Between ‘Gladiator II’ and ‘Wicked,’ is the new ‘Barbenheimer’ upon us?

This year, two disparate, big-budget films will share a release date: One, an R-rated historical epic stacked with a starry cast of Oscar hopefuls. The other, a musical based on a beloved property with plenty of pink and a Billboard-friendly soundtrack.

Sound familiar?

With “Gladiator II” and the first part of “Wicked” sharing a release date, days before Thanksgiving, movie theaters are nearing their truest chance at another “Barbenheimer,” a viral phenomenon that in 2023 drove audiences to the movie theater by the millions, leaving a massive mark in pop culture and at the box office.

But what will we call it? “Gladiator II” star Paul Mescal thinks “Glicked” (pronounced glick-id) is the portmanteau that suits the prospective double feature best.

“’Wickiator’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?” he said in a new interview with Entertainment Tonight. “I think the films couldn’t be more polar opposite and kind of worked in that context previously, so fingers crossed people come out and see both films on opening weekend.”

But maybe we moviegoers (and Mescal) are getting ahead of ourselves. Tom Nunan, a lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and TV and the founder of the production company Bull’s Eye Entertainment, isn’t fully sold on “Barbenheimer” 2.0.

Both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” were major films with astronomical hype from respected auteurs, but even the studios couldn’t have predicted that audiences would make both films appointment viewing over the same weekend, he said. (“Barbie” was produced by Warner Bros., which shares parent company Warner Bros. Discovery with CNN.)

“It’s good when studios release big titles simultaneously,” Nunan told CNN. “I do think that they feed off of each other –– that level of excitement. I think all of those things work in both of these films’ favor. I just don’t think it’s going to be the lightning in a bottle that ‘Barbenheimer’ was.”

Stranger things have happened, though –– plus, there’s a “Stranger Things” actor in the “Gladiator” sequel, which might attract some younger audiences. But if “Glicked” wants to achieve “Barbenheimer” heights of success, the films have a few more hurdles to clear than the Oscar-winning hits of last summer.

‘Gladiator II’ and ‘Wicked’ need a fun portmanteau

First things first –– ”Barbenheimer” had a killer portmanteau. If the studios behind “Gladiator II” and “Wicked” want to emulate the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, they might want to turn to the movie lovers who helped coin the term that turned last year’s summer flicks into a double feature.

The Columbia Journalism Review credits awards pundit Matt Neglia with using “Barbenheimer” first in April 2023, but it quickly spread across the internet wherever movie fans lurked. “Barbenheimer” wasn’t clunky, and there was never any question which films “Barbenheimer” referred to — the same cannot be said just yet of “Glicked,” “Wickiator” or the even uglier “Gladicked.”

It should be noted that after the smashing success of “Barbenheimer” summer, no release weekends have seen the same double-feature draw, though musings of “Saw Patrol” and “Garfuriosa” pairings did make the rounds online. Those were more jokes about how two seemingly incompatible films could reach the same audiences than genuine attempts at creating a viral trend — in no world does the über-graphic “Saw X” pair well with the kid-friendly “Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie.”

For now, “Gladiator II” and “Wicked” simply haven’t dominated the cultural conversation yet in the same way “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” did. But there’s still time — they don’t hit theaters until November 22.

‘Barbenheimer’s’ appeal was mystery

"Barbenheimer" viewers dressed like Barbie to see "Oppenheimer" in this photo from the opening weekend of both films last July. It was common to see moviegoers rocking pink, even to see the intense biopic, to the theater for weeks after the films' release. - Chris Pizzello/AP
"Barbenheimer" viewers dressed like Barbie to see "Oppenheimer" in this photo from the opening weekend of both films last July. It was common to see moviegoers rocking pink, even to see the intense biopic, to the theater for weeks after the films' release. - Chris Pizzello/AP

Part of the appeal of “Barbenheimer” was wanting to see it as soon as possible to join the cultural conversation about two of the biggest movies of the year. It helped that we knew so little about both films before their premieres, Nunan said.

Aside from a few paparazzi shots of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling rollerblading through Venice Beach, we knew virtually nothing about “Barbie” before it came out. And “Oppenheimer,” while based in history, was still a Christopher Nolan film, so its marketing was mostly mysterious and teased major moments without revealing too much of its majesty.

But both films had been hyped for over a year before their releases, thanks to marketing that kept much of the secrets of both films but offered fans just enough to keep them excited. A well-timed trailer here and a smart social campaign there –– like those “Barbie” headshots with the quippy captions or the ominous live countdown clocks used on billboards and in trailers for “Oppenheimer” –– only made fans more ravenous ahead of the release date, Nunan said.

There’s less mystery with “Wicked” and “Gladiator II.” The former is one of the most popular musicals of the century and the fourth-longest running on Broadway –– millions have already seen it onstage or read the novel upon which it’s based, so there are fewer surprises in store for audiences, Nunan said. And though “Gladiator” won best picture among other Oscars, it came out 24 years ago.

“Neither of these franchises are fresh to the audience,” Nunan said. “They’re both known entities versus the unlimited potential of ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer.’”

Familiarity and continuations of franchises decades later can work — “Top Gun: Maverick” was the first huge success since Covid-19 kneecapped movie theaters and spoke to viewers beyond those who’d seen the original “Top Gun” back in 1986, Nunan said. But whether audiences will seek out that nostalgia again is harder to predict.

