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Barbie is the new Batman, but that's not a good thing

Barbie is a genuine pop culture phenomenon, which might not be the best thing for people who want to see more movies like Barbie

Image credit: Warner Bros. Studios

With a history-making box office haul that has already broken the billion dollar mark, it’s safe to say that Barbie isn’t just a hit, but an actual, legitimate pop culture phenomenon. There’s only one problem with that: pop culture phenomenons breed copycats, and the last thing anyone wants to see is an army of Barbie clones that misunderstand what made the movie appeal to audiences in the first place.

There’s prior experience to expect that we’re about two years away from any number of movies based on the simple math of “toy line + feminism,” or perhaps “ironic use of beloved nostalgic kids property that speaks to a real world political agenda,” that seek to recapture the one-off magic that is the excitement surrounding Barbie’s release without fully understanding how unlikely that was in the first place. There’s so much more that went into making Barbie what it is — so much that doesn’t even come from the movie itself, as great as that might be and as unlikely and essentially as Greta Gerwig’s choices as director and co-writer are — that the odds of anything doing it again, never mind something that just takes the most surface-level reading and runs with it, are not favorable in the slightest.

And yet… attempts at recapturing that magic are going to happen.

We’ve seen it before, albeit in a different genre and some time ago. Just as Barbie dominated summer 2023, Tim Burton’s Batman dominated summer 1989. It was everywhere, thanks to a multimedia promotional campaign unlike anything anyone had seen before — although, bluntly, not unlike what Warner Bros. pulled out of the bag for Barbie this year; if only Prince had still been around to do a soundtrack album for Barbie — and it generated enough excitement that news stories were written about a return of “Batmania” for the first time since the 1960s TV show. Batman was it in 1989… and plenty of other studios thought that they could do the same thing themselves.

They were wrong, of course; none of the many superhero or superhero-adjacent movies that followed in the next few years — everything from adaptations of classic pulp and newspaper strip characters like Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and The Shadow to brand new creations like Darkman, Blankman, or The Meteor Man, with some relatively recent comic book adaptations like Barb Wire, Spawn, and The Mask in there for good measure — did anywhere near as well as the 1989 Batman movie, despite following what seemed to be, on the face of it, very similar formulas, even to the point of some movies recreating the plastic molded form of their hero’s six packs.

It’s easy to suggest that the problem was that it’s because each of these movies just wasn’t as good, but as much as I love the ’89 Batman, it’s still not true. (Darkman is really fun, for one!) Instead, the problem was the rush to try and assign Batman’s success to not just a formula, but an easily-recreated formula, that was the root of the problem. Like Barbie, the 1989 Batman film is a strange, unlikely mix of influences that creates an aesthetic as a result of those influences, as opposed to being built to fit that aesthetic in the first place. Batman — like Barbie — was so successful creatively because it was given the space to be experimental and individual creatively. The movies that tried to follow in its wake didn’t have that.

There’s a sense that a similar future is awaiting toy movies after Barbie, with many already fearful of what the next few years are looking like. “Maybe Hollywood is smart enough, which is the funniest start to a sentence, ever. But if anyone is watching Barbie and saying, ‘You know why this movie worked? It’s because of a toy’ you are taking away the wrong lesson,” one un-named exec told the Hollywood Reporter recently.

Perhaps we’re all wrong. Perhaps people will realize that Barbie is a one-off, and that the takeaway should be letting filmmakers follow their strange, individual bliss instead of following a formula to hew closely to. It’s just that… historically, that’s never been true.

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