Stranger Things First Reviews: Season 4 Is 'Impressive,' 'Frightful,' and 'Overstuffed,' Critics Say

A bigger budget, grander scope, and ghastly horror elements make the new season of Netflix's genre hit a must-see. Long episode run times and derivative plotting, however, may exhaust your binge-watching plans.

by | May 23, 2022 | Comments

Stranger Things is back after a three-year hiatus and its highly-anticipated fourth season will be the first installment of Netflix’s genre hit to be split in half. Volume 1 will premiere seven new episodes on Friday, May 27, and the final two feature-length episodes in Volume 2 will drop five weeks later on Friday, July 1 on Netflix.

It’s been only six months for the gang since the Battle of Starcourt Mall transpired. The results has found Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) without her powers and living with Joyce (Winona Ryder), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) in California, while Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Max (Sadie Sink), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Steve (Joe Keery) remained in Hawkins. Presumed dead, but very much alive, Hopper (David Harbour) is a prisoner in a secret Russian gulag and the victim of brutal Upside Down–related interrogation.

With a reported price tag of $30 million per season 4 episode, this new Stranger Things installment is being advertised as the biggest, baddest, and goriest season yet. But does it truly deliver the goods?

Here’s what critics are saying on social media about the first episodes of Stranger Things 4:

How does it compare to previous seasons?

Stranger Things 4

(Photo by Netflix)

In a lot of ways, Season 4 is Season 1 reincarnate. It’s not the same story nor a retread, but the skillful ways Season 1 married the novelties of its period setting and thematic inspirations — from the works of Stephen King to John Carpenter — feels inexplicably alive again in Season 4. (Of the genre masters it pays homage to this year, its biggest debt is owed to the late Wes Craven.) Stranger Things has evolved, if rather awkwardly, but it hasn’t forgotten its roots. – Eric Francisco, Inverse

Like Netflix itself, Stranger Things’ fourth season is occasionally capable of breathtaking fits of creativity and sincere storytelling joy. It’s also a lumbering, overstuffed beast that can come across as too impressed with itself. – Alec Bojalad, Den of Geek

Now, six years after the show first dropped, “Stranger Things” has significantly leveled up its mythology to complicate its stories well beyond its initial bounds. It’s also scattered its characters to the wind enough that checking in with all of them has become increasingly difficult, to the point that, apparently, there is just no trimming it all down to fit the confines of a traditional TV episode. – Caroline Framke, Variety

By tackling its origins, Stranger Things returns with a potent narrative that ties several loose ends together. It’s a labyrinthine undertaking that, for the most part, has a gradual and solid payoff. – Saloni Gajjar, AV Club

How are the performances of the cast?

Stranger Things season 4

(Photo by Netflix)

Hair metal dungeon master Eddie Munson is every bit the breath of fresh air that Robin Buckley was in season 3 and that Max Mayfield was in season 2. – Alec Bojalad, Den of Geek

​​With all due respect to Harbour, whose depiction of an alternately snarling and sympathetic man remains one of the show’s best performances, just about every cut to Hopper is a drag. – Caroline Framke, Variety

There’s a joy that leaps off the screen every time the writers find a way to expand Robin as a character and it’s unclear when it happened, but Hawke has become easily my favorite part of the show, when she could have been an ancillary character. – Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter

The continuing Laurel and Hardy act Dustin and Steve (Joe Keery) have going is more entertaining than Dustin’s dealings with his original friends. And I would watch an entire series that followed Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Robin (Maya Hawke) as they roamed around town solving mysteries, which is part of what they do here. (Hawke gets the big laugh lines throughout, and she nails them.) – Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic

Sadie Sink takes centerstage. A forlorn Max has grown distant from everyone after her stepbrother Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) death. The isolation entangles her in some terrible situations. No pun intended, but the actor sinks into her role and ends up delivering the best performance of the gang, especially in the outstanding fourth episode. After Fear Street and Stranger Things, we may have a burgeoning scream queen on our hands. – Saloni Gajjar, AV Club

How are the production quality and world-building?

