There are moments when everything in pop culture changes. We only get to witness a few of them in our time — when the tectonic plates of pop movies slide into a new formation, just like the old format but new in several distinct and meaningful ways. The moment for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is tantamount to what happened with Iron Man (2008). Swap comic book heroes for product ideas, and swap cartoonized military propaganda for brightly colored feature-length commercials, and we’re most of the way there. It’s hard to demarcate the exact shift, except to say it feels like the death knell of relevance for one thing and the heightened cultural centering of another. There has been a generational shift and this new optimism is smarter, braver, and more socially conscious than the old one. That is why it is inevitable that it has to replace the Marvelization of film as the standard for what we turn up to the movies for.
The movie understands this rarefied air and meets the moments. It opens quite brilliantly with an imitation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) not merely out of want for homage but also as a serious artistic statement. In Kubrick’s opening, humans have been molded and shaped by their environment. It is about the evolution of mankind and determinism. Given simple tools, our first act of free agency is to destroy things. Such is the context for Barbie, as we watch young girls bored to death playing mother with baby dolls. Then comes the great monolith: Margot Robbie towers over them as the new symbol of Women. Looking at her, the young girls immediately understand their own womanhood and projected onto them is a new and violent rebellion against the categorized norms that have been dealt out to them. They must destroy their imparted tools of control, as given by the patriarchy, and pick up these new simple tools, now armed with a product that says they can do and be anything at all, and that given these new ideas, proportionate violence as has been acted onto them erupts, and they enact a new resistance to the patriarchy.
This energy has been building all year in so many movies about brands and products. These are all in service for the ultimate crescendo that is Barbie — cue up “Also sprach Zarathustra,” because everything has changed — which unpacks the total cultural currency of a line of dolls and repackages them into something greater. This is filmmaking that is more than the sum of its parts: where The Brand is only the starting point. Barbie is a toy but the toy is no longer more important than the movie. The movie is the new cultural object and the likely starting line for a broad series of Barbie and Ken movies. It’s also the start of this new MCU, the Mattel Cinematic Universe, but there is no hope for a Magic 8-Ball movie to do anything like what Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have written this script to do. Barbie is the actual, cultural artifact here. What the brand does with its guaranteed success is simply a response to its cultural shift, and is not the new culture itself.
The power couple of Gerwig and Baumbach has made a feminist-forward product movie that does more than pay lip service to ideologies; it is built out of feminist ideologies and is very much directly about them. What happens in the movie is a smart approach to the toy movie which uses the understood context of our toy movies — blending the approaches of Toy Story (1995) and The Lego Movie (2014) and creating something new out of what has already been done. The meta ideas borrowed are about how humans change and leave their toys behind but also what it means to be a product made to be played with. There is a split between the world of Barbie and the real world, and when Margot Robbie’s Barbie (one of many) begins to develop odd human anomalies — flat feet, a patch of cellulite, and a fixation on death — it’s because the imagination play of her real-world owners has grown deeply sad and are projecting their own worries and frustrations onto her.
It’s hard to find real stars at the movies anymore but Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are as good as we have got. This is self-evident any time they are on-screen. They can project multitudes. Robbie’s Barbie is the stereotypical Barbie, what you picture when you think of a standard Barbie, and now that she’s facing an existential crisis, her wants and desires have outgrown this plastic and pink world of her own design. Likewise, all Ken knows is Beach. He wants more. He wants Barbie. So they both venture off to the real world to find Barbie’s owners and see if they can’t reverse course and save Barbie from her looming existential dread.
The film deftly navigates these spaces, each governed by its own rules and contexts for how the movie is shot. The Barbie world is magnificently realized, as clever as any fantasy space can be, like the awe you first felt when you experienced the tour of Wonka’s Chocolate Factory or followed the yellow brick road into Oz. It is a place of cinematic imagination. It uses the context of play administered to the toys but goes beyond these roadblocks and creates its own eternal logic for how things have to work. You have either seen it in the trailers or stills but Barbie’s feet are stilted like a doll’s, she lives in a wonderful pink dream house with open walls and communal spaces designed around the wants of the women who live in these spaces. The men live in some indeterminate space, and the film often pokes fun at how little of their space in the world has been developed, which leads to Gosling’s Ken trying to impart a new order to the world of Barbie.
