"Stranger Things," The Duffer Brothers' '80s nostalgia-fueled Netflix sci-fi series took an extended absence after its second season got mixed reactions while still being incredibly binge-worthy. Does the trip to Hawkins in "Stranger Things 3" (out July 4th), shot through with summer romance and mall memories, hit a high mark? Here's what critics think:
Along With New Summertime Settings, 'Stranger Things 3' Makes Big Moves To Avoid Season 2's Rehash Issues
In the summer of 1985, our heroes are getting older and embracing all of the changes that come with being a teenager, whether that be building romantic relationships or having to take a summer job at the new local mall. Hawkins, Indiana has a way of harboring dark secrets, with a variety of threats looming large in the small town that will take terror to an all-new level.
Hawkins National Laboratory is a ruin. Creators the Duffer Brothers wisely sidestep the narratively exhausted Upside Down. An ever-growing cast gives them the bandwidth to establish roughly five simultaneous storylines that feel novel for the show, if not for '80s-nostalgia culture at large.
The Cast Is Split Into Smaller Groups For Most Of The Season, Which All Get Their Own Plots And Mostly Work
We get to see our faves interacting with new characters and each other in interesting new ways. It's fun, and it generally feels like forward momentum for everyone in a way that season two couldn't offer.
Remarkably, it finds a way to give its ever-growing ensemble their fair share of heavy lifting. And we relish the time we spend with them. What a treat it is to spend time with these characters again – like reuniting with old friends.
Really, It's A Lot Of Characters And Relationships To Track
Almost everyone in the group is now in a relationship, which causes tension between Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Hopper when it comes to her dating Mike (Finn Wolfhard). In a poignant subplot, Will (Noah Schnapp) also feels particularly left out now that Mike is spending so much time with El, and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is busy hanging out with Max (Sadie Sink). Will and Hopper both, in their own ways, just want things to go back to the way they were before everything got so complicated, which is a really worthy thread for the show to follow.
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has found his own (possibly fictional) girlfriend while away at camp[…] Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) take their sexual tension on the road, rooting out some nefarious goings on at City Hall, meanwhile Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) sniff out their own mystery while interning at The Hawkins Post. Steve 'The Hair' Harrington (Charlie Heaton) continues his journey from Season 1's jock douchebag to the show's most affably enjoyable character, working alongside Dustin and Scoops Ahoy co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke) to decode a suspicious Russian radio transmission.
Combined With Binge Watch Pacing, The Season Flips Between Feeling Overstuffed And Drawn-Out At Times
They've made a single eight-hour movie. One that probably could have been more like six hours. The show is absolutely designed to be binged over a single day in that it tells one story, structured with a single crescendo, and everything leads toward the final episode[…] As a result, there are some full episodes (and lots of stretches in other episodes) which feel like the whole series is pressing the pause button.
Especially in the first few episodes, there's just too much happening. Lots of excessively long action sequences not only get repetitive, but also push most character beats to the beginning and end of the season.
It Makes Strides — Though Sometimes Shallow Ones — In Giving The Women Stronger Relationships And Plot Lines
Luckily, the male-driven series drops the Season Two rivalry between Eleven and Max (Sadie Sink) to deliver what feels like the first female friendship since Season One's Nancy (Natalie Dyer) and Barb (Shannon Purser). Granted, series creators Matt and Ross Duffer deliver their interpretation of a female friendship, which results in shopping at the mall and glamour shots[…]
The women on the show also have deeper relationships with each other in season three — though they also seem a little phoned-in. In particular, Nancy has a heart-to-heart with her mom that feels like a stab at mother-daughter bonding, but is also the only scene they've had together, maybe ever? Shrugsies! It's easy to feel the same way about the "girls bonding over Madonna and the local Claire's" vibe that season three applies to Max and El's new friendship — like Stranger Things couldn't figure out what to do with two teen girls except send them to the mall.
The People You Really Liked In The Last Two Seasons? You're Still Gonna Enjoy Watching Them, Go Figure
Brown's Eleven remains a highlight, and she's tasked with some of the biggest emotional heavy lifting she's had to deal with so far. Harbour once again reminds everyone why he's so damn likable, managing to balance Hopper's rough-and-tumble tendencies with real heart. He also gets to kick a lot of ass – Hopper is in full-fledged action hero mode. And the goofy friendship between Keery and Matarazzo's characters is as fresh and charming as it ever was.
After being relegated to the sidelines for Season Two, despite a harrowing final few episodes, [Joyce] bounces back in Season Three[…] her fascination in electromagnetism finds her connecting with a range of familiar faces, from an indelible cameo by Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) to a featured role by Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman). Her emotional investment in these scenes, especially when paired with Harbour's bruised ego checks, adds so much palpable energy to the adventure.
