Everyone goes through adolescence. It’s the ultimate period of change and transition. The person you start as is never the same as the person who comes out the other side. Despite its universality, though, Hollywood rarely gets adolescence right.
There are great movies about late childhood like Stand By Me, The Sandlot or The Goonies, but teen characters are often depicted as mini-adults, especially on TV. Series like Riverdale, Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries tend to overlook the stress that comes with putting childhood aside and taking on bigger responsibilities. Instead, these characters party, drink, and shack up with each other with minimal parental involvement.
In contrast, Stranger Things Season 3 and Spider-Man: Far From Home let their teen characters behave like the kids they are. They experience adolescence as the period of confusion and transition it really is. and that’s what makes both properties so refreshing.
In the third season of Stranger Things, Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin and Will are all 13 or 14. Meanwhile, in Far From Home, Peter Parker is 16. These young characters may fight against world-ending antagonists with bravery and skill, but none of them are prematurely aged by their experiences. Just like any adolescent, they’re still trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and their extraordinary circumstances are only one part of that equation.
Friendly Neighborhood What?
By any estimate, Peter Parker has lived quite a life in his 16 years. He became a superhero, was mentored by Tony Stark, joined the Avengers, went to space and was blipped out of existence. In the process, he’s learned to shoulder incredible responsibilities as Spider-Man. Yet, Peter’s not completely sure that’s what he wants. He’s grieving the loss of his mentor Tony Stark, but more importantly, he doesn’t know how to proceed as Spider-Man without Stark's guidance. People keep asking Spider-Man if he’s the leader of the Avengers and looking to him for reassurance. Yet while Spider-Man looks powerful in his shiny suit, underneath it Peter is as uncertain as ever.
When it comes down to it, he really needs a break from being Spider-Man so he can be Peter Parker for a while. Unlike many of the other superheroes Spider-Man has fought alongside, including Captain America and Black Widow, Spider-Man is only one part of Peter Parker. Peter doesn’t yet see his role as a superhero as all-encompassing. He wants to help people because he can, but he also wants to travel to Europe with his friends and tell his crush he likes her.
So while Tony was a powerful force in his life, Peter’s friends and family help shape him too. That’s why in Far From Home, Peter runs his multi-point plan to woo MJ by Ned, why his first act with E.D.I.T.H. is to send a drone after his romantic rival and why he latches on to Mysterio as a possible replacement mentor so quickly. Like many teenagers, he’s easily influenced by others, and he’s trying different perspectives and approaches to life on for size. Peter doesn’t have it all figured out yet. And watching him struggle with that is part of what makes him a great character.
Adolescence Makes Everything Stranger
Unlike many of the people that surround Peter Parker, no one expects the kids from Stranger Things to be defined by their experiences with the Upside Down. In fact, the adults who know about it wish the kids could forget all about the weird happenings in Hawkins, Indiana. However, the kids are ready to step up when the Mind Flayer rears its head again in Season 3. This time, though, they have another concern that’s just as important: dating
Since Season 2, many of the show’s young teenage characters have coupled up. There’s Mike and Eleven, Lucas and Max, and Dustin and a girl from camp. Mike and El, in particular, are completely preoccupied by each other at the start of the Netflix show's newest season. And when El dumps Mike, it feels like the end of the world to him, just like it would to any teenager. In Mike’s mind, the break-up is as big a deal as the Mind Flayer.
Yet in Stranger Things, it’s El whose world expands the most. El started the series as an androgynous creature with little concept of gender or social norms. In the third season, Max initiates her into the world of shopping and fashion. For the first time, El realizes that she can express herself through her outward appearance and that there’s a difference between hanging out with Mike and hanging out with Max. Max even introduces her to comic books that star female superheroes, again pointing to the differences between girls and boys.
El’s fish-out-of-water status isn’t so different from most kids in their early teens though. In adolescence, our friends and peers shape our ideas about how to behave and what’s cool. And in Stranger Things 3, almost everyone from Lucas’ 10-year-old sister Erica to 18-year-old recent high school grad Steve is concerned with what’s cool for the simple reason that they all want to fit in and be accepted. Mike, El, and the gang are more grown than when the show started, but that doesn’t mean they’re grown up. A as adolescents, they’re still trying to figure it all out, and that’s a lot harder than figuring out how to defeat the Upside Down.
The Kids Are Alright
For those of us who are past adolescence, Stranger Things and Far From Home are a nice source of nostalgia. We remember the confusion and stress of adolescence — and the thrill of it too. Even more importantly, by making the struggles of adolescence an important part of their characters’ journeys, these properties show the teens in the audience that those struggles are part of their journey too.
Most teens desperately want to be seen as older and more sophisticated than they are. Stranger Things and Far From Home demonstrate that their teenage fans can appreciate where they are right now. As teenagers, they can take on some adult responsibilities and they can beat enormous odds even, but they can also ask the adults around them for help.
As Hopper’s note says at the end of Stranger Things 3, the teen characters in these properties will keep growing and changing, there’s no going back. Yet, there’s also nothing wrong with Peter Parker, El, Mike, and the others appreciating where they are right now. Stranger Things 3 and Far From Home are better and more authentic because they let their teen characters act their age.
Now in theaters, director Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home stars Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, JB Smoove, Jacob Batalon and Martin Starr, with Marisa Tomei and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Created by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Priah Ferguson, Cary Elwes, Jake Busey and Maya Thurman-Hawke.