To be clear, the Netflix original series Stranger Things is not a “movie” in the traditional sense. There was no theatrical release, it runs as eight hour-long episodes, and it’s obviously crafted to fit the specific medium of television. That is, it’s not trying to be anything but a TV show.
But if you can broaden your definition of “movie,” or in this case, a summer movie, to that of a contained experience that is meant to be watched in one sequence, then you’ll find that Stranger Things fits the framework.
That’s why I’m convinced that Stranger Things is the surprise hit that Summer 2016 needed, and I’d even push that it’s definitely the best movie of the summer, without question. An eight-hour movie, but a movie nonetheless.
And that’s not solely because this summer has been a series of painful disappointments with few bright spots, though that is a major reason why Stranger Things has stood out as prominently as it has. If anything, this Netflix series that few people saw coming had more reasons to fail than most tentpole blockbusters this summer had to succeed.
X-Men: Apocalypse, a film I did enjoy for the most part, was widely panned, despite following a succession of good X-Men sequels starring Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, directed by Bryan Singer, the man behind some of the best X-Men films and Usual Suspects.
The marketing for Independence Day: Resurgence had most of us convinced that this would be 2016’s Jurassic World, but we ended up with something closer in quality to Alice Through the Looking Glass, the unremarkable sequel to a hugely successful Disney live-action film from 2010 that was followed up by critical darlings like Cinderella, Maleficent, and this year’s The Jungle Book.
Warner Bros. followed up the most polarizing superhero movie in recent memory, Batman v Superman, with one of the most yawn-inducing films of the entire year, The Legend of Tarzan, despite featuring a fantastic cast and being directed by David Yates.
The movie positioned to redeem Warner Bros. in 2016 was Suicide Squad, which ended up being a decent, yet flawed movie that maintained the divisiveness of the DC cinematic universe, spawning far more arguments and “flame wars” than real discussion about how the movie has truly affected people.
Do we even need to mention Ghostbusters?
When you consider what makes a movie the “best” out of all the others, there’s a lot you might miss when settling on your conclusion. Everyone likes bad movies, and the vast majority of people even love bad movies (see Secret Life of Pets), and that’s because it’s quite impossible to enforce a list of rules that determine what makes a film objectively good, bad, or the somewhat ubiquitous okay, which does little to paint a true picture of a film’s quality.
Deciding which movie is the “best” has to speak to a larger list of criteria than your personal judgement, or even a critical consensus. You can turn it into a numbers game, gathering all of the reviews and fan reaction scores to calculate some kind of average that gives you an answer…
…But that’s a lot of effort for very little reward, and for many reasons, it’s still an ineffective way to call out a movie for rising above the rest and deserving to be remembered in 2026. This conclusion should be about more than getting better marks based on a small sample of opinions. True, you can factor in box office and impressions to make your guess, but as we’ve covered earlier, bad movies are quite easy to like, which makes the best movies hard to quantify.
All that said, my conclusion, obviously, is that Stranger Things is the best movie of the summer, despite not even being in the official running. I guess you can say that like the show itself, Stranger Things has a knack for defying expectations.
I reached this conclusion by considering a more nuanced trait of the show that no summer movie of 2016 seemed to achieve. But first and foremost, Stranger Things is fundamentally a well-crafted piece of entertainment. It’s well-written and edited, the characters transcend the tropes they’re based on, and there’s a polished feel to every aspect of this show that immerses you into Hawkins (and it’s “Upside Down”) like no other location we’ve been transported to all summer. Or all year, even.
In other words, Stranger Things gets the details almost perfectly right. The makers of the show, Matt and Ross Duffer, certainly gave it their all with this project. But the more nuanced trait that I mentioned earlier goes beyond the details. It’s all about the complete picture of Stranger Things that makes it the most satisfying experience of the summer, in just about every way you can think of.
You know what’s refreshing? The ability to have a long and meaningful conversation about the show, even if you disliked it, with people who share a different opinion. Yes, even online. Because almost no one is letting this show be about something else.
With Ghostbusters, we were forced to start every review or analysis with our take on whatever irrelevant controversy we had the most thoughts on. Suicide Squad has been a purple and green train wreck in terms of how critics and fans think and react to each other, despite that not being a fault of the actual movie. Even movies that most audiences have loved, like Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and Star Trek: Beyond, have been monopolized in conversation as sequels and franchises, not a unique or personal experience that actually changed anything.
Stranger Things, to be fair, did not achieve anything all by itself. At first glance, you might even get a bit cynical of its strengths because of how obviously reminiscent they are of classic 80s movies and novels, especially E.T., Poltergeist, and Firestarter to name a few out of probably dozens of relevant inspirations.
But Stranger Things does something unexpected with these established tropes. It turns them into new ideas. It does for 80s clichés what George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels did for Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and fantasy platitudes repeated ad nauseam since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
More specifically, Stranger Things persistently subverts its own genre, setting up your expectations to think the story is going one way, only to pay off its plot with surprises that still fit within the context of what you’ve already seen.
For example, you don’t have any reason to believe the character Nancy Wheeler isn’t someone capable or competent enough to stand up to supernatural threats. But the show wisely lets you think this when we’re first introduced to her as a love-struck teenager who doesn’t have time for her little brother and his friends, which isn’t hard to believe either. Her “jerk” boyfriend, Steve, is also set up a certain way, only to defy your expectations with his own distinct twists and turns as a character, and none of that feels reminiscent of what we’ve already seen in Spielberg and King stories. Far from it.
This allowed the show to grab and hold on to both key demographics of its potential audience: people old enough to remember these 80s tropes and everyone else. You’re hooked either way, because the movies and novels of the 80s influenced prominent filmmakers today, through movies like Super 8and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, both helmed by the quintessential 80s geek, J.J. Abrams.
But while those projects felt more like a celebration of 80s culture, Stranger Things finds impossible ways to both defy and evolve them for new audiences. It’s not a sequel, like Captain America: Civil War or Finding Dory, but it is a successor to something else, and in the most original way possible for what it is.
I haven’t mentioned the most memorable and important character of the entire show: Eleven. Her presence in Stranger Things deserves to permeate the culture, and it’s already starting to with devoted fans who are evangelizing 2016’s breakout role in Millie Bobby Brown. It’s easy to celebrate Eleven because of the child actor’s performance, of course, but there’s no reason to forget that she benefits from a script that effortlessly makes you feel every big moment of its running time. El works because just about everything else in this show works.
For me, the choice is clear. Stranger Things is objectively as good as the best movies to come out all summer. In my opinion, it stands above most films of the year. But what makes it the “best” piece of entertainment to sit down and enjoy this summer is its lasting effect through how it’s talked about, the point in time it was released, and the loving care that was put into just about every aspect of the final product.
And even though it’s over, complete with one of the most satisfying endings I can think of in 2016, it still manages to leave you wanting more, questioning everything you just watched, and speculating what’s possible when we’ll eventually (hopefully) revisit these characters, and Hawkins.
Season Grade: A