This Memorial Day weekend, two major franchises connected to the year 1986 aim to capture the attention of long-weekending Americans. One is Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to 1986’s Top Gun that its star, Tom Cruise, recently said he would have never allowed to open anywhere other than theaters. The other is the first volume of Stranger Things 4, the retro Netflix juggernaut that will follow up this weekend’s batch of episodes with two more supersized installments on July 1. Set in the spring of 1986, a few months before Top Gun’s release, this season was always going to be a streaming event; Stranger Things is one of Netflix’s most valuable original properties, if not the most valuable. But it’s also a series that has as much reverence for the mainstream sci-fi and horror flicks of the 1980s as Cruise has for doing his own stunts.
Stranger Things’s fourth season pushes the bounds of a standard TV show with episode run-times swollen well beyond the norm. Each of the seven landing today are more than an hour, most of them even longer; at 98 minutes, episode seven is feature length. When episodes eight and nine, a.k.a. Vol. 2, hit Netflix on July 1, they will follow the same trend: Eight is an hour and 25 minutes, and the finale will be two and a half hours, or 19 minutes longer than Top Gun: Maverick. Where Stranger Things was once a TV show that paid homage to films released decades ago, this season it’s threatening to become a series of those films.
In May 2017, I wrote a piece that asked, “Is the summer pop-cultural experience still defined by movies?” My conclusion was basically: no. Blockbusters, particularly of the Marvel variety, still have obvious cultural currency, make tons of money, and matter to audiences. But for the past decade at least, television has been the dominant driver of entertainment conversations and often where the more ambitious and revolutionary storytelling takes place. That was already considered a threat to cinema five years ago if not earlier, as noted in a Los Angeles Times story, also from 2017, about concerns regarding movie-franchise fatigue: “Competition from TV and streaming video, and a culture that appears to be more interested in what’s happening on the small screen than what’s on the cinema marquee, is compounding the problems.”
In the half-decade since, some franchises — most notably the Disney-owned Marvel and Star Wars — have dealt with those “problems” by leaning harder into the television experience, making it practically a requirement for fans to watch the series dropping on Disney+ in order to keep up with the movies opening in theaters. To that point, on the same day Stranger Things 4 and Top Gun: Maverick arrive, the new Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, debuts on Disney+.
But Stranger Things proves that TV still has the stronger hold on hearts and minds. The show snuck up on the public — and, honestly, probably Netflix — when it exploded in the summer of 2016. Now its fourth season, in every way, is making the argument that in 2022, this series is just as culturally significant as Maverick or Jurassic Park: Dominion or any other mega-movie based on existing IP due in theaters before Labor Day.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the budget for Stranger Things 4 was $30 million per episode. Multiply that by nine and you’ve got $270 million, $100 million more than the production budget for Top Gun: Maverick. (Neither number takes into account promotional costs.) You can see the extra money in every episode of Stranger Things 4, which sits more explicitly in the horror genre than any previous season. The visual effects are more sophisticated and so is the filmmaking; the transitions between scenes, which track four different running story lines, are more elegant and make a sprawling season feel relatively cohesive. Does it feel bloated given those longer run-times? At times, yes. But by episode three, I was again invested in what’s happening in Hawkins (as well as some new locations), and less concerned about the amount of minutes that investment required.
In a move that also projects summertime BDE (Big Demogorgon Energy), Netflix has planted two flags by rolling out each volume on a major holiday weekend, suggesting the new season is as much of an event as any movie at your local multiplex, maybe even more of one. Stranger Things 4 isn’t aiming to be a tentpole — it’s trying to be two poles and the whole damn tent. In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back was the No. 1 movie in America for seven consecutive weeks. In 1982, E.T. was No. 1 for eight weeks of that summer and 16 weeks of that year. Top Gun cruised at the highest altitude for just two weeks in May and June 1986, then returned to No. 1 in late September, more than three months after its debut. Those movies made an impression not just because they raked in a lot of money, but because they stuck around for so long that their existence became part of the air everybody breathed. Movies don’t do that anymore. TV shows rarely do either. There’s just too much cluttering the pop-cultural atmosphere for anything to stick for an extended period of time.
That is one reason there’s no guarantee Stranger Things 4 will run the table this summer — though, for reasons my colleague Joe Adalian laid out in detail, Netflix is surely hoping for that. There’s also the fact that three years have passed since season three dropped and interest may have waned; the preteens who became obsessed in season one have, like the series’ stars, grown up and have other interests. (The Duffer brothers seem to have anticipated that by making this season akin to a teen-slasher outing.) Even if 2022 credibly becomes the summer of Stranger Things 4, it will be the kind of thing that’s hard to quantify: Comparing the success of a movie, measured in easily trackable box-office revenue, to a series on Netflix, which shrouds its viewership metrics in mystery, provides an incomplete picture. The show’s popularity and position in the Zeitgeist will depend on whether it, too, becomes part of the air we’re breathing, a vibe we’ll get based on the people we talk to, the social-media posts in our feed, and the amount of Stranger Things merch in boardwalk shops during our beach vacations.
But the reason I think Stranger Things 4 has a good chance of occupying the American consciousness this summer is the same reason I think Top Gun: Maverick will perform reasonably well at the box office: nostalgia. It’s the fuel that keeps Hollywood’s machines running and, for better but often worse, runs deeply in the veins of the American body politic.
Moviegoers will go see Top Gun: Maverick to experience a measure of the adrenaline rush they got in 1986. But the nostalgia Stranger Things peddles is much more layered. Gen-Xers and older millennials see in it images reminiscent of the movies they grew up watching, and that makes them feel relevant and seen. Younger generations, especially those who were preteens when Stranger Things started and are now on the cusp of adulthood, may feel nostalgic about the show itself. The year 2016 was, famously, not so great, but after everything that has happened since — a global pandemic, an insurrection attempt, more and more school shootings — it may look a bit rosier in hindsight. While a show about teens in peril may not sound like ideal comfort food, the horror genre appeals because we know its horrors are not real. It’s an escape from legitimate anxiety that provokes resolvable anxiety, and that can be a relief.
Stranger Things is also quite openly not nostalgic for what the 1980s actually felt like. Matt and Ross Duffer were born in 1984, so they remember little to nothing about what it was like to be alive during the era in which their show is set. The series has always been more reverent about what it felt like to watch movies made during that time, and never has that been more apparent than season four; it possesses its own cinematic scope while propagating a sentimentality for the good old days of popcorn flicks as fervently as Tom Cruise. If Stranger Things 4 is huge this summer, it won’t be because it beefed up its run-times or visual effects. It will be because it traffics so deftly in America’s favorite kind of nostalgia: not what actually was, but the make-believe that allowed us an escape from reality.