Hawkeye today became the latest Disney+ entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’ll be recapping it for the next five weeks, starting with spoilers for the two-part series premiere, coming up just as soon as I have monogrammed butterscotch…
“Your whole thing is that you’re low-key,” Kate Bishop tells Clint Barton midway through the second episode of Hawkeye. “It’s a very hard brand to sell.”
This has been Clint’s burden throughout a long fictional life going back to his days as a third-rate Iron Man villain in the mid-Sixties. In a world full of men and women with uncanny powers and fantastic origins, Clint is a guy with a bow and arrow. On paper, he should be the lamest Avenger of them all — a walking punchline like Aquaman used to be for the DC universe, and at least Aquaman is superstrong and can breathe underwater. Yet Clint has spent more time on the active comic-book Avengers roster than all but a handful of characters, and he was also one of the choices to be part of the team’s original MCU lineup. (That said, he spent a good chunk of The Avengers as a brainwashed flunky for Loki, as if the creative team didn’t really know what to do with a master archer in a story about Norse gods and alien invaders.) He’s assumed various personas and identities over the years in the comics, from a hothead always questioning Captain America’s leadership to the founding leader of the Avengers’ West Coast spinoff team, a guy with trick arrows to the size-changing Goliath. He even briefly died — at which point a wealthy, athletic teenager named Kate Bishop assumed the Hawkeye mantle — and when he returned to life adopted the ninja costume of the Ronin for a hot minute.
There had been good Hawkeye stories and awful ones (the less said about the reason his marriage to teammate Mockingbird fell apart, the better), but it wasn’t until a 2012 Hawkeye solo comic by writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja that Clint truly came into his own. Fraction turned Clint’s regular-guy status into a feature rather than a bug, generating ample comedy, suspense, and thrills from the idea of Hawkeye constantly being in way over his head. That Fraction-Aja run also quickly turned itself into a double act, with both Clint and Kate as mismatched buddies, perpetually on the run from a gang of tracksuit-wearing gangsters who use “bro” as verbal punctuation, and taking care of a pizza-loving golden retriever. Sound familiar?
It is one of the most entertaining and influential comic book runs of the 21st century. And if it’s not an exact model for what the Hawkeye creative team — including writer Jonathan Igla, who wrote the first episode, and director Rhys Thomas, who helmed both of this week’s episodes — have done, that’s because the Clint played by Jeremy Renner is a bit different from his print counterpart, and because Kate has to be introduced in the live-action form of Hailee Steinfeld. But enough of the ramshackle spirit of that comic is present in these episodes to make it an appealingly shaggy start to this holiday adventure. Even if it’s one that for the moment feels much more like a Kate Bishop story than a Clint Barton one.
We open with Kate as a girl living in a lavish Manhattan penthouse apartment in 2012. Given the limited number of MCU stories there are to reference, any trip back to New York in that year inevitably means the Chitauri invasion from The Avengers is about to happen. Sure enough, those nasty (if generic) aliens are soon flitting through the skies around Kate’s home, giving Kate her first glimpse of her new favorite superhero. In Avengers, Hawkeye’s role in the battle is a pretty minor one. But to a girl in direct line of sight of him on that rooftop — and whose life is saved by one of Clint’s perfectly-aimed arrows — he is of course the coolest thing she’s ever seen. And because Kate soon discovers that her beloved father Derek (Brian D’Arcy James in what was hopefully a well-paid cameo) died when a Chitauri strike hit their apartment, Clint will eventually become not just a hero for her to model herself after, but an imagined surrogate father figure.
This season is very much Kate’s origin story. The movies never bothered to do the same for Clint, but a college student in her late teens battling evil probably needs more backstory than the middle-aged guy introduced as a veteran spy and master marksman. It also already feels like a passing of the torch, where Steinfeld gets to be the ongoing Hawkeye in the MCU while Renner either gets to retire from the role or just show up on special occasions. And because the MCU version of Clint was established in Avengers: Age of Ultron as a responsible family man, the show winds up being something of a role reversal from the comics. Here, it’s Kate who’s constantly screwing up while Clint is the stable one rolling his eyes at her. Kate even gets to say a variation of Clint’s “OK, this looks bad” catchphrase from the comic when she gets caught by a security guard after accidentally destroying her campus’ historic clock and bell tower with an arrow shot that was a bit too on the mark.
Once Kate’s back in New York for holiday break, we see that she remains distant from her mother Eleanor (Vera Farmiga, coming off of The Many Saints of Newark) and really doesn’t trust Eleanor’s fiancé Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton from Better Call Saul). Eleanor insists Kate join them for a charity gala. Kate shows up, but in a slightly rebellious move is wearing a tuxedo rather than the red dress Eleanor wanted her to wear. The outfit has the benefit of making it easier for Kate to pose as a cater waiter while stalking the sketchy Jack and his uncle Armand, both of whom wind up in the party’s wine cellar for an illicit auction of black market items like a dinosaur skull and the Ronin suit and sword Clint used in Avengers: Endgame. (Hey, if the Vulture could scavenge the wreckage of Avengers battles for gear in Spider Man: Homecoming, it stands to reason that the MCU’s one percent would eventually start trying to collect the stuff as private status symbols.)
