Hawkeye review: Two archers, one great start for Marvel’s new series

Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has always been the hard-luck hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s been mind-controlled by malevolent gods, had his entire family turned to dust, and even had to stand by helplessly as his best friend sacrifices herself to save the universe.

The Avengers’ archer certainly hasn’t had it easy, so it’s especially nice to see him finally get the spotlight in Marvel’s Hawkeye series on the Disney+ streaming service.

And yet, in keeping with the tradition of Renner’s character never getting any respect, the first two, entertaining episodes of Hawkeye make it abundantly clear that the series isn’t actually about Hawkeye — and that despite offering a fun, satisfying show, it seems primed to relegate him to a supporting role in his own adventure.

Cue the Rodney Dangerfield sound-bite.

Hailee Steinfeld and Jeremy Renner in a scene from Hawkeye.

Taking aim

Created by Jonathan Igla (Mad MenBridgerton), Hawkeye brings Renner back as Clint Barton, former SHIELD agent and the Avengers’ expert marksman, who has managed to save the world countless times with just a quiver of arrows and some ingenuity while fighting alongside heroes who can punch through steel, summon lightning, and manipulate the fabric of reality. Those battles have taken their toll on him, though, and Hawkeye reveals early on that Clint is dealing with long-term injuries both psychological and physical in the aftermath of the events of Avengers: Endgame.

While Hawkeye quickly establishes Clint’s post-Endgame desire for a normal life with the family he lost, then regained, it spends the bulk of the first two episodes introducing series co-star Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop, a young woman whose tragic experience as a child during the events of The Avengers inspired her to emulate Hawkeye and hone her own skills as an archer, gymnast, and martial artist. Kate’s chance encounter with an object from Clint’s past forces the latter into action, and soon the the pair find themselves pursued by various criminal factions looking to settle old scores.

Hailee Steinfeld aims an arrow in a scene from Hawkeye.

Smart sourcing

Those familiar with Matt Fraction and David Aja’s critically acclaimed Hawkeye comic book series will find plenty of familiar elements in the Disney+ series, which takes cues from the tone and narrative of the comic to offer a lighter, more self-aware spin on the MCU than prior films or Disney+ shows. And that shift is a refreshing one, particularly after the heaviness of WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the mind-bending existentialism of Loki.

In just its first two episodes, Hawkeye checks off quite a few boxes for a fun, satisfying MCU experience. Along with introducing the live-action versions of several popular Marvel Comics characters, it also subtly acknowledges and integrates some small but significant details from both the character’s comics backstory and the MCU timeline so far, including Clint’s hearing loss and the PTSD he experiences as a result of his actions with the Avengers.

Although Hawkeye does a wonderful job of putting a human face on all of the superhuman-related events that have occurred around the MCU, it’s at its best when, like the comic book series it cribbed from, it’s grounding all of these events in the ridiculous, celebrity-filled, always-online reality we’re all too familiar with these days. The series’ opening episode has Clint and his children attending a performance of Rogers: The Musical — a song-and-dance revue based on the Avengers’ adventures — and it serves as the perfect tone-setter for the show’s overall vibe, which rests somewhere between self-aware snark and superhero action.

Hawkeye (2021)

Hawkeye
Genre Action & Adventure, Drama
Created by Jonathan Igla
Directed by Rhys Thomas, Bert and Bertie
Cast Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, Vera Farmiga
Seasons: 1
tv-14

Passing the torch

It seems unfair to make Renner’s long-suffering character a supporting character in Hawkeye, but the series does an admirable job of bolstering not only Clint’s backstory, but the character himself, with the screen time he’s given and through the role he plays in Kate’s story.

Avengers: Age of Ultron surprised everyone by introducing Clint’s family, only to have the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame rip them away from him, then return them. That sort of trauma isn’t something an individual can process easily, human or otherwise, and Hawkeye finds smart ways to show us how damaged Clint is inside, even as he cracks jokes about the weird world of superheroes, spaceships, and cosmic tyrants that has become just another day on the job for him. In just two episodes, Hawkeye adds more layers to Clint than the character has received across multiple feature-length films, and it’s a well-deserved boost for a character that has long had more potential than prominence in the MCU.

It remains to be seen whether all of that build-up to Renner’s character will be a swan song or a sign of better things to come for Hawkeye, but the two episodes also make it clear that Steinfeld’s archer will almost certainly see plenty of action going forward, too.

Steinfeld delivers a great blend of humor, heart, and heroism as Kate, who seems to match up well with Clint’s physical attributes, skills, and confidence, but lacks the wisdom and experience that has honed Renner’s character into a formidable — and on occasion, even lethal — force to be reckoned with in the MCU. Her performance and her character’s backstory are both fascinating and entertaining, and the energy she brings to the MCU is a much-needed dose of levity at a point when the franchise often feels oppressively heavy.

The chemistry between Renner and Steinfeld adds a collective bonus to their characters’ individual appeal, with Clint and Kate playing complementary roles in the adventure that brings them together. Her ambition and excitement plays well against Clint’s world-weariness, and the way those qualities fuel each character makes their moments together feel refreshingly unpredictable.

Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, and Luckythe Pizza Dog wait for a train in a scene from Hawkeye.

A great start

With four episodes still to go, Hawkeye has plenty of potential to stand out from the crowd in the MCU and delivers fans something new and different from Marvel’s films and the prior Disney+ series.

Each of the live-action MCU shows has carved out a niche for itself in one way or another, and after two episodes, Hawkeye feels like the most grounded, self-aware project in the MCU to date. Its willingness to poke fun at the absurdity of the Avengers experience while acknowledging the tragedy of what Clint has endured because of it, and to filter all of that — the good, the bad, and the weird — through Kate’s eyes is both brilliant and unique in equal measure.

If Hawkeye is indeed Renner’s last dance as the Avengers’ archer, here’s hoping he gets the send-off he’s long deserved. And if the success of the first two episodes carries through the rest of the series, MCU fans have plenty to look forward to from Steinfeld, too.

Marvel’s Hawkeye series premieres November 24 on the Disney+ streaming service.

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