Stranger Things 2: The X-Men and Dark Phoenix Influences

We examine with heavy spoilers how much the X-Men, and specifically the Dark Phoenix Saga, influenced Stranger Things 2.

This article contains major Stranger Things 2 spoilers.

From seeing Winona Ryder go the full Ellen Burstyn in a room filled with useless doctors, a la The Exorcist, to viewing Paul Reiser once more send brave men to their alien-feasting deaths, Stranger Things 2 is stuffed to the brim with movie references and callbacks. Personal favorites include Ms. Ryder simply enjoying a second dance with Dracula and Sean Astin going the full Goonies on a treasure hunt. And yet, the subtlest (but somehow inescapably omnipresent) tip of the hat during the second season remained in the direction of a comic book. For Stranger Things has only heightened its fascination with the mutants who comprise Marvel’s ever Uncanny X-Men, especially if it’s a mutant named Jean Grey.

From the very beginning of Stranger Things’ journey, the superheroes who defend a world that hates and fears them have been bubbling beneath the surface of Hawkins, Indiana. Like the pesky Upside-Down itself, the shadow of mutanthood is always there. Will Byers’ fateful ride into horror and legend began in a race against Dustin for a coveted copy of X-Men #134, a 1980 comic book set in the midst of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Dark Phoenix Saga.” And that first hour likewise ended again with Dustin invoking the cherished issue’s name while searching for his lost friend. While there was no Will Byers to be found that night, there was a scared and lonely girl named Eleven. And she has been the heart of their very own Phoenix Saga ever since.

Indeed, much of Stranger Things 2 placed Millie Bobby Brown’s El on her own cloistered narrative voyage, one removed from most of the comings and monstrous goings in Hawkins. However, Ms. Brown’s little Firestarter was never sidelined during this sophomore effort. Instead hers was a season of maturity and dawning self-awareness. The girl with the telekinetic nosebleed had returned from the seeming grave (or ashes), all to have her own first flirtation with the dark side. It was, in short, a louder echo of Jean Grey’s comic book embrace of the Phoenix.

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Eleven’s journey in season 2 is about her realizing her own identity and independence from the friends and authority figures who have thus far dictated her sense of self, right down to her attire as either lab rat or doll, tomboy or surrogate daughter. For most of the first half of the season, Eleven is trapped inside of a cabin in the woods for her own protection. Since returning from the apparent dead, Police Chief Jim Hopper has known little about what to do with the super-powered being in a pint-sized body.

So he keeps her isolated—albeit not without just cause, as El’s temper tantrums are not nearly as adorable when she attempts to give “Mad Max” a concussion due to a bout of brattish jealousy. However, the young heroine soon strikes out on her own, finding first her mother and then her proverbial sister by way of Poltergeist telecommunications.

And it is upon meeting the latter in the season’s seventh episode, “The Lost Sister,” that one could argue Stranger Things 2 was at its strongest: Completely removed from the rest of the series, Eleven finally arrives to an understanding of herself by contrasting her identity against what she isn’t. Abandoning the soft Midwest charms of suburbia, El travels to Chicago and finds her half-forgotten sister Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) living in a decrepit but deliciously ‘80s warehouse that’s tagged with more graffiti than a pre-Giuliani NYC subway.

It is in these sequences where Stranger Things most leans into its X-Men influences. Somewhat older than Eleven, Kali takes on a mentoring role around the literally fresh-off-the-bus lass, preaching how their superpowers are marks of grand diversity that should be celebrated, not hidden away in a closet. Just as the X-Men have long been used as allegories for marginalized social groups and minorities on page and screen, the Indian-American Kali teaches the relatively sheltered Eleven that life as the “Other” in America can be hard, but it can also be free of shame or judgement.

She preaches “mutant and proud,” in essence, and instructs her how to use her powers. Whereas Eleven is telekinetic, Kali is psychic, and like Charles Xavier training Erik Lehnsherr to move a satellite with magnetism in X-Men: First Class, Kali relishes the sight of El moving an abandoned train car in Stranger Things 2. The Netflix series even directly borrows one of Xavier’s cooler tricks in that movie, wherein he blinds a group of Soviet soldiers to his and Magneto’s movements behind the Iron Curtain, just as how Kali casts a shield of invisibility around her, El, and the rest of her crew’s positions as the fuzz closes in during a police raid.

On the whole, the episode could have been set in the X-Men film universe, but its direct implications for Eleven’s emotional journey nearly beat-for-beat recreate the literary arc of Jean Grey transforming into Phoenix.