When the Tracksuit Mafia explodes their way into the auction to steal a watch of some mysterious import, it gives Jack an opportunity to walk off with the Ronin sword, and Kate an opportunity to slip on the ninja suit itself and get into her first unofficial fight as a superhero. The action here, and throughout these two episodes, is something of a mixed bag — and thus a bit disappointing, given that this is a show about two unpowered heroes who have to get by entirely on their physical skills. There are some cool bits of business at various points, like Clint catching the Molotov cocktail and hurling it back in the second hour. But most of the action scenes take place in dark lighting conditions and under chaotic visual circumstances, like the red fire alarm in the wine cellar, and they’re edited too harshly for us to always appreciate what Kate and/or Clint are doing(*). And since Kate spends several of these fight scenes wearing a hood and mask, there’s no reason not to take the Daredevil approach and let Steinfeld’s stunt double go wild for a few minutes.
(*) In fairness, I’m writing this recap off of screeners of the first two episodes, both of which featured my email address plastered across the center of the screen throughout. So it’s possible some of this — say, Kate making an impressive arrow shot when the Tracksuit Mafia shows up at her apartment — looks cooler if that watermark’s not obscuring the action.
In fact, the most visually impressive set piece of either episode only involves simulated, stylized action, as Clint and his kids are in town to see Rogers: The Musical, a Broadway tribute to the original Captain America. The whole sequence is a delight. Between the songs (an inspirational number called “I Can Do This All Day”), the deliberately primitive costumes (Hulk is played by a guy in a green hoodie plus green face paint), and the details they get wrong (as a piqued Clint notes, Ant-Man wasn’t there for the first battle with the Chitauri), it feels exactly like the kind of theatrical production that would be created in a world where superheroes existed. Getting a glimpse of the musical’s Black Widow triggers new waves of guilt in Clint, who is only around to be with his kids because she sacrificed herself for him in Endgame. But for the most part, he seems very happy and at peace to be arranging a lavish Barton family Christmas after five years spent believing he’d never see them again.
Seeing footage of someone in the Ronin suit on the news inspires him to find Kate, and then pack the kids off to the airport to reunite with their mom while he deals with the mess created by his inadvertent new protégé. With Lila and her brothers out of the picture, he starts reluctantly treating Kate in a paternal fashion. (This is an improvement, frankly, on the comic, which occasionally suggested sexual tension between Clint and Kate despite their age gap being at least as big as that between Renner, who is 50, and Steinfeld, who’s a couple weeks shy of 25.) He doesn’t want to show her the superhero ropes, but it becomes clear in a hurry that he’s stuck with this young woman at least for the duration of whatever is happening.
Jeremy Renner is an actor who tends to be most interesting when he’s mixing some humor in with his innately brooding nature. (This is one of several reasons I prefer Hawkeye so far to Renner’s other streaming series of the fall.) He’s more the straight man to Steinfeld in this one so far, but responding to her gangly energy in ways that are dryly amusing in their own right. And the second episode sends him off for a solo mission to reclaim the Ronin suit, which requires him to enter the world of LARPing and publicly lose a fight to the fireman wearing the costume. Renner is entertainingly exasperated throughout these episodes, but especially during that slow-motion parody of MCU fight scenes where Clint takes the dive.
But the spotlight is brighter throughout on Steinfeld. As has been obvious in so many of her roles, from True Grit to her current stint on Apple’s Dickinson, she’s a really gifted comic actor. Her end of the story is loaded down with exposition about Kate’s backstory, her relationships with Eleanor and Jack and everyone else. And Kate keeps screwing up left and right, including her literally crashing in on Clint and the tracksuit mob in the closing minutes of the second episode. Yet she is endearingly goofy throughout. Even more than Renner, she sets the tone for what Hawkeye is trying to do, and that it’s mostly succeeding at so far. A promising start to the endeavor, even if I’m hoping for both more vivid action and more of the pizza dog down the road. This show is more low-key than Loki, but that’s part of its charm.
Some other thoughts:
* As with the introduction of John Walker at the end of the Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiere, I’ll save comment on the mysterious woman leading the Tracksuit Mafia until she gets more to do on the show. But the character’s name is Maya Lopez if you want to do some preliminary Googling, and she’s played by newcomer Alaqua Cox.
* In the comics, Clint deliberately wrecks his hearing to defeat a supervillain at the end of his self-titled 1983 miniseries. Over the years, some writers have remembered that he wears hearing aids, while others have ignored it, and there’s a great issue of the Fraction-Aja series where Clint is mostly communicating via ASL. Here, Kate asks what happened to his hearing, which prompts a montage of many, many, many MCU moments that could have rendered any man at least partially deaf.
* Linda Cardellini’s not in these episodes very much, but it’s nice to see that Clint’s wife Laura is still written as someone who is completely understanding and supportive of her husband’s superheroics, rather than constantly fretting and nagging him to retire for the sake of her and the kids. It’s a rarity in the genre, and you would basically have to have a mindset like Laura’s for such a marriage to survive.
* MCU privilege: Over on Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson can’t get a small business loan despite helping to defeat Thanos, while Clint’s family gets their dinner comped because the restaurant’s owner remembers his role in saving New York.
* One of Kate’s college friends is named Greer, which is maybe a nod to Clint’s West Coast Avengers teammate Tigra (a.k.a. Greer Nelson). Definitely a nod: The LARPing firefighter calls himself Grills, which is the nickname Clint gives to one of his neighbors in the Fraction comic.
* Of course there would be “Thanos was right” graffiti sprinkled throughout the MCU, as Clint sees when he takes a bathroom break during Rogers: The Musical.
* Finally, in the comic, the gangsters are referred to by Clint as “Tracksuit Draculas,” which is a funnier name than Tracksuit Mafia. Maybe the TV team felt it would be too confusing?