Stranger Things 3 has finally made its way onto Netflix, but does the third season of the streaming service's horror gem reach the heights of its predecessors?
When it comes to Netflix's original programming, Stranger Things is very much considered the cream of the crop. The sci-fi thriller's debut offering had all the makings of a quiet hit but it exploded onto the scene back in 2016, earning universal praise from critics and unadulterated adoration from an intensely passionate fanbase. And it would do it all again the following year with its equally compelling second season.
It's been a little under two years since Eleven sent the demonic Mind Flayer back to where he came from and, on this 4th July weekend, the streaming service has finally unveiled the show's heavily-anticipated third season. This time, however, the gang don't have to wait until Winter for a showdown with the Upside Down and its inhabitants as, unlike Game Of Thrones' White Walkers, the Mind Flayer is perfectly happy to attack in the summer as well.
Of course, that brings us to the million dollar question: Does Season 3 manage to capture the perfection of the show's first season, or even match the only slightly less-perfect heights of its second? The answer to that question is a tricky one, simply because it gets so much right, taking more risks than Season 2 and attempting to delve deeper into the characters, but this also showcases some issues that were never present before.
One thing that should be noted is that this installment is very much influenced by its setting. While Stranger Things has always, at its heart, been about both the emotional and physical development of its core group of characters, Season 3 utilises the summer as the familiar coming-of-age trope that it is in a bid to highlight that Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, El and Max are no longer kids. This also carries over into the other characters' arcs, as Nancy, Jonathan and Steve all realise that the real world is a lot harder than high school and consistently find any pre-conceived notions they had about themselves being challenged.
The characters are growing, maturing and, perhaps most importantly changing, and this causes issues for them as a group and many of their respective relationships. While this leads to some of that great character-work that the Duffer Brothers are renowned for producing on the show, some of the arguments (particularly those between the couples) feel half-baked, resulting in much of the conflict coming off as rather forced as the characters begin to act, well, out-of-character.
That brings us to the biggest conflict of them all - the fight between humanity and the monsters of the Upside Down. Unlike some of the more important character work, this is handled rather well, and it certainly exceeds in making the season feel like the bigger, better and all-round more terrifying spectacle that it was promoted to be, but it isn't without its issues either - as it takes a little too long to get started (it isn't until the fourth episode that the drama really kicks in) and, as a result, it feels like the first half lacks the stakes that it needs.
One of the main causes of this is the season's inability to balance its tone properly. In the past, Stranger Things has delivered an exceptional blend horror and humour, using the latter to add some much-needed levity to the heavier material and, given that we were dealing with children, it worked perfectly. This time, however, the humour is much more eccentric, verging on satirical and, as it comes from the adults arguably even more than it comes from the kids, it tends to feel a little too off-the-wall - simply because they aren't behaving like real people.
That being said, all of these issues seem significantly less prominent than they should be thanks to the incomparable cast, who work extra hard to pull their weight this season (even when some of them don't have enough to do). Powerhouses Millie Bobby Brown and Winona Ryder continue to remind us why they are such forces to be reckoned with on-screen, elevating some of the questionable material with their incredible performances, while Dacre Montgomery becomes the breakout star with his turn as the conflicted Billy Hargrove. And we simply can't overlook David Harbour, who once again shines as Hawkins' moody police-chief-turned-parental -figure Jim Hopper.
One area, however, in which Stranger Things 3 outdoes its previous two offerings is in the special effects department. Netflix must have significantly increased the budget this time around because there are a ton of thrilling and highly-impressive set pieces. This, and a number of other successfully-adopted horror conventions, ensure that the season is, if anything, a visual masterpiece.
It's hard to be critical of Stranger Things, it really is. The truth of the matter is that we're simply comparing Season 3 to the ridiculously high standards of its predecessors and, in all honesty, that's just wrong.
Aside from a moment or two, it never quite manages to reach the emotional highs of the first two seasons, but as a standalone offering, it is still miles ahead of almost everything else on TV. And that alone (along with the horde of unbelievably enjoyable '80s references) is reason enough to check it out.
Go on, take one more trip into the Upside Down. You won't regret it.
Are you excited about Stranger Things 3? Let us know in the comments below!