A review of the Hawkeye season finale, “So This Is Christmas?,” coming up just as soon as I call you from a Christmas tree…
When you add up the individual episode lengths, the Disney+ Marvel shows have each been roughly three times as long as an MCU movie. In theory, that allows each series to spend more time with the characters — many of them third-stringers who barely got anything to do in the films, some of them wholly new to the franchise — and to weave together more story threads than the non-Russo-directed movies have been comfortable handling. In practice, only half of that has been successful. The character work has for the most part been strong throughout this quartet of 2021 debuts, but the plot inevitably slips away from the grasp of the respective creative teams, resulting in finales that feel rushed or disappointing in various ways. WandaVision abandoned most of what had been interesting in favor of generic action, and abruptly forgave Wanda for her many sins. Loki was dealing with so many ideas that it had to devote most of its final hour to a brand-new character (albeit one smashingly played by Jonathan Majors) sitting at a desk and explaining it all to our heroes. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale pretty much got everything wrong.
The penultimate episode of Hawkeye left a whole lot for this finale to resolve — too much, it turns out. The core parts of the show — Kate becoming a superhero, Kate and Clint’s partnership, and the action of seeing two master archers ply their craft — were all effective here and often very fun. But most of the material involving supporting characters not named Yelena Belova — well, her plus the ensemble from Rogers: The Musical — was deeply underwhelming and at times head-scratching.
Much of the season was devoted to Clint facing comeuppance for his time as Ronin, with Maya wanting revenge for him killing her father, the Tracksuit Mafia wanting a Rolex tied to his past, and Clint and Laura being very worried about “the big guy” — revealed at the end of last week’s episode to be the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk — re-entering their lives. Very little of this winds up paying off.
Clint and Maya’s conversation last week is treated as the end of their shared story, with her choosing to blame Fisk and Kazi (who dies battling Maya) for William’s death, even if Clint was the one who delivered the killing blow. She doesn’t even interact with him in this finale(*). Fisk, meanwhile, doesn’t get any real kind of re-introduction to the MCU. If you didn’t watch Daredevil, he is just a mob boss who happens to be very large and played by Vincent D’Onofrio. He also never shares a scene with Clint, as his sole concern seems to be punishing Eleanor for her attempt to leave the organization. So we don’t know anything about Fisk and Clint’s shared history, nor why our man seemed so worried about attracting the Kingpin’s attention.
(*) She does, however, turn her sliding motorcycle into a weapon against Kazi and a few of the bros, in one of the finale’s cooler action beats.
D’Onofrio is commanding as ever in the role(*), but what a waste of him! There’s a fun fight scene where he uses his size and strength to fling the far smaller Kate around with ease. And D’Onofrio conveys the affection Fisk has for Maya, and his genuine regret that she has turned against him. Yet the episode ends with her apparently murdering him, only an episode after Kevin Feige and company rescued him from the wreckage of the Marvel-Netflix partnership. If this was all they brought him back for, why? More probably, though, his “death” isn’t what it seems, since director Rhys Thomas deliberately pans the camera up to the sky before Maya takes the shot. Maybe she just aimed high and told him to never bother her again? Maybe she shot him but his nearly superhuman bulk saved him, in the same way he was able to shrug off Kate firing an arrow into his midsection? Or maybe the scene is following the climax of Maya’s first comic-book arc, where she opted to hurt rather than kill him. But that would feel lame in its own way. Maya is getting her own spinoff series, titled Echo, and Fisk is an obvious candidate to be her nemesis there. If that’s the plan, showing us the rest of the scene — as the comic did — would have felt more interesting than implying a death that’s going to be quickly undone. And ultimately, it feels like Maya was here less a character essential to this story than someone in need of audience investment ahead of her own show(**).
(*) Also, Fisk and his operation seem much more low-rent than on Daredevil — though he’s also now been put in prison multiple times by Matt Murdock, so it’s possible he is still struggling to build himself back up again. But William Lopez was working for him when Maya was a little girl, and William wasn’t exactly raking in the dough. So it’s feasible that the Marvel Studios folks aren’t treating everything from the Netflix shows as gospel.
