TV: Hawkeye

Two versions of me watched Hawkeye. One was the version who had faithfully followed the MCU with geeky enthusiasm since its early days, even as the glut of content grew increasingly repetitive and bludgeoning. The other was my twelve-year-old self, who got hooked on The Avengers books and—for reasons not initially discernible—immediately settled on Hawkeye as his favorite character. I suspected one version or the other would ultimately shape my reaction to Disney’s Hawkeye—my wide-eyed early self, amazed that an obscure favorite had finally been centered in a live-action MCU story, or the cynical, new me deadened by franchise fatigue. It’s with real delight, then, that I can report the series totally satisfied both versions, pushing my nostalgia buttons on the one hand and slicing through my skepticism on the other.

So, why the hell is Hawkeye—which is to say, Clint Barton—my favorite Avenger? I’ve thought about that a lot since he first popped into the MCU back in Thor. Initially, the draw was surely that he was a brash, outspoken wiseass, which spoke powerfully to me as a teenager growing up in the shadow of David Letterman. He also ticks the box of my long-time fascination with oddball supporting characters. (I mean, my favorite Star Wars character is Chewbacca, for Christ’s sakes.) If there was ever a dedicated supporting character in the Avengers books, it was Hawkeye, an unlikely contrast to the more conventional heroism of folks like Captain America, Iron Man, and the Wasp. He also had terrible luck, which probably resonated with the Buffalo sports fan in me. But in the end, I think it was the fact that he was just a normal guy in a wacky purple suit, throwing himself into harm’s way in the company of gods and geniuses and mutants and aliens, getting through each adventure sheerly on skill, guts, and stubbornness—while frequently getting the crap kicked out of him. He spoke to the competence-porn rhythms of my Mission: Impossible addiction, the never-give-upness of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. And while he occasionally got a chance in the spotlight—Mark Gruenwald’s first limited series, for example, and building the West Coast Avengers—he was always ultimately overshadowed by more powerful, more popular heroes, which made him a relatable underdog.

In light of all this, the MCU’s Hawkeye never quite fully matched my hopes for the character. Jeremy Renner has always been good casting for Clint Barton, but it always seemed a mistep to me that Joss Whedon based the MCU Hawkeye on the version of him from The Ultimates, an alternate-world Hawkeye: soldierly, conservative, married with a family. Even so, I found the scene where he dukes it out with Black Widow on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier spinetingling, and his exhausted heroism and mentorship of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in the much-maligned Age of Ultron was a highlight of that film, bringing back the hangdog, just-keep-going vibe Hawkeye always elicited.  Matt Fraction and David Aja absolutely nailed that sensibility in their brilliant run on the Hawkeye books nearly a decade ago, which only deepened my enthusiasm for the character, but it took a while to effectively manifest in the MCU.

Needless to say, I came to Hawkeye with both heavy baggage and hopeful expectations, which I was careful to mitigate in light of my general disappointment with most of Disney+’s 2021 releases. I really wanted this one to work, and half expected it not to, but thankfully I was wrong about that.

The initial protagonist of Hawkeye is Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), co-protagonist of the brilliant Fraction/Aja series. In this MCU version, Kate witnessed the Battle of New York as a child from her damaged, posh Manhattan apartment, marveling at the bravery and skill of Hawkeye (Renner) as he battled aliens from a rooftop with nothing more than a bow and arrow. Subsequently, Kate grows up to be an amazing archer and martial artist in her own right, which comes in handy at a charity event sponsored by her wealthy mother Eleanor (Vera Farmiga). There, Kate stumbles into a black-market auction of artifacts stolen from the ruins of the Avenger Compound. When an army of tracksuit-wearing goons explodes onto the scene to steal the items, Kate is shocked to see her mother’s shifty fiancé Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton) steal the sword of the Ronin—a relic of Hawkeye’s dark, post-Snap past, when Clint assumed a new identity and went on a killing spree targeting organized crime. Kate herself makes off with Ronin’s suit, and accidentally ends up in news footage after donning it, sparking media hype about Ronin’s return. In the city for the holidays with his children, Clint sees the footage, alarmed that his dark past has reared its ugly head. He sets out to recover the gear and lay the rumors of Ronin’s return to rest. This leads him to Kate, whose enthusiastic hero worship he finds deeply discomfiting, given his dubious track record. But the two of them forge a quirky partnership, working together to take on an organized crime outfit in the city. It’s an adventure that forces Clint to cope with the skeletons in his closet and the traumas of his past, while also preparing Kate for the challenges and costs of her chosen path.

Initially, Hawkeye very much feels like a Disney+ MCU show: fun, padded, occasionally amusing, slow to build. The main thing sustaining it in the first two episodes are the many nods and winks to the Fraction/Aja series: the stylized art of the credit sequence, the tracksuit mafia, Pizza Dog, and of course Kate Bishop. Steinfeld is an absolute delight in this role; if Renner’s Clint has always felt just a smidge off from the books, Steinfeld’s Kate is perfection. But the story itself, focusing largely on the lamentable Ronin subplot, didn’t do much for me at first, and the show didn’t seem to be making the most of its talented new cast members.

But it turns the corner in episodes three through six, which may be some of the most perfectly clocked episodes in the Disney+ MCU so far. The first major Clint/Kate team-up action sequences occur here, making for energetic, funny, and well realized depictions of their skills and combat techniques. As usual, there’s an escalation of cliffhanger character appearances that complicate the plot, including newcomer Alaqua Cox as Echo, and Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova, returning from her film-stealing appearance in Black Widow. Both contribute greatly to an improved cast dynamic, especially Pugh, who is absolutely magnetic as Yelena yet again, especially in her scenes with Steinfeld. Characters underserved by the early episodes, like Eleanor Bishop and Jack Duquesne, gain depth down the home stretch; indeed, Dalton’s Duquesne ramps into something quite delightful by the end, his MCU-reengineered Swordsman an amusing mutation of one of Marvel’s iffier characters. Even Linda Cardellini, long wasted by the franchise as Clint’s stay-at-home wife Laura, is well served and given some much-needed, intriguing backstory.

But really what I loved best about Hawkeye was Clint’s mentorship of Kate. Their partnership, once it finally coalesces in earnest, is absolutely winning. Clint, teaching Kate how to dress the wounds she will inevitably receive in the field; Kate, helping Clint speak to his son on the phone after his hearing aid breaks; their arguments over trick arrows; the way Kate’s hero worship butts up against Clint’s guilt over past deeds. Marvel properties tend so often to devolve into flashy spectacle that they lose sight of the people, but Hawkeye—despite its large scope and cluttered roster—isn’t afraid to be a small story. This makes for one of the most coherent final acts in a Marvel show ever, each action scene and battle filled with important character moments. Everyone does well by the material, especially Pugh and Steinfeld, who really ought to be next-gen Avengers, if not buddy-cop partners. There aren’t a lot of MCU shows I’ll feel the need to re-watch, but Hawkeye is surely one of them. I truly hope Marvel learns from it that personal stakes can be just as engrossing as end-of-the-world threats, if not more so. Somehow, improbably, Hawkeye warmed my jaded heart just in time for Christmas.

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