(SPOILERS) Of the Marvel Disney+ series thus far, this was the one that had the least going for it on paper. Overtly Woke credentials – teenager assumes the mantle from a self-confessedly toxic male – in combination with nigh-on the least interesting member of the Avengers. Although, obviously, that one’s a dead heat with Natasha Romanov. And yet, surprisingly, Hawkeye is easily the most satisfying of year’s TV foursome (I’m not including What If… ?)
The key is the relationship between Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton and Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop, the eager young wannabe sparking off the guilt-ridden grizzled old pro. Hawkeye, as a non-powered C-list Avenger relegated to an entirely unstimulating comradeship with Natasha, isn’t short changed, on the one hand, by being usurped, because no one much held him in regard anyway. More than that, meeting Kate anchors him with substance and chemistry entirely unavailable during his big screen phase. Suddenly, he seems like a worthwhile character (this conspicuously did not happen when Natasha was teamed with little sis and fam in Black Widow).
There isn’t anything terribly original about Clint’s morbid regret over his Ronin days – albeit, it at least gives him something to dig into – but the Unforgiven-meets-buddy-movie aspect lands for the most part, with Kate unwilling to accept he’s a bad guy and proving resourceful in melting his resistance to a partner/junior bowman. Indeed, far from relegating Clint, this is all about someone idolising him in a way no MCU devotees did over the previous decade or so. The banter largely avoids the too cute/ Whedon-ishly quiptastic end of the spectrum – the stuff about costuming/branding does become laboured quite quickly, however – and enough is made of Kate learning the ropes to avoid her being an amazing wonder Rey. Albeit, surviving the fight with Kingpin is reasonably unbelievable.
Also notable is Clint’s familial relationship, something of a rarity in being established as solid and mutually supportive. Linda Cardellini’s role as Laura may be peripheral – more in the Holly McClane Die Hard 2 sense than Die Hard, if that – but it’s essential as a refreshing validation that, despite Clint’s own doubts and demons, he has someone who knows him, approves and affirms him. In contrast, it’s Kate for whom the family unit is a bust, and she gets duly accepted into a new one.
There are progressive credentials here, of course – this is the Whole New Wonderful Woke World of Kevin Feige – of the apologetically inclusive kind (as in: they aren’t the agenda’s main grist to the mill, but require nominal representation, purely from the cynical box-ticking angle, hence promising an Echo spin-off series no one will watch). So there’s a running theme of being differently abled, personified by Maya Lopez/Echo (Alaqua Cox, deaf and an amputee), and highlighted by her rebuke of Hawkeye for relying on a hearing aid.
What there isn’t, though, is an incongruous sense of virtue signalling. While the cart may have led the horse, in this and other areas – like the central, Hawkeye protegee destined to eclipse him in the same essential vein as Falcon becoming Cap and Ironheart taking over from Tony – there’s a sense these are germane, integrated elements rather than awkwardly imposed, patronising drop-ins (for that, look no further than one of the LARPers protesting Clint taking her bag because her wife gave it to her). Ultimately, there may be no less wokesense in Hawkeye’s plot, but if so, it’s more commendably insidious, as it achieves its goals without insulting the viewer’s intelligence.
Showrunner Jonathan Igla has some strong prior credits, not least Mad Men, and perhaps that non-comic book background leads to a show less MCU and more the kind of fare the failed Netflix Marvel shows might have been, with time, care, resources and due acknowledgement. I wouldn’t want to go overboard in lavishing praise on Hawkeye – it could probably have been pared back a little, as it rather treads water in the middle episodes – but it’s structurally solid and refreshingly unburdened by deus ex machinas or unmotivated moments.