a legend and starring a multi-Oscar-nominee, are not expected to be $350 million behemoths on the level of superhero and CGI fantasy movies. Yet between Eastwood and Cooper’s star power, the story of Kyle himself, and its calculated patriotic message, there were some built-in fanbases poised to embrace “American Sniper” from the start, even if it wasn’t expected to that extent.
But “Oppenheimer” didn’t have such an obvious advantage in red states and the heartland, and most everyone knew it wasn’t going to be a flag-waving, uncritical look at how America ended WWII – or at least wouldn’t sidestep the bigger debates over its warlike “American Sniper” did. While “American Sniper” was more about Kyle’s wartime battles, struggles at home, and eventual tragic end rather than the time period and larger war he was in, “Oppenheimer” tried to tackle all of that and much more, making it more morally grey and perhaps less crowd-pleasing. By that measure, the cynical view would be that American audiences surely wouldn’t flock to it like they would an “American Sniper” – and yet, so far, they have.
For that matter, despite “American Sniper” grossing $350 million in America, its international gross fell just short of $200 million since it was clearly made more for American audiences. Yet while “Oppenheimer” is largely American history, its intentional gross is still already near $400 million, as it is a hit all around the globe rather than just here. Thanks to that, it is poised to rank even higher in the worldwide R-rated record books than domestic ones, as merely $800+ million worldwide would be enough to make it the second biggest worldwide R-rated hit of all time behind “Joker’s” $1+ billion.
Another easy excuse to make is for IMAX since it’s more in demand, and pricy screenings in 70mm and other formats have done much to boost numbers. The likes of “The Passion of the Christ” and “American Sniper” didn’t need an IMAX boost, though the Deadpool movies, “It” and “Joker” did use it. Yet they weren’t considered as necessary to see and hear on IMAX formats as “Oppenheimer” is, although even that is simplistic.
Movies like the “Avatar” films and other fantasy/superhero epics have fantastical IMAX-friendly visuals, but “Oppenheimer” is not in a fantastical world. In fact, more than half of it takes place indoors during hearings and research meetings, and in half of that time, the most significant visual effect is black-and-white cinematography. The easy assumption is that they only really needed IMAX for the Trinity Test visuals and for the explosions to rattle the theater’s sound barriers. Yet the actual explosion itself is much quieter than that in the end, while the most horrifying sounds and visuals are set inside a gymnasium later.
“Oppenheimer” isn’t an IMAX visual spectacle like an “Avatar” or other summer blockbusters are, isn’t an uplifting war film with a real main character that’s still deemed heroic like “American Sniper” was, isn’t a three-hour film packed with massive battles like the Lord of the Rings movies or “Avengers: Endgame,” isn’t a biopic with a traditional and comforting formula or ‘greatest hits’ checklist, isn’t based on a fictional megahit book or Biblical lore, and isn’t based on any comic book universe or mythology of any kind. But even without all that, it is steamrolling through the box office as if it did, and as if almost no other film remotely like it has ever done.
It would also make “Oppenheimer” a massive outlier if it wins big at the Oscars, not just because it would be the rare summer movie to win Best Picture. It would be the rare blockbuster to win Best Picture period since the last winner that grossed even a mere $100+ million domestically was “Argo” in 2012 with a mere $138+ million. In fact, it would already be the fourth highest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time if it didn’t make another cent, behind only “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” and “Forrest Gump.” Yet one was a more traditionally crowd-pleasing three-hour historical epic from a famed blockbuster director, one was the grand finale of one of the biggest trilogies of all time, and the other was an unconventional but more fantastical and sentimental surprise summer smash in its own right.
“Oppenheimer” probably can’t be called unlike anything made before since it does still have its share of Nolan and biopic hallmarks and has still been frequently compared to the likes of “JFK” and “The Social Network.” But as much as those films succeeded in their awards seasons and with audiences, they never hit it big like this either. And right now, and perhaps all the way up until Oscar night, it could very well be that no film exactly like “Oppenheimer” – whether among R-rated films, biopic films, or even Oscar films – has ever hit it big quite like this either, regardless of whether “Barbie” or “Barbenheimer” should get any extra credit.
Do you think “Oppenheimer” will be nominated for Best Picture? How many Oscars do you think it will win? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. And please check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984