Hawkeye/ Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) has always been the quietest of the Avengers, along with his best friend Black Widow/ Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame so Clint could live. While Natasha’s family was made up of the Avengers themselves, Clint had a family of his own: wife Laura (Linda Cardellini) and three kids; Lila, Cooper, and Nathaniel (Ava Russo, Ben Sakamoto, and Cade Woodward, respectively). But after he lost all of them in the Snap — that’s what Thanos did in Avengers: Infinity War — for five years he took “his pain and rage and sadness out on every bad guy on the planet,” as Renner said in a production diary for the series. It’s barely addressed in Endgame, as the three-hour film had a lot on its mind, but this is now fertile ground for Hawkeye’s own TV series.
After all, most superheroes including Hawkeye operate with self-imposed rules. Not everyone is as extreme as Batman about it, but they generally try to prevent loss of life unless it’s the only route left to save themselves or someone else. But when Clint transformed into the sword-wielding death-dealing Ronin for five years, he went far beyond that. “Clint went full-on vigilante. Justified or not, it’s a giant weight on him because he knew he was going outside the moral code of what he is,” Renner added.
However, there isn’t much of Hawkeye confronting the ugly legacy of Ronin in the first two episodes of Hawkeye. It’s a lot more light-hearted, fitting its holiday (Christmas-y) spirit. The six-episode Marvel series — created by Jonathan Igla (Mad Men, Bridgerton) — begins Wednesday, November 24 on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar. Disney provided critics access to one-third of the series, or what amounts to the first act of a movie, as with the Tom Hiddleston-led Loki, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier with Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan. This review cannot speak to the remaining four episodes, and how they handle the Ronin trauma side of things.
But Hawkeye isn’t Hawkeye at all in the first two episodes — though I imagine that will change sooner or later, given what we have seen in Hawkeye trailers and photos. He’s not an Avenger anymore, if “Avengers” are still a thing these days. After all, not only is Nat gone, but so are Tony Stark/ Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers/ Captain America (Chris Evans). That’s half the OG gang. He’s like a detective at times, who’s really just exhausted and all he wants is to spend time with his family. So when a rich white girl exhumes the corpse of his Ronin past, Hawkeye just wants to put an end to it as soon as possible, so he can get back to the one thing he truly cares about: family. (I’m saying “family” a lot, I know.)
In that sense, Hawkeye the series is like Renner in real life. The 50-year-old California native has never hidden his disinterest in going up the Hollywood ladder. Renner has always prioritised his (real) family over work — his on-screen persona could probably learn a thing or two — even going so far to tell Marvel that they could recast his role if his schedule didn’t work for them.
There are morsels of family time stuffed in the first two Hawkeye episodes that find Clint and his three kids in pre-Christmas New York City, seeing a Broadway play titled Rogers: The Musical. In case you missed the Hawkeye trailer, yes, that’s a stage musical celebrating the late Steve Rogers. Hawkeye shows us a musical recreation of how the Avengers came to the rescue during the 2012 Chitauri invasion of New York City. It’s goofy and funny — which is the kind of spirit that Hawkeye seems to aim for, juxtaposing the all-serious-and-mean-business Clint Barton with the hilarious situations he finds himself in. Elsewhere, Hawkeye takes us into New York’s LARP scene (that’s live-action role-play), and a villain is offended after their real-estate choices are criticised.
But Clint’s family time is cut short after that aforementioned rich white girl Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld, from Apple TV+’s Dickinson) gets in over her head. Kate is a 22-year-old expert archer who took up the bow and arrow because Hawkeye was her hero and inspiration*. So far, so good. But as daughter to Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga, from The Conjuring) who owns a prestige security firm and spends her time attending charity galas, Kate comes from an extreme place of privilege. She’s young, she’s rich, and she loves inviting trouble. Soon after getting a slap on the wrist for showing off her archery skills at university, Kate arrives back home in New York, where she comes into possession of the Ronin costume. Clint made a lot of enemies as Ronin, so naturally they’re coming for Kate now.