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In many ways, Jean Grey is an intentional mirror of El, at least in the broad strokes, and with “The Lost Sister,” the details are starting to take shape. Like Eleven, Jean Grey is host to an awesome power that borders on the horrific and supernatural. Also, depending on which comic book writer pens Jean’s “Phoenix Force” at any given time, the superheroine’s most destructive form is derived either from her own self or from a cosmic entity that has possessed her body, much like Will Byers going the full Linda Blair in Stranger Things 2.

Either way, Jean Grey is a mutant with strong telekinetic and psychic abilities who takes on a godlike aura when she reaches her full Phoenix potential. It is a prospect so intimidating that even her mentor and fellow psychic, Professor Charles Xavier, is cowed by it. Hence how after she first returns from a seeming death in space, he places her under quarantine and observation, much like Hopper pushing Eleven inside that damnable cabin. Also like El, Jean begins to eventually rebel… and it all starts with a trip to the big city.

In X-Men #130, Jean Grey joins fellow X-Men mutants on a reconnaissance mission to New York City. While not quite Chi-Town, the Big Apple was arguably in a greater state of urban decay following the 1970s than anything presented in Stranger Things 2’s Windy City. It also was the beginning of Jean’s cosmic Phoenix powers being tempted away from the narrow goodness of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. In a Manhattan nightclub, Jean Grey is lured by the unsavory appeal of the revelers, and for the first time falls under the spell of the combined influences of Emma Frost, the “White Queen” of the Hellfire Club, and Jason Wyngarde. It should also be noted that like Kali, Emma is a psychic who has the ability to create illusions inside the mind’s eye.

Sensing the seismic power of Jean Grey, Emma creates visions as mind-warping for Jean’s fragile state as Kali did when she showed Eleven a ghostly vision of “Papa.” But Stranger Things also does it more deftly. Whereas Emma and Wyngarde wish to manipulate Jean for the sake of her powers alone, Kali is trying to convince someone she genuinely likes that her methods are the best.

In several respects, Kali and Eleven also intone reverberations of the Charles-Magneto relationship that has been so thoroughly mined by the X-Men movies. Kali believes they should use their powers to seek vengeance and dominance over the men who wronged them while Eleven ultimately chooses to live with those whom Kali views as suspect. As a natural outcast due to society’s own dim limitations, Kali finds the rules of a policeman as dangerous as their shared Papa. Still, the way she and her group attempts to seduce and exploit Eleven to take advantage of the kid’s powers is nevertheless evocative of a punk rock version of the Hellfire Club.

Like Emma Frost and Jason Wyngarde, Kali uses her psychic abilities to prod Eleven to join their makeshift family as elite beings removed from society, as well as to commit violence. Kali, like Frost, preys on Eleven’s anger and jealousy (she thinks of Max with Mike, just as Jean became paranoid about her lover Cyclops being around a mutant named Dazzler). They even give Eleven a glam-punk makeover, which is reminiscent to Jean’s transformation as the Hellfire Club’s unfortunately dubbed “Black Queen.” Both involve all-black costuming and some pretty fabulous hair and makeup transitions. They even have Eleven embrace her original name as “Jane.” That too has a familiar ring to it.

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Jane, like Jean, is tempted to join a group that will let her embrace all the shadings of her personality and desires—but would use them to ignoble ends, including the murder of an unarmed man while his children cry in the next room. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” goes to much loopier and comic book places with the Hellfire Club attempting to have Jean kill her friends and mentor (perhaps that could be Stranger Things 3 when Kali comes to Hawkins and stares down Hopper?), and Jean ultimately goes the full Exorcist herself and becomes a threat to the entire cosmos. But that sense of awe-inspiring power is not far removed from the end of Stranger Things 2 when Jane closes the door to the Upside-Down while levitating and creating a fire effect that was so familiar that it was only missing the shape of bird in its flames.

So is Eleven / Jane also Phoenix / Jean? A little bit. Yet it should be considered that Eleven is a much more nuanced character who is not only experiencing a power trip that comes with the self-realization of adulthood and true independence, but she is also a fractured and layered child, one whose lifelong seclusion from life means the Duffer Brothers could go in any number of directions with the character. But just as the X-Men films are attempting a hopefully better stab at the Phoenix Saga with next year’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix film, one imagines that we have not seen the last of Jean’s haunted fire in Stranger Things. After all, Dustin and Will still argue over X-Men #134, and the Phoenix Saga didn’t conclude until X-Men #137… with Jean Grey’s sacrificial suicide.

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