At the time I’m writing this, I’ve only seen the first three episodes of the Hawkeye series. The third episode was a relief, because that’s where it all starts to come together. For the first two, I spent most of the running time wondering why I wasn’t enjoying it more.
In theory, this should totally be my thing. It’s the Disney/MCU behemoth pouring its resources into a light-hearted comedy/action series, largely based on a beloved comics storyline1Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years, starring one of the most charismatic actors working today — who totally should’ve won the Oscar for True Grit, because her performance in that role is still astounding. For someone like me, who’s a fan of almost everything the MCU has put out on Disney+ so far, it seems like the only thing working against it is that it features the Least Interesting Avenger. But not only do they work that idea into the storyline and the gags, but they already set a precedent with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I had less than zero interest in that series, but it ended up winning me over.
But so much of it feels like it should be charming and exciting to me, but it just keeps bouncing off. I’m also getting this weird, vague undercurrent throughout that it’s somehow already taken for granted that people are going to love it. Look at this, beautiful people and intrigue and fight scenes and the occasional explosion, it seems to say, of course you like it. What’s wrong with you? We even put in a bit of self-deprecating musical theater to show how much we’re in on the joke.
I’m not sure how much I was pre-disposed to dislike it after getting the impression that the creators of the My Life as a Weapon comic weren’t compensated or sufficiently credited by Disney, even though the entire graphic design and many of the characters come straight from that comic. But I saw that Matt Fraction is credited as a “consulting producer,” and he and David Aja are in the credits under “special thanks,” and I don’t know enough about the business to know whether any of that has financial compensation. Not knowing the business, I’ll try to keep from forming an opinion on topics where I’m completely ignorant. But on the whole, it does seem like Disney tries awful hard to hold onto money that would be insignificant to the company but huge to the artists helping them build a library of stuff to sell.
To its credit, it’s made Clint Barton’s Hawkeye the most interesting version he’s ever been. It’s tough to build a series around a character whose whole thing is that he doesn’t want to be there, especially when the character is supposed to be more world-weary and less yipee-ki-yay than John McLain in Die Hard.
And I don’t think that’s a knock on Jeremy Renner, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for making a thankless role feel like a real person. Because this series gives him more to do and say — and in the proper scale, instead of burying it in the midst of the destruction of the universe — it makes his understated (and frankly, often energy-draining) performance make sense. He’s got much of Black Widow’s baggage but has even less desire to be a “poser.” It’s more an obligation than a call to glory. Plus, here he’s given more of a chance to be dryly funny and flippant.
Which is a good example of how I’ve been weirdly frustrated by the series. In one episode, he has to go to a LARPing event, and he ends up having to participate against his will. The premise itself is just, honestly, lazy writing: based on the tired old haha lookit the funny nerds who take it too far unlike our perfectly mature and healthy decades-long devotion to super heroes. (It’s the attitude of the first X-Men movie, and its pointed sneer at yellow spandex costumes instead of the obviously much more mature and realistic adults walking around in full-body skin-tight black costumes). But to the show’s credit, it takes the lame premise and turns it into a believably endearing moment. Clint isn’t won over by the experience or anything — which would be unrealistic — but he ends up being pretty good-natured and patient about the whole thing. It feels like an action-comedy setup that is being played not as an action-comedy, but as the character would genuinely react to it. That makes it more believable and a lot more endearing, but also kind of inert.
(Also at the beginning of the scene, one of the LARPers offers him a helmet with attached wig to wear, but he refuses. As if he’s too cool for that, although come on. Everybody in the world saw you with that haircut).
It seems like this version of Clint Barton is just doomed to be kind of dull, because of a decade-long series of choices that were probably the right ones at the time. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the Hawkeye-just-wants-to-get-home-for-Christmas storyline isn’t really the focus of the series; it’s just a framing device for Kate Bishop’s insertion into the next phase of the MCU.
Often it feels like the show is just coasting on Hailee Steinfeld’s charisma, but that’s not so bad since she’s got tons to spare. It’s interesting seeing her and Renner play off of each other, since they seem to be coming from the same place but with different priorities. Both actors get the whole MCU concept, which is “realistic,” relatable characters grounding fantastic situations and acting as both super-heroes and audience surrogates. But I get a sense that Renner is playing it in terms of “who is Clint Barton in this situation?” while Steinfeld is more focused on “who is the protagonist of this MCU action comedy?” I don’t think either approach is wrong, and it actually helps their dynamic, in that she’s eager to break into the super-hero world, while he’s hoping to be free of it.
I also like this version of the Kate Bishop character, even though she’s frequently in circular conversations with her mother and with Clint, sometimes feeling like she’s going from scene to scene because the plot demands it. It’s great that they’ve established that she’s rich and essentially good at everything, but is far from flawless. It feels like a rejection of the Strong Female Character trap that the comics and movies too often fall into.
I think Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Tony Stark helped hide the fact that the character was pretty two-dimensional: his arrogance and over-confidence was the one note played over and over again in the stories, but his performance showed how someone that obnoxious could still be endearing and relatable. I think this version of Kate Bishop could be a more nuanced take on a similar idea: her over-confidence comes not just from arrogance, but from feeling invulnerable. This is the source of some of the best-written scenes in the series so far, with her mother saying pretty much this explicitly, and later with Barton and Bishop on a subway train talking over each other, since he can’t hear her.
So far, it seems like a character-driven series in the guise of a plot-driven one, with talented actors doing their best to make their characters seem real and believable. I do often feel like it’s aiming for 80% while I want it to be at 100%, but then it has a chase scene with all kinds of trick arrows (including the USB arrow!) culminating in a double-shot that creates a giant arrow that impales a truck. Which, I mean, is objectively rad, even if a bunch of Eastern European gangsters all calling each other “bro” isn’t quite as charming as it might’ve been several years ago.
- 1Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years