Newcomer Maya Hawke Is A Perfect Addition To The Gang
In the grand, "you might also like" tradition of Stranger Things, Hawke endears herself with qualities she could've inherited from her '90s power-couple parents: the terminal chill of her father circa Reality Bites and Before Sunset, the grace-under-fire resolve of her mother's Kill Bill turn. But she's also a tremendous foil to Keery, the safety pin puncturing a balloon that's already deflating after some post-graduation defeats.
Deadpan and lowkey, she fits in effortlessly with her designated troop of mallrats: Steve, Dustin, and Lucas's little sister Erica, whose own role is beefed up this season.
There's A Lot Of Product Placement, With A Thin Veneer Of Thematic Justification For It
This time around, the product placement is ubiquitous. Burger King and Coca-Cola, both of which are running promotions around Stranger Things, are written into the script.
The series' embrace of something else that was cloying, sticky, and inescapable is cause for asking where a zeal for verisimilitude ends and where extreme product integration begins—the same could be asked of the Starcourt, an immersive piece of set design that also stamps logos across Stranger Things 3 like it's a race car. But the mall's also an important, resonant symbol of the characters' newfound autonomy, and New Coke isn't just another piece of Reagan-administration kitsch—it was a brazen experiment in messing with a good thing, and a cautionary tale for anyone who might attempt something similar in the future.
It's Not As Creepy As Previous Installments Were…
As the end of this season approaches, Stranger Things becomes one sustained action scene after another, one soaring drone shot after another and one conflict after another that forces our heroes to stare down elaborate digital creatures. The effect that I really liked is on the "Do Not Spoil" list, but for the most part the obvious escalation of onscreen budget looks fine, even if the enhanced artifice probably reduces the scariness of these episodes, as well as the joyful feeling of ingenuity the show initially yielded.
Proceedings are more charming and plain enjoyable as a result, but such levity comes at a price and the horror aspects have moved from genuine chills to gonzo schlock, such as this season's tentacled meat monster which, while overwhelmingly '80s, never raises the hackles.
… Really, It Feels Like It's Aiming For 'Big Action Sequel'
Stranger Things 3 feels more like a big, mindless, summer blockbuster than the independent movie the first season was. But that's okay. After two hit seasons and a long absence, it's nice to see things turned up to Eleven, pun intended. There are shocking consequences here. Fists will be gleefully pumped in the air, jaws will drop out in awe, and tears will be shed for a number of reasons.
It doesn't make for a deeper version of the series, but it does make for a more entertaining one, the second half of the season barreling across Hawkins in a string of white-knuckle, scenery-wrecking visits to the community pool, the hospital, Hopper's cabin in the woods, a Fourth Of July fair, and, finally, the Starcourt.
This Focus On Scale Overlooks Some Smaller, Interesting Ideas 'Stranger Things' Has/Cribs From '80s Greats
Stranger Things shies away from investigating the PTSD these kids rightfully have, or how their absolutely bonkers experiences have affected them. It's a stretch to say that the show's horror and gore work as a metaphor for the uncertainty and hurt of being a teen and growing up (away from friends, or breaking up, or having an unrequited crush), but it's a missed opportunity for it not to.
The action driving Season 3 feels purposefully dialed down to the most basic elements, paying homage to movies like "The Thing" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" without really giving a hoot about what made either film so affecting. That can be frustrating when you're asked to invest in scenes churning the plot forward, but "Stranger Things" keeps things moving fast enough that those gripes are often fleeting.
All That Said, The Season's Resolution Seems To Know That This Dreamy '80s Teen Thing Can't Last Forever
Whether you praise the show for conjuring the spirit of movies that, let's face it, never fell that far out of the public eye, or condemn it as a sorry pretender to the influences it pastiches, the fact remains that the contents of Stranger Things and our reactions to it are inextricably linked to a time in our lives that its stars are beginning to age out of.
Stranger Things allows us to escape that desolation, into an idealized '80s that isn't too much different from the retro virtual fantasia of the beloved Black Mirror episode "San Junipero." It's a thin imitation of what we used to have, but who could blame anyone for clinging to it?
The more permanent paradigm shifts of this season not only offer audiences a number of powerful dramatic moments, but it also sets the stage for an entirely new dynamic in whatever comes next while also concluding this journey in a fulfilling way that doesn't actually require another season. After having spent three years with these characters, these revelations feel fully earned, all while reminding both the audience and the characters that you can never go back to merely sitting in your basement playing D&D, no matter how much joy that would bring you.
Stranger Things 3 may spin its wheels to get where it's going, but it lights a fire once it gets there. The season is flawed but solid, and we hope it's not another two years before we see part four.