(**) The Netflix shows had many problems, but when Jessica Jones introduced Luke Cage in advance of him getting a separate series, it at least knew to treat him as an important part of both the plot and Jessica’s emotional journey, rather than a teaser trailer in human form.
And the watch? We only find out that it belonged to Laura Barton, and that she used to be a SHIELD agent like her husband. Why was it so important that the Tracksuit Mafia would explode their way into a black-market auction to steal that and not items of seemingly far greater value? It’s OK for suspense stories to have MacGuffins — Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an object that everyone is chasing, but that ultimately is meaningless — but Hawkeye didn’t exactly lack for other objects and events to drive its plot. If you’re going to treat the watch as a mystery, you need to solve that mystery in a way that explains everything that happened before. This didn’t.
On the Kate Bishop side of things, Vera Farmiga turned out to be even more wasted than D’Onofrio. We find out that Eleanor joined the Fisk organization to pay off the debts Derek accrued before he died during the Chitauri invasion. (In the premiere’s opening scene, we heard the spouses arguing about having to sell the penthouse due to financial troubles.) But the show is awfully vague about what kind of work Eleanor did to pay off said debt, whether Armand is the first man she killed for Fisk or one of many, what her insurance policy against Fisk is, or anything. Despite being in most of the episodes, Farmiga barely got anything to do, spending most of them pretending to be oblivious to what was happening, and here getting a fairly flat and unemotional scene where Eleanor tries and fails to explain her actions to Kate. Such a disappointment.
All that being said, large swaths of the finale were effective and entertaining, almost all of it involving Clint, Kate, and Yelena. The action was much improved from the season’s earlier nighttime fight scenes — it helps if there are bright Christmas lights everywhere — with Clint and Kate getting plenty of opportunities to shine, both alone and together. Kate manages to hold her own against Yelena, follows her down the side of a skyscraper, and fires arrows while sliding across the Rockefeller Center ice rink. While Fisk mostly smacks her around, she beats him by pulling off Chekhov’s Snap-Throw. And in a nice full-circle moment, she intentionally knocks down the famous Rockefeller Christmas tree after we were introduced to her accidentally knocking down her school’s famous clock and bell tower.
Clint, meanwhile, acquits himself well against wave after wave of bros, plus Kazi, and makes good use of lots of trick arrows. He doesn’t bother with fancy moves against Yelena, mainly because he cares less about beating her than simply talking to her about Natasha. Both Jeremy Renner and Florence Pugh are good at toggling between the comedy and drama of this world, and she convincingly transforms from the bantery girl-on-the-town who fought Kate in the building to the grieving, vengeful sister trying to murder Clint at the ice rink. The use of the sisters’ secret whistle from Black Widow was an effective way of snapping Yelena out of her rage, and her lament that he got so much more time with Natasha was a poignant note on which to end her arc for this season. Pugh is so charismatic and likable in the role — when Kate complains about the latter, Yelena quips, “I’m sorry. I can’t help it.” — that I look forward to what will hopefully be many, many, many future MCU appearances.
And Clint and Kate get some nice moments away from the fray, too. Clint matter-of-factly telling Kate that she’s his partner was maybe the best payoff of the whole season, to the point where his compliment (doubling as a joke about the surprisingly helpful LARPers) was almost redundant. The Barton family Christmas isn’t quite as emotional as it could have been, in part because it has to waste time not really explaining the Rolex, but it’s good to see Kate being treated as part of the family after she put her mother in prison. Pizza Dog finally gets a real name, Lucky (taken straight from the Fraction-Aja comic), and the season proper (give or take the midcredits musical number, which we’ll get back to in a moment) concludes with Kate workshopping a name for herself in her newfound role as a superhero. She pitches Lady Hawk and Hawk Shot, both of which Clint rightly dismisses. He is in the middle of telling her the right choice when the episode finishes his sentence with a hard cut to the end credits and the Hawkeye logo. Just as there is room in the MCU for multiple Black Widows, there can be room for two Hawkeyes.