Ken follows Barbie into the real world and, after the initial culture shock and series of funny altercations with the people of the actual world, they are both imparted with different desires. Everywhere Ken looks, he sees that men are flourishing and is deeply inspired by the hyper-macho masculine iconography that is American culture. He sees Warren Beatty and Sylvester Stallone, dudes being dudes at the gym, that the whole American culture is built around the horse as an extension of manhood. Meanwhile, Barbie goes off looking for her owner and Ken brings all these ideas back to the Barbie world and tries to develop a new male order, his own personal Kendom, where everyone dresses like cowboys and worships at the alter of the horse as a symbol of their newfound virility.
Barbie is swept up in a more personal quest. She’s initially shunned by her owner and swept off to Mattell headquarters to confront the CEO and present her findings as the rare toy who has crossed over. This is the film’s only mixed success. In every case, we ought to be wary of the corporate product which handles all of the criticism for us. Barbie criticizes the Mattel company in several capacities, leveraging genuine disparities between how the company operates and the product it is selling. Barbie is shocked to find that every person in a position of power at Mattel is a man. The company is being run by Will Farrell (again, some crossover with the toys-to-life LEGO movies), who just wants to rebox Barbie and sell her back to a new family. A chase breaks out, leading to a car chase, and Barbie reunites with her owners, who she then convinces to come back to her world.
This whole journey inevitably confronts the disparity between women and men in both worlds. Barbie and Ken try to solve for what is missing in their lives. It’s pointed out that, while men are so underrepresented and given so few opportunities in this make-believe world, that is analogous to women in the real world. The social commentary is far better than the general product movie approach would leave you to believe. This is a movie that demands social progress and like the Kubrick-inflected opening, suggests that we can use the tools of our labor to reengineer a system that is more fair and equitable to all genders.
Barbie is many things at once. One of the better things it gets to be is a musical. It has sourced an inspired collection of modern pop stars to write songs for it. Funnily enough, none is better than Ryan Gosling’s operatic song about the challenges of being Ken in a Barbie world. Likewise, a brand new Billie Eilish song called “What Was I Made For?” feels like an instant Oscars bid. It will be nominated and is a strong contender to win best song. The best musical note is a motif-driven sting, though, taken from the new Dua Lipa song “Dance the Night,” a cue which sounds confidently similar to Justin Hurwitz’s amazing jazz-spun stingers that so enlivened the Margot Robbie starring Babylon (2022). There is a certain cadence and similarity between these movies and a shared reading can be applied to Robbie’s Babylon character and her rise through early Hollywood and how Robbie’s Barbie navigates the landscape of consumer culture here. They are distinctly different movies that make surprising astute contemporaries.
The absolute success of Barbie isn’t too surprising. If you get enough smart people working at something and you can afford them the time and opportunity to get it right, this is the best-case scenario of how that can go. It’s very much Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling’s movie but there is an entire ensemble deployed here. There are many Barbies and many Kens. There is also Michael Cera as Alan. Alan is Alan. The cast is bright, and diverse, and rarely put a foot wrong, even when they go flat-footed. There is such a smart team working behind the movie. You can feel the talent of the set decorators in every shot of Barbie Land. The Barbies and Kens move through an enormous array of clothing options, often delighting in the peculiarities of the toy’s history with clothes. Nominations are a given and awards wins are very likely for the craft teams.
So, we’ve now got this definitive article. This is everything toy movies have thus far set out to be. Maybe we’ll discover more things they can do within this format but this progressive example, embedded in a real understanding of cinema, writing, and how to build characters and spaces they would exist in, ought to be something like a seismic shift for what kind of popular movies are being made and who gets to make them. This is a winning audience-friendly film that creates a new precedent. You only get to see a few of those. When you get to turn to your daughter at the end of the movie and see the glowing possibility that these movies will be made for her, you cannot argue that they are essential, and they have to be one of the kinds of movies you go and champion. I’ve seen the future and it’s pink: this is Barbie’s world, we’re just living in it.