"BARBENHEIMER”, they’ve been calling it on social media for months. That’s yesterday’s simultaneous release of Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, and Greta Gerwig’s live-action exploration of Barbie (and her appendage Ken).

My favourite Barbenheimer meme is the one with a pink mushroom cloud in the distance. Barbie watches it with her back to us, in a characteristic long-legged pose.

I can understand the need for levity. I sat from 8.30am to 1.30pm yesterday – Oppenheimer followed by Barbie – and then staggered out to my lunch in a whirling blizzard of nihilism and optimism.

The nihilist bit is perhaps easier to articulate. Oppenheimer is often a beautifully wrought film, which I’ll detail in a minute.

READ MORE: Controlling behaviour of Jonah Hill is all too common

But for large sections, it’s all about labs, campuses and meeting rooms, swarming with purposeful 40s-era men in ties and uniforms, energetically piecing together the instrument that could (and still can) destroy us all. Enough with the process, grumbled my inner activist: what about the horrors of the outcome?

But as yet another sequence of mumbled Washington intrigue and power-jockeying rolled out, I realised that Nolan was making a point similar to that made by philosopher Hannah Arendt. When reporting on the trials of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann in 1962, Arendt noted the “banality of evil” that he embodied. Eichmann made his numbers and managed his jargon-laden outcomes, which allowed him to distance himself from the carnage behind them.

READ MORE: Pat Kane: Huw Edwards affair suggests we need a ‘better media’ but how to get there?

As Oppenheimer watches helplessly while generals decide the targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see Kyoto come off the list because a politician “once had a lovely trip there with his wife”.

When Oppenheimer fruitlessly tries to urge restraint on President Truman, and not develop the next stage of hydrogen superbombs, the physicist is led out of the Oval Office to the words, “don’t let that cry-baby in here again”. Truly, the evils of banality are generously distributed.

The National: Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer.

The film uses its 70mm potential to regularly fill the screen with Opponheimer’s anguished face (that of the brilliant Cillian Murphy); we never doubt his hauntedness about leading the Manhattan Project.

But throughout the movie, the director Nolan intersperses the human action with abstract images: force lines, explosions, rippled effects, conflagrations. They begin with Oppenheimer’s youthful delirium with theoretical physics and continue to the end.

I think the point he’s making is clear: when human ingenuity penetrates the very building blocks of matter, it has mythic outcomes.

The movie begins with a quote about the Greek god Prometheus; the book it’s based on is called American Prometheus. And that’s the very arc of Murphy’s performance. Give fire to the warring tribes of the world, and your moral innards will be pecked out every day as punishment.

No spoilers, but by the very end of the movie, Nolan makes it brutally clear that he acknowledges how present and current the dangers of nuclear weapons are. This hasn’t just been a tableaux of tragic, messy personalities, but a dramatic history of a moment that made a new and terrible world.

READ MORE: Cast of Oppenheimer walk out of UK premiere ahead of actors’ strike announcement

Yet one has to note the near total patriarchy which makes, directs and launches the bomb. Women primarily appear as hysterical and suicidal, as duteous mothers and sexual objects. The world is pushed to its very precipice by the machinations of menfolk, while women gnash and wail powerlessly in their pearls and twinsets.

That’ll be the nihilism then.

Does the optimism come with Barbie? You wouldn’t expect it, at first. After the shattering, hellish vistas of Oppenheimer, the silly, day-glo-on-pink frames of Gerwig’s Barbieworld look like the stacked shelves of Toys R Us.

Straight away, you can go historically deep here. The Barbie doll was introduced to the American market on March 9, 1959 – when it was Cold-War-a-go-go. We could easily argue the Barbie doll was launched as a consumerist distraction from the death consciousness of the atomic age.

The National: Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie star in the upcoming Barbie movie

NONE of that is explicitly referred to in the movie – although Barbie (the perfectly cast Margot Robbie) does start to tumble out of her perfect Barbieworld, the moment she confesses she’s started “thinking of death”.

Every other ideology or philosophy is made explicit here. Indeed, giant armouries of irony and self-consciousness are deployed, defending Gerwig and her makers from the charge of doing anything but edifying young female consumers.

There’s a scene where Barbie, visiting from her pink parallel universe of career-oriented fellow Barbies, is socially shredded by a teen schoolgirl, who used to play with her. Along with much else, Barbie is accused of representing “sexualised capitalism”.

The Barbies turn back against the Kens – who have previously turned against the Barbies, turning Barbieland into The KenDom.

“Stereotypical Barbie”, as Robbie is known, notes that her resistance comes from “cognitive dissonance produced by the contradictions of patriarchy… Did I even say that?”

So there’s lots of reassurance to the liberal-left that the filmmakers know what they’re doing, as families laugh along with the sight gags. And where Oppenheimer’s screens are crowded with ostentatiously competent males, Barbie’s men are risible and hollow.

On a visit to the world of humans, Ken catches the bug of male sexism and briefly converts his fellow dudes to patriarchy (“Although when I realised it was about more than horses, I got bored with it”, he confesses).

READ MORE: Barbie cast inspired by Braveheart speech, Greta Gerwig says

The all-male board of Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturers, play their active part in the plot, led energetically by Will Ferrell – and they are insincere, venal klutzes to a man.

Yet not all the ethical angles are covered in this strenuously self-conscious movie. What of Barbie as a way of instigating a rampant consumerist mentality from childhood, at a time when wasteful buying is the bane of our age?

There’s a progressive talking point that seems to have fallen off Gerwig’s long list.

However, faced with the sterile, dead-end, bloke-driven apocalypticism of Oppenheimer, I found myself surging a little at the closing idea expressed by the ghost of Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler.

Any of the power structures that the Barbies and Kens are striving over are merely imagined – “and then you die”.

So why not imagine better ones?

That’s better than surrendering to the unimaginable.

And that leads to my final point. As I stumbled out of my recliner chair in the IMAX cinema, into a big-city scene benignly bustling away, my disengagement struck me.

In a way, both of these intelligent, multi-dimensional movies are trying too hard. They try to fill us up to the brim with existential seriousness, or empowering irony – and achieve it.

Yet we walk out of the womb of the theatre as bare citizens, with few levers (or comrades) around that can help us process the ideas and feelings these films raise.

Might these largely empty halls revive themselves, if they also catered for convivial discussion and exploration, either before or after a showing?

If we are super-charged by such powerful artworks, how do we ensure that energy doesn’t just dissipate into the waiting streets?

I enjoyed my Barbenheimer morning – a great tribute to human creativity, in all its ambiguities and extremes.

Yet I’m left to find my own pathways to salvation. Great movies, but not yet great enough.