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Is Barbie the most subversive mainstream film in years?
Also: AI could never.
In 1999 I got into a car accident.
I’m embarrassed to admit it. But it was after I saw American Beauty for the first time. I was a teenager, working as a movie theater usher, and the film rattled me. This might sound corny now, but I was on a steady diet of mainstream movies at the time. And this dark subversive film was a shock to the system.
I think about that time often. The idea that a dark dramedy (not based on IP) could be a box office and critical hit, a pop culture phenomenon, a multiple Oscar winner. It sounds like a fantasy world.
People were confused when it was announced that Greta Gerwig, hot off her Oscar nominations, would tackle Barbie next. Why would she do that? She must be able to do anything she wants now!
And that used to be true. Before, an Oscar meant you could dictate your next project and make something on your own terms. But now, it means you're viable for someone else’s intellectual property. Sure, you still have value, but its value in service of propping up corporate IP. There are some lucky outliers, filmmakers who don’t have to play the game. But they grow fewer by the day.
People complain about IP franchise movies all the time. “Hollywood’s run out of ideas,” they say. And yet, everyone still goes to these things. Why? Because we’re resigned. We believe it’s the only option. Filmmakers feel it too. Everyone is making the best of a bad situation.
This is a long-winded way of saying I really enjoyed Barbie.
It’s the goofiest bit of mainstream subversion I've maybe...ever seen? A delightful stinkbomb thrown into corporate intellectual property.
It also has style, spectacle, and imagination in ways most CGI-laden superhero movies lack. Real sets too! And even — moments of transcendence. There’s that speech. But for me, it was the Matchbox 20 campfire scene. Perhaps my favorite moment in cinema this year.
In February, I wrote about how AI could write IP-driven films. And that's still true. But, for maximum cultural impact, AI comes up short. It can’t be as subversive or idiosyncratic as the Barbie movie. That only comes with being human.
I waited for the movie to pull back and offer some cloying message, making Barbie palatable for the masses. But it never came. How could this film possibly sell more Barbie dolls?
It got me thinking. Could Gerwig have made something this subversive if it wasn't a Barbie movie? Doesn't a giant bubblegum property like Barbie help set her up for maximum transgression?
(Okay. I know. I’m making Barbie sound like a Todd Solondz or Harmony Korine film. It’s not. Although, I’d argue that Matchbox 20 sequence is on Korine’s wavelength. )
You could argue that this film was the only move Mattel had left. Barbie seems so out of step with our times, and doll sales have fallen. The movie could be a “fuck it, let’s make a few more bucks before it’s all over.”
Sure. But the film is still weird. Still feels like Greta got away with something. Let’s take the win. Our resigned asses deserve it.
Studios usually learn the wrong lessons from success. They see Barbie and think, "Let's make more toy movies.” But the real lesson here is that people are tired of corporate-made slop. Tired of CGI sameness. They don’t want generic Barbies pumped out of an AI assembly line. They want the one made by human hands. The fucked up, weird Barbie. And we should be glad.
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