Kate has earned the moniker, just as Hailee Steinfeld has, like Pugh, earned a prominent role in upcoming phases of this whole project. Whether that’s another season of this show (perhaps with Renner taking a step back, perhaps as another double-act), or a Young Avengers project that all of these shows have been teasing, we’ll see. But the primary goal of Hawkeye was to establish her as a new hero worthy of the Hawkeye name herself, and that mission was accomplished, regardless of how many secondary tasks this finale wound up fumbling.
We’re now at the end of the first year of the Marvel Studios era of TV. All of these shows have had something interesting to offer (even Falcon and the Winter Soldier had Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley), but each has suffered to varying degrees from the conflicting obligations of telling their own stories and servicing the needs of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don’t expect the overall approach to change with 2022 shows like Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, and Moon Knight. But hopefully some of them will be a bit more graceful with this difficult balancing act.
Some other thoughts:
* For the first time in any of these Disney+ shows, the midcredits scene isn’t used to set up material for a future show or movie, or even (as Loki did) to promise another season. Instead, we get a “Happy Holidays from Marvel Studios” greeting, followed by a full performance of “Save the City” from Rogers: The Musical, complete with the song’s award-winning co-writer, Marc Shaiman, enthusiastically conducting Adam Pascal and friends singing their hearts out. Given how many characters from other parts of the MCU had to be featured here, and how Marvel in general is starting to feel like homework a bit at this point, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t try to tease any new characters or stories. It’s nice to occasionally just let each adventure be its own thing. I found the entire song delightfully silly, but then, the “Star-Spangled Man With a Plan” montage from Captain America: The First Avenger remains one of my favorite sequences in any MCU film.
* For the non-comics fans among you, Jacques Duquesne was the alter ego of the Swordsman, a Marvel supervillain who mentored Clint Barton when Clint was a young carny in a traveling circus. Swordsman had a few brief stints in the Avengers, once as a double agent trying to take the team down from within, and then as a genuinely heroic character who died on a mission, then had his corpse possessed by a plant that married fellow Avenger Mantis. (Not one part of the previous sentence was invented by me.) Giving Jack basically the same name, and making him something of a swordsman himself (who handily takes out a bunch of Tracksuit bros), was nerd-bait (or nerd-bait-and-switch). But Tony Dalton was so much fun in the role that it’s hard to complain. He deserves at least four Emmys just for the scene where Jack childishly taunts the younger Armand about peeing his pants in the Hamptons.
* The Tracksuit Mafia was using an abandoned KB Toys as their headquarters earlier in the season, so it was nice to have some of the finale’s action spill over into the toy stores surrounding Rockefeller Center. In one of them, Kate gets to walk along a giant light-up piano like the one Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia danced on in Big.
* Another callback, to both an earlier episode and to Fraction-Aja: During the sequence where Clint and Kate manufacture a bunch of new trick arrows, she uses a label maker to keep track of which is which. Alas, they didn’t seem to make a boomerang arrow like Kate wanted.
* Wardrobes, from page to screen: The costume Missy makes for Clint closely resembles the one he’s worn in the comics for most of the last decade, while Kingpin wore a similar red Hawaiian shirt under his trademark white suit in the graphic novel Amazing Spider-Man: Family Business. (The walking stick is also a trademark of his from the comics.)
* It would have been amusing enough if Clint just had no idea how to re-enlarge the shrunken Trust a Bro van, and the bros inside it, without bringing them to Scott Lang later. But when the owl from the Christmas tree swooped down to scoop up the van and the poor, doomed, tiny bros? Now that’s some good comedy, people.
* Finally, Linda Cardellini shot most of her scenes this season separately from everyone else, presumably because she was busy with another project like Dead to Me. Her face and Jeremy Renner’s are in frame together a few times in the farmhouse reunion sequence, though, and if that’s digital magic at work, it’s more seamless than the infamous final Alicia-Kalinda scene on The Good Wife.