* Marvel is making a trend of this as its on-screen mythology deepens. Next year, we have the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, which is also about a huge Marvel fan. In that case, it’s Captain Marvel (Brie Larson).
This put Clint and Kate on a collision path — and the two couldn’t feel more different about it. As a huge fan, Kate looks up to Hawkeye, can be very pushy, and is eager to learn. But Clint has no inclination to teach. All he wants is to return to his family. There’s six days left to Christmas, after all, and Clint isn’t going to miss any more Christmases with his loved ones. This results in some quietly hilarious moments. Minutes after he saves her the first time, Kate asks Clint to sign her bow. Told to stay away, Kate does the opposite, crashing a solo plan that Clint had devised.
But these moments are few and far between. There’s a lot of exposition involved in setting up Kate, her family, and the extended circle — and none of it is very interesting. Kate is witty and that helps Hawkeye. But it’s not easy to connect to a privileged kid who seems to have little to lose. There isn’t much struggle in her life, and all she seems to do is create trouble for herself and others. Steinfeld is a really good actress, Hawkeye ought to be making more of her. The same could be said of virtually everyone else on her side. Farmiga is stuck playing a rich-society mother who wants to protect her daughter and wants the best for her, though she comes across as off-handed at times. Tony Dalton, excellent in Better Call Saul, brings a slightly toned-down deviousness to Jack Duquesne (Eleanor’s beau who has a contentious relationship with Kate), but it’s not enough for him.
The big problem with Hawkeye seems to be that there just isn’t enough going on. It’s not very exciting in the first two episodes — and it borders on humdrum at times. You would expect this to get naturally solved as the story picks up and we push deeper into the series, but it’s not a promising start at all. Saturday Night Live alum and Hawkeye director Rhys Thomas doesn’t bring anything special — one could argue he doesn’t have something wacky or bizarre to work with, as Matt Shakman (WandaVision) or Kate Herron (Loki) did — but I’m waiting to see what Bert & Bertie (Troop Zero) do with Hawkeye. (The first two episodes are both Thomas.) Usually how it works with TV shows is that the pilot director sets the tone for everyone else. Still, I’m cautiously hopeful.
The new Marvel series is clever and fitting in some ways. Hawkeye’s presence in the Avengers has been mocked at times. “We have a god, a super soldier, a billionaire flying in an exo-suit, and a scientist who can transform into a beast. And then we have a guy with a bow and arrow? LOL what?!” So it’s appropriate that Hawkeye is a small-scale street-level series. (Though you have to admit, Hawkeye has handled bigger fish, from Loki and the Chitauri, to helping take down Ultron. He chose family — there’s that word again — over fighting Thanos.) Hawkeye also pushes Clint into uncomfortable territory, which makes for good TV. He’s saved the day a hundred times, but mentoring the next (privileged) generation seems like the last thing that he would opt for.
But Hawkeye is definitely more The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, than say Loki or WandaVision. It struggles to justify why it exists — beyond the fact that it’s really about passing the baton from Clint to Kate. It’s really just a (Marvel Cinematic Universe) business transaction, and in trying to be a wholesome family series for the holidays, Hawkeye ends up playing it very safe.
Deep into Hawkeye episode 2, Kate notes that Hawkeye lacks branding. Clint protests that he is not trying to sell anything. “That’s your problem,” Kate says, “you’re too low-key. People want sincerity.” Clint tries to dodge the inquisition by jumping back on his go-to answer (“I’m not trying to sell anything”) but Kate doesn’t let go. “But you are, you’re selling inspiration,” Kate tells him.
And like the title character, Hawkeye has the same issue: it lacks branding. Sure, Disney might know how to sell it, but the TV series doesn’t know what it’s about. At least not yet.
Hawkeye premieres Wednesday, November 24 on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar with two episodes. One new episode will air every Wednesday around 1:30pm IST/ 12am PT until December 22.