The next Barbenheimer? A date change tees up Wickiator

Universal Pictures has moved the release date of its lavish musical Wicked forward by a few days, from Nov. 27 (the day before Thanksgiving) to the preceding Friday, Nov. 22.

The move is ostensibly, and sensibly, to avoid a clash with Disney’s animation sequel Moana 2, also set for Nov. 27. Universal may have been motivated (read: scared) by the astonishing box office performance of Disney and Pixar’s Inside Out 2, which has racked up over $1 billion globally in a little over two weeks, setting a new record for an animated film.

But the date change also sets up another, potentially more exciting clash: Wicked, which stars Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo, will now hit theaters on the same day as Ridley Scott’s historical action drama Gladiator II, starring Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal. Wicked is the first part of a two-part adaptation of the hit stage musical, which prefigures the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, telling the witches’ backstory. Gladiator II is a generation-later sequel to Scott’s Oscar-winning 2000 epic. (Vanity Fair just published a surprisingly meaty preview of Gladiator II, which is stuffed with first-look images, plot details, and good quotes from Scott and the cast; it’s worth checking out.)

The contest between these two movies instantly recalls “Barbenheimer,” the 2023 box office phenomenon that pitted Greta Gerwig’s candy-colored comedy Barbie against Christopher Nolan’s somber nuclear bomb drama Oppenheimer. That date clash created a storm of publicity and a kind of unofficial festival of moviegoing that worked out to the benefit of both movies, which finished 2023 as the biggest and third-biggest films of the year worldwide.

Theater owners, if no one else, will be hoping for similar from Wicked and Gladiator II, but the juxtaposition isn’t quite so striking this time around. It’s true that one is a colorful, fantastical stage musical centering female characters and the other is a violent action movie front-loaded with manly actors.

But they’re both big, old-school spectacles with Old Hollywood feel, and they don’t make for as stark (or as funny) a contrast as between a toy-branded meta comedy and a three-hour biopic about physics and nuclear holocaust. Wicked and Gladiator II are also both franchise movies of a sort, relying on brand familiarity, whereas Barbie and Oppenheimer are both daring, original films from auteur directors.

Also, it’s hard to come up with a compound name for them that rolls off the tongue as smoothly “Barbenheimer” does. Gladicked? Surely not. The best I can do is “Wickiator.”

None of that matters quite as much as what Wicked and Gladiator II have in common with Barbie and Oppenheimer, though: They’re both exciting-looking movies that present very compelling reasons to see them on the big screen, that complement each other in fun ways, and that stand to do very well with audiences. It’s going to be a fun November.