‘Barbenheimer’ had an air of prestige

Another “Barbenheimer” advantage was both films’ sublime pairing of director and subject matter. Here was indie staple and Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig helming her biggest film yet about the country’s most famous doll –– even those less familiar with her work were eager to see whether she could pull off “Barbie.” (The consensus was that she did.)

“Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan also has a distinct style and a dedicated fanbase, which has cemented Nolan as a reliable box office draw, with six of his 12 films making between half a billion to over $1 billion worldwide. The best picture-winning “Oppenheimer” almost cracked a billion.

The “artistic audacity” that both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” promised was thrilling in its own right, Nunan said, and part of what drove the more hardcore film fans to the theater for repeat viewings. And that’s the test for a true blockbuster, he said: Whether viewers find it worth it to return and pay to see the same film again and again.

The critical and commercial track records for the directors behind “Gladiator II” and “Wicked” are less consistent, Nunan said, which could make a difference in the cultural and box-office impact they have.

The prolific Ridley Scott of “Gladiator II” has made classics like “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “Thelma and Louise.” But his more recent films haven’t “moved the needle” like his earlier work, Nunan said.

Last year’s “Napoleon” and 2021’s “House of Gucci” made decent money but earned middling reviews; 2021’s “The Last Duel,” though lauded, was declared a “bomb” by trade publications. “Wicked” director Jon M. Chu is perhaps best known for “Crazy Rich Asians” which was a hit with audiences in 2018, though his last film, 2021’s adaptation of the musical “In the Heights,” was beset by Covid-era box office challenges.

Musicals like ‘Wicked’ can be tough sells

Universal Pictures is likely hoping that casting the superstar Ariana Grande as its "Wicked" co-lead will make the film <em>"</em><a href=""><em>pop-u-lar.</em></a><em>"</em> - Universal Pictures

It will be a harder road for “Wicked” to excel than “Barbie” before it, Nunan said –– movie musicals are a tougher sell with audiences, even those adapted from popular properties. (See: “Cats” flopping in 2019, even though it was based on one of the longest-running musicals of all time and featured the world-conquering superstar Taylor Swift.)

“I think the fact that ‘Wicked’ is a musical actually limits its long term box office appeal,” Nunan said.

“Wicked” is also a full-fledged musical where “Barbie” was marketed as a comedy that happened to feature a few impactful musical numbers led by a game Ryan Gosling, and even those numbers were revealed much later in the pre-release campaign, he said.

There are exceptions to the movie musical rule, though: Just this year, another musical based on familiar IP did solid numbers — “Mean Girls,” a film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the 2004 film, made over $100 million in theaters.

‘Glicked’ does have star power

Paul Mescal vs. Pedro Pascal? It's a battle of the internet boyfriends in "Gladiator II." - Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures
Paul Mescal vs. Pedro Pascal? It's a battle of the internet boyfriends in "Gladiator II." - Aidan Monaghan/Paramount Pictures

As with “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” before them, “Gladiator II” and “Wicked” have star power in spades.

The Roman Empire-set epic has a cast full of “internet boyfriends,” the men for whom countless fans have pined since their breakout performances: Mescal, Pedro Pascal and Joseph Quinn, to name three. Mescal starred in the pandemic-era series “Normal People” and became an Oscar nominee for “Aftersun” at 27; the seasoned Pascal reached new heights of heartthrobbery with HBO’s “The Last of Us” and Quinn appeared in the most recent season of “Stranger Things,” one of the most-watched Netflix series of all time.

Scott’s upcoming film also boasts a star so stratospherically charismatic that the New York Times named him the greatest actor of the 21st century: Denzel Washington, who nearly runs away with the trailer.

And “Wicked” is anchored by one of the premier pop divas of our time, Ariana Grande, who plays Galinda (yes, Ga-linda), the blonde foil to Cynthia Erivo’s green-skinned Elphaba. Grande hasn’t played a major leading role in a film yet, and she’s only appeared in cameos and bit parts over the last decade.

But it’s possible that star power doesn’t play as large a role as it once did in getting butts in seats, Nunan said. Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, who played crucial supporting roles in “Barbenheimer,” starred in “The Fall Guy” earlier this spring, which faltered at the box office and was sent to VOD just weeks after it hit theaters.

“I don’t know, with these blockbuster tentpole films, if the casting is as important as the movie itself,” Nunan said. “It’s the quality and execution of the film.”

He cited “Oppenheimer,” which featured several major stars in supporting roles, like Blunt, Matt Damon and Robert Downey, Jr. Their inclusion in the cast maybe lent the film an air of prestige, but he’s not sure that any of them were the sole reason people saw the film.

“I don’t think any of us went to see because Matt and Emily and Robert were in it, but it helped,” he said.

There was something alchemical about the “Barbenheimer” moment of last summer that exceeded all predictions about how popular both films would prove. It might have been easy to assume that viewers of one film wouldn’t want to see the other since they were so dissimilar, Nunan said, but “audiences proved the studios wrong” and went to see both.

“That summer, ‘Barbenheimer’ was meeting on so many levels of special,” he said.

Some magic just can’t be replicated, though there’s still a few months for “Gladiator II” and “Wicked” to drum up the same must-see prestige as the films that dominated the summer of 2023. What remains to be seen is whether fans who see the films as a double feature will wear gladiator skirts and witch hats to the theater.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at