Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review
Even Marvel Studios with its ever growing list of successes has delivered the occasional dud. The output is so immense that we barely have time to register a subpar entry before the next one rolls around. For example, Thor: The Dark World’s (2013) negative reception didn’t have a chance to make a dent, seeing as Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) were hot on its heals. This brand invulnerability extends to even the characters, as Thor himself didn’t gain many fans with his first two entries, yet the success of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) immediately positioned him as a fan favourite. With that in mind, it’s staggering to think that Marvel may have pulled the same trick with Hawkeye (everyone’s least favourite Avenger) as the star of his own Disney Plus series.
As the series begins, we briefly flashback to the events of The Avengers (2012), specifically the glorious Battle for New York in which the famed superhero team first saved the world. For some civilians, the battle wasn’t so glorious, as the alien invasion resulted in widespread death and destruction. we are introduced to Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), the young daughter of an aristocratic couple who tragically lost her father in the mayhem. Despite this, she was inspired by the heroism of The Avengers, particularly that of Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), whom she personally witnessed taking on many foes with only a bow and arrow. Kate has spent her life trying to live up to her grand perception of Hawkeye, yet that perception is changed when she actually meets and partners with him while trying to unravel a mysterious criminal conspiracy.
It’s fair to assume that very few people were legitimately excited for this entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ever since the character first became known to mainstream popular culture, Hawkeye has been widely mocked due to his apparent uselessness amongst a team of all powerful gods, monsters, geniuses and supermen. However, it’s this very ideas which the show uses as its thematic starting point, placing the character in an existential crisis where he doesn’t even see himself as worthy of praise. This is an interesting (and surprisingly universal) internal conflict, thus giving Hawkeye humanity that few of the glamorous heroes have. The studio has been trying for a long time to make this work, so it’s a joy to see this show finally crack the code.
The key to this successful portrayal is the wonderful dynamic Hawkeye has with Kate Bishop, an instantly iconic addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, performed to perfection by Hailee Steinfeld. Her infectious energy will likely connect with young viewers, as many will relate to having grown up idolising superheroes. This kind of meta-narrative is common in Marvel content, so it’s no surprise to see this concept flesh out further here. Bishop is the perfect audience avatar, which also makes her the primary reason why the show is as enjoyable as it is. When she is paired with Clint Barton, we are treated to a reasonably wholesome analysis of how ordinary people are capable of inspiring acts of heroism.
With that in mind, “wholesome” is the perfect word to describe the show’s tone, as it stays light and breezy even when things gets particularly grim. To be clear, certain story points go to pretty dark places, but none of that takes away from the fun. This makes it feel like a Shane Black film, which is definitely an intentional comparison given the story takes place at Christmas (as is Black’s trademark). While this may sound like this shouldn’t mesh with the darkness, the occasional shades are grey actually add to the experience, ensuring the stakes are recognisable even while we’re all having a good time. Some of these elements were previously terrifying in other Marvel properties, yet are family friendly for this show’s audience (all the while still maintaining their original sense of danger).
On that note, the fact that Hawkeye’s grounded action successfully puts the viewer on the edge of their seat should be commended. We are so used to seeing superheroes preventing the end of the world, so you’d think that mobsters and their henchmen wouldn’t seem like a big deal. In truth, the street level action is a fantastic palette cleanser, giving us a much needed break from aliens, blue energy beams shooting into the sky, or doomsday weapons. Granted, there’s still plenty of fancy gadgets and cartoony fight scenes, but the simple plot helps us easily connect with the action, as we can actually imagine (most of this) taking place in the real world. Even with the fantastical elements, there’s a practicality to it, given most of the fighting takes place in what seems like real sets and real locations.
While this makes the show feel engaging, it does at times conflict with the show’s primary narrative theme. Some of the key character arcs centre around atoning for violence through acts of heroism, yet many of the battles still include pretty horrific kill shots. This is kind of unavoidable when your heroes’ main tool is a deadly projectile weapon, but it’s still slightly uncomfortable seeing acts of violence being symbolically atoned for with more acts of violence. It wouldn’t be an issue if the show addressed this conundrum, but the body count is largely ignored. At every moment where there would realistically be some kind of acknowledgement, it’s played for laughs. To be fair, no one is asking Hawkeye for intense levels of introspection, but thematic contradiction does stand out when you think about it for too long.
Ultimately, Hawkeye is a great little show which turned out better than it had any right to be. At nearly every turn, it makes smart, inoffensive narrative choices which endear you to the story and characters. With that kind of craftsmanship, it has definitely rescued Hawkeye from being the MCU’s punching bag, as many viewers will probably find a lot to love about these delightfully human heroes.
Best way to watch it: In the lead up to Christmas.