Barbie—the box-office sensation about plastic, among other things—does not overstay its welcome. At a (tight, by modern standards) 1 hour and 54 minute runtime, Greta Gerwig’s latest directorial effort ends on a winking, poignant in-joke, its titular protagonist (Margot Robbie) embracing a new frontier as she sheds her misconceptions about perfection. When the screen cuts to the glittering magenta-pink logo recognized the world over, that’s the film’s final reveal. Barbie does not have a post-credits scene, nor does it need one. So, why does it feel as if one’s missing?
As evidenced by the sheer number of stories (very much including the one you’re reading now) addressing Barbie’s post-credits potential, and the tweets satirizing the same, the Marvel Cinematic Universe—among other franchises-that-shall-not-be-named—has trained audiences to anticipate an instant addendum that links a never-ending story. The connective tissue between film installments cannot be left for fans to ponder. No longer is it enough to wonder what’s next; we’re conditioned to prepare for its imminent arrival. Ever since Nick Fury popped up at the end of 2008’s Iron Man to announce “the Avengers Initiative,” Marvel’s post-credits phenomenon has become an addiction, turning what used to be a Hollywood rarity into an expectation. The currency of today’s Tinseltown is IP, and for IP to be worth its investment, it must produce—ideally, in the form of dozens of sequels, spin-offs, and fan-service scenes that go viral on TikTok. In turn, IP expects as much of audiences as it does of its creations. It expects us to sit, wait, and watch.
The problem is that so much waiting and watching (and watching, and watching, and watching) gets exhausting, especially when the roll-out is so dreadfully formulaic. Franchise fatigue is real. As writer Mark Harris outlined in an excellent Tweet thread about this weekend’s Barbie–Oppenheimer success, “An unexpected hit is much more disruptive to the Hollywood system than a big flop is. That’s where we are: TWO surprise smashes that suggest you get people back to the movies by giving them what they haven’t seen, not what they have.” And even in the context of an IP behemoth like Barbie, an ending that ends feels like something we haven’t seen. It’s simpler, though not necessarily more satisfying, to ride the status-quo contentment of a promised continuation. To be presented with something original, unexpected, and clearly contained doesn’t fit the mold we’re trained to crave.
It’s true, Barbie might still get a sequel. (Given what we know about Mattel’s eagerness to expand its territory in Hollywood, it almost certainly will.) But Barbie the film ends, definitively, without any promises of what might follow. That makes its future unknown—and its singular impact felt all the stronger.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.