NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Telegraph Culture (by Robbie Collin).
Before we go any further, it’s important we’re all clear on one crucial point: a film about Barbie is no more inherently stupid than a film about Batman. A lonely billionaire who runs a one-man neighbourhood watch scheme while dressed as a sort of black kevlar muppet is, on paper, a deeply improbable premise for a decades-spanning entertainment franchise.
So the fact it has yielded at least five great theatrical features (not to mention the graphic novels, animations and so on) speaks to the ingenuity and vision of the artists who made them, rather than the bulletproof brilliance of the character himself, as dreamt up by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the late 1930s. Indeed, the number of entirely dismal Batman films also out there – the last of which opened not even a month ago – only prove he’s not a magic ingredient. The whole recipe matters, and that comes down to the cooks.
That’s why I’ve found myself bridling at the recent uptick in chippiness around Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming Barbie film, which opens in cinemas in two weeks. Gerwig originally rose to prominence in the ultra-naturalistic mumblecore filmmaking movement of the mid-noughties – alongside the likes of Lena Dunham and the Duplass brothers, she was the unfiltered DIY indie spirit personified – before shifting into more mainstream independent fare via her collaborations with her now-partner (and Barbie co-writer) Noah Baumbach.
By early 2020, she had written and directed two critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated films: the coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird, and the literary adaptation Little Women. But even then, it would have been hard to imagine that a little over three years later she’d have collaborated with Mattel on a bright pink summer blockbuster inspired by a range of plastic dolls.
Nevertheless, this is the area – or at least one of them – in which her ambitions now lie. A piece in the New Yorker this week, which also revealed that Gerwig was about to make two Narnia films for Netflix, told the story of how she came to the Barbie project. “Her ambition is not to be the biggest woman director but a big studio director,” her agent was quoted as saying. “And Barbie was a piece of IP that was resonant to her.”
Meanwhile in an interview in Rolling Stone, Gerwig herself gave examples of fellow directors who had moved between franchise films and independent work: Chloé Zhao, Stephen Soderbergh, and of course her “weekend buddy Chris Nolan”, whose Oppenheimer opens on the same day as Barbie.
“There are some movies I’d like to make that require a big canvas,” she said. “I want to play in lots of different worlds. That’s the goal.”
Cue mass disgruntlement on social media. Depending on who was tweeting, either Gerwig is above this stuff, or the studio blockbuster circuit is above her, or that talk of “resonant IPs”, in the context of a gifted young director’s blossoming career, was just too depressing for words. There was a common thread running through the complaints, however, and that was unease over Gerwig’s ambition. She was prepared to meet the movie industry on its own terms, before (if the detail in the New Yorker piece is anything to go by) slyly and tactfully bending those terms until they matched her own.
Remind you of anyone? Back in January 2003, the then 31-year-old Christopher Nolan was hired by Warner Bros to lug the Batman franchise, post-Batman and Robin, out of the mud. His track record, then, was lean but promising: a London-set noir mystery called Following that was essentially mumblecore in scale, plus a couple of widely praised independent thrillers – one of which, Memento, had been nominated for a couple of Academy Awards.
As a first-run Memento-head who saw Insomnia (the second of those thrillers) at its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I remember being nonplussed by the news. Why on earth was he wasting his time on superheroes? But of course he wasn’t. Like Gerwig, he had simply found a bigger canvas, and was ready – and able – to scale up. I’m looking forward to Barbie, despite some faint misgivings that it might just be The Lego Movie again, but there’s no sane reason to begrudge Gerwig the gig.
Perhaps it means that in another two decades, she’ll be making her Oppenheimer, with a younger weekend buddy snapping at her heels.