In ‘Hawkeye,’ an also-ran Avenger becomes a mentor — eventually

by Glenn Weldon

(L-R): Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) in Marvel Studios’ LOKI, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Mary Cybulski. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

In the Marvel series Hawkeye, the stakes are low. Comfortably so. Cozily so, even.

The planet isn’t in peril (well, any more than baseline), and the multiverse doesn’t hover on the brink of extinction. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), the sad-sack Avenger, just wants to get home in time to celebrate Christmas with his family. 

The six-episode series (the first two episodes of which were screened for press), is small in scope, and self-contained, and the conflicts take place at ground-level. Nothing is dire, nor fraught with peril. The tone, as a result, is loose, amiable, downright chill.

Loosely based on a beloved run of comics written by Matt Fraction with art by David Aja, the series has Clint facing off against a gang of dim-bulb Russian gangsters he calls the Tracksuit Mafia. In the comics, Clint and young hero Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) share a long and complicated history. They team up because that’s just what Marvel heroes do. 

In the series, however, a great deal of work is required to set up their first meeting, and then it takes even more furious narrative labor to justify their continuing partnership; it’s here that the series’ laid-back vibe grows sweaty with effort.

We get a lot of information about Kate: We learn that she is an accomplished athlete, that she is very wealthy, that her mother (an underused Vera Farmiga) runs a security company — and if you think that last fact won’t come in handy once Kate needs to locate someone, you haven’t watched a TV show in the past decade. What we don’t get, however, is a clear motivation for her to assume the role of urban vigilante in the first place.

Steinfeld finds a way to lean into her characters’ entitlement without making herself insufferable. (At one point, her mother informs her that the young and the rich believe themselves immortal, “and you’ve always been both.”) What’s missing from the performance is any sense of the drive and determination required for a life of hero-ing. This may, of course, turn out to be the character’s narrative arc, over the course of this season — the evolution from privileged dabbler into dedicated crimefighter — but there’s little evidence of that kind of personal growth in the first two episodes, in which Kate’s habit of talking to herself seems like the kind of “cute” characterizing detail that’d be more at home on the Hallmark Channel.

Clint’s motivation, on the other hand, is crystal clear from the jump — guy just wants to get home. His storyline, however, goes weirdly lumpy pretty quickly, as his search for a missing superhero outfit(!) sends him through Manhattan alleys in the dead of night as well as through a gaggle of nerds in Central Park in the full light of day. And while all this is going on, Linda Cardellini, who plays his wife, fulfills her Marvel contract with several scenes’ worth of “Don’t worry, we’re fine, you go and do your hero thing,” phone calls to him.

The lighter side of Marvel

Despite its focus on street-level crimefighting, the world of the series is more bright and breezy than grim and gritty, made moreso by its Manhattan-at-Christmastime backdrop (see above, in re: Hallmark Channel).

The Tracksuit Mafia — lifted straight from the Fraction/Aja comics — makes for a not-particularly threatening villain, but then, they’re not meant to. Keep your eye on the oily Jack (Tony Dalton), who’s canoodling with Kate’s mom, and who will doubtlessly turn out to be the season’s true Big Bad.

For lovers of the comic, the series nails specific aspects — the ones that count. Clint’s demeanor, for one thing. Renner captures the character’s (literally) beaten-down quality, his willingness to assume the role of punching-bag, if it means protecting someone else. Clint spent so much time getting banged up in the comic that he sported bandages in every panel — that aspect gets a nice shout-out. The comic’s standout character — a one-eyed dog who loves pizza — is brought over to the small screen and is, by any reasonable measure, a good boy. 

Most importantly, the relationship between in Clint and Kate is faithfully rendered. The chemistry Renner and Steinfeld share is palpable, but — importantly — it’s not sexual in nature. For the story to work, their two characters need to meet at a place of mutual respect and understanding not clouded by desire, either requited or un-. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the banter between the two leads often — too often — felt forced and leaden; here it moves at a fast clip.

Hawkeye isn’t the most formally innovative of Marvel’s TV slate (that’d be Wandavision), or the weirdest (Loki) or the most imaginative (What If …?). But it’s smart enough to use its small-fish-in-a-big-pond energy to tell its modest, breezy story without apologizing for it.

It’s true that in the first two episodes, most of that energy is spent maneuvering the characters into position. But here’s hoping that business is finally done, and the rest of the season will allow them, finally, to break into a run.