In the first episode of Netflix’s Stranger Things, there’s a slip of an X-Men reference. It’s tiny, barely there.
"Race back to my place? Winner gets a comic," Dustin says, as he and Will speed home.
"Any comic?" Will says, before taking off into the darkness. "I’ll take your X-Men 134!"
That mention of a specific X-Men comic is the last thing Will says to his friend, and to the audience, before disappearing. And it’s not just a random comic book in Dustin’s collection.
Uncanny X-Men No. 134 is one of the most popular and significant issues in X-Men canon. It kicks off the most important X-Men story in Marvel history, and it contains the first appearance of one of the most destructive forces in the X-Men universe. And viewed through the lens of Stranger Things, it’s both a taste of what’s to come on the show and an homage to the X-Men character known as Jean Grey.
Spoilers follow for Stranger Things season one.
What happens in X-Men No. 134?
When comic book fans talk about the X-Men, there are usually two things that stand out: Magneto and the Phoenix Saga. Both are iconic. Both are crucial to the story of the X-Men. Both are about the idea of villainy, about our concept of evil and consequence. X-Men No. 134 focuses on one of these:
X-Men No. 134, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, was published in 1980 and marks the beginning of what’s known as the Dark Phoenix Saga.
An abridged version: The X-Man known as Jean Grey comes into contact with the cosmic force known as the Phoenix. The Phoenix is basically the LeBron James of psionic, cosmic forces; he gives Jean great power, and helps her repair a nexus of universes called the M’Kraan Crystal.
The Phoenix’s actions do not go unnoticed.
Bad dudes who belong to an organization known as the Hellfire Club abduct Jean Grey, and one of them — a guy named Mastermind who has the power to create illusions — uses his powers on Jean to tap into her potential (by basically making her live through strange aristocratic cosplay — comics are weird). The Hellfire Club wants to use her as a weapon.
After all this weird LARPing, Jean eventually breaks free from Mastermind’s control — but by that point, it’s far too late. He has awakened the entity known as Dark Phoenix, and everyone is shaken:
This is where Stranger Things fans should notice some similarities: X-Men 134 also features a young girl/woman who can move things with her mind; some bad men have lied to said girl and want to use her for nefarious purposes; and a monster has been awakened because the men tampered with her mind.
The connection between Stranger Things, the X-Men, and Jean Grey
In the final episode of Stranger Things season one, Eleven pins the monster against the wall. It’s a last resort. She and her friends are trapped, and Eleven goes into fight-or-flight mode. She taps into some carnal anger and drops every ounce of her powers on it. There’s a shot that looks just like the moment when Jean Grey unleashes on Mastermind at the end of X-Men No. 134.
After rereading the comic, I found myself rewatching earlier Stranger Things episodes in search of any other hints or clues. In the second episode, Eleven is intrigued by one of Mike’s trophies with a winged woman on it, and in the background there’s a lightning bolt-ish pattern:
This could totally be interpreted as a nod to the Phoenix.
However, before we (I) go too crazy combing through each frame of Stranger Things’ eight episodes with an eye for X-Men references, it’s important to keep in mind that while there are similarities between the two stories, they aren’t perfect parallels of each other.
The X-Men saga spins out into a tale of planetary destruction, punishment, and love. Stranger Things feels more intimate, more about childhood and the loss of it. The monsters are a bit different, too. The Phoenix uses Jean Grey as a host, while Stranger Things’ monster is more independent — it doesn’t seem to need Eleven to live or die.
What the two stories have in common, and what being an X-Men fan made me like about Stranger Things, is the story of Eleven learning how to be human. Her friendship with the boys, her love of frozen waffles, and her ultimate sacrifice are all elements of Jean Grey’s story, too.
Even Eleven’s death is similar to Jean’s.
In X-Men No. 137, toward the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix Saga, Jean realizes she’s responsible for the deaths of innocent people (in particular, the Phoenix obliterates a planet while using her as a host). Jean decides to kill the monster by sacrificing herself, because she knows that every minute she continues to live is a risk to innocent lives. She dies in front of her love, Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops:
When Eleven dies, it’s on a smaller, younger scale. Like Jean, she knows the monster she’s brought into this world won’t stop killing. She’s the only person who can stop it. So she has to kill it. She wants to protect her friends ... even if it means killing herself and breaking Mike’s heart (both Mike and Cyclops brace themselves and cover their eyes when Jean/Eleven die).
At the end of X-Men No. 137, Uatu the Watcher — a cosmic character in charge of watching our world — makes a keen observation. He tells us that Jean’s sacrifice (and, by extension, Eleven’s) is what makes us all human. Both characters could have moved on with their lives and started anew. But that would have meant abandoning the people who showed them love.
"Jean Grey could have lived to become a god," Uatu says. "But it was more important to her that she die … a human."
The same could be said of Eleven.
Jean Grey eventually comes back. Eleven has to, too, right?
At the end of their respective stories, Eleven and Jean Grey disintegrate. The only trace that remains of either of them is a crater and a cloud of ash.
Anyone who follows the X-Men will tell you that Jean Grey is never really dead. In her most recent rebirth, she came back as a teen. In the past, she came back after spending some time in a cocoon in the bottom of the ocean. There are only a few characters in comic books who stay dead, and Jean Grey is not one of them. The woman is literally connected to a cosmic force named after a creature whose magical power is rebirthing itself, over and over.
So does this mean Eleven will come back too? That’s why Hopper is leaving things in that box, right? If Eleven is Jean, then Eleven must be like the Phoenix?
What’s fascinating is that the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga actually doubles as a full-fledged X-Men introduction to Kitty Pryde (she appears in an earlier issue but joins the team in X-Men No. 138 and 139). It’s a hopeful, optimistic turn after several issues full of pain and sadness.
Introducing a Kitty-esque new character to Stranger Things could make a lot of sense in the show’s world — a new school year, a new girl, a new start. But that’s me getting ahead of myself.
Netflix has yet to officially renew Stranger Things for season two, but the show is practically guaranteed to return. And, yes, Hopper leaving the treats Eleven likes in that box in the woods is a signal that deep down, he believes she’s coming back. We’ll all be there, watching and waiting for her.