Stranger Things 4

(Photo by Netflix)

After the first season kept anything regarding special effects to the bare, cost-cutting minimum, there’s no doubt that Netflix simply opened the special effects bank vault to the directors — the Duffers, Shawn Levy and Nimrod Antal — and said “Do what you need to do.” The results are impressive and frightful and frequently numbing, because the creative workarounds that let the show generate simmering tension without needing to show everything are no longer in evidence. – Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter

Season 4 in total feels stronger and more put-together than either Seasons 2 and 3, which often buckled under expectations to recapture the magic of its magical first season. More money in the budget doesn’t always equal better production, but one can see just how the show made good use of its jaw-dropping $30 million episode budget. How much was funneled into things like VFX or into Covid-19 protocols is unclear, but Vecna is a damn impressive sight to behold. – Eric Francisco, Inverse

In fact, everything looks quite a bit sleeker this season, in a good way. The effects even manage to step it up a notch from the already-impressive Season 3 – especially since this season spends much more time in the Upside Down – and there are some gorgeous landscape shots, particularly around the desolate Russian prison. – Alex Stedman, IGN Movies

Fresh locales, appealing new characters, and a rewarding expansion of the mythology give the new season of Stranger Things a jolt of joyful energy, just when the series needed it most. – Kristen Baldwin, Entertainment Weekly

Are the episodes too long?

Stranger Things season 4

(Photo by Netflix)

Prolonged Season 4 episodes have been sold as an attribute when they’re anything but; splitting the season in two may “event-ize” Netflix’s blockbuster series, but — with only two super-sized episodes left for Part 2’s release in July — it’s no favor to fans; characters stagnate while clunky puzzle pieces are given priority; repetitive visual effects are overemphasized to mask the missing emotional impact; episodic structure is abandoned, as if co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer believe their whole show should be long movies, rather than just the feature-length final episodes. – Ben Travers, IndieWire

The experience of watching Stranger Things season 4, particularly when binged, can quickly turn into a slog of synths and sparkling lights. Even when the content onscreen is interesting, scenes can go on for several beats too long or in some cases make clear that they never should have been included in the first place. – Alec Bojalad, Den of Geek

All these thrills are watered down by the bloated runtime. Volume 1’s finale is almost 100 minutes long. The show continues to demand patience from its audience after a three-freaking-year wait. If it wasn’t obvious already, major storylines inevitably simmer down because of that runtime. – Saloni Gajjar, AV Club

These first seven chapters are meaty, not just in story but in length. They’re all a solid hour-long (get comfy), but unlike most instances of Netflix bloat, there’s hardly excess. Everything matters, however big or small. The extra time appears to benefit the Duffer Brothers and their arsenal of directors and editors, with more careful and deliberate storytelling. – Eric Francisco, Inverse

How scary do things get?

Stranger Things 4

(Photo by Netflix)

It helps, too, that the new Hawkins beast — which Dustin accurately calls out as a Freddy Krueger facsimile — feels more tactile and viscerally frightening as he preys on teen trauma. The so-called “Vecna” does have a (very cool) explanation, but before that, it’s also just an effectively creepy monster of the week that brings new undead life to the Upside-Down. – Caroline Framke, Variety

Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is the biggest influence on the season, and the show doesn’t even try to hide it. They have a character flat-out reference the film, and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, makes a cameo appearance. – Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm

Easily the most exciting aspect of season four is how it embraces gore like never before. Even the show’s harshest critic will be swayed by that perfect blend of creepy and fun sci-fi. This time, there’s a haunted house, bone-shattering death scenes, a tentacled villain nicknamed Vecna who speaks in a baritone voice, and a huge homage to A Nightmare On Elm Street in how Vecna functions. The Duffer Brothers’ own superpower is reveling in ’80s horror nostalgia. And the duo is on top of their game here. – Saloni Gajjar, AV Club

Any final thoughts?

Stranger Things 4

(Photo by Netflix)

Stranger Things season 4 is a loud, long, and macabre sci-fi/horror adventure that manages to once again entertain despite its faults. – Alec Bojalad, Den of Geek

Season 4 feels like it’s been designed to produce good data rather than quality entertainment. The algorithm once heralded for so much of Netflix’s success and derided for ignoring the human factor certainly feels present here, as any remaining strangeness gets usurped by formula. – Ben Travers, IndieWire

Ultimately, season 4 volume 1 of Stranger Things is an amazing journey that sets the stage for this show’s send-off, mixes things up cast-wise, and feels right at place in the mythos and journey that we’ve come to know and love. – Lyra Hale, Fangirlish

“Everything was, like, way easier,” says Steve with a sigh, longing for the old days when they had Eleven and her superpowers to defeat the demons of the Upside Down. But when it comes to TV, easy is often the enemy of good. This season, Stranger Things is working harder and smarter. – Kristen Baldwin, Entertainment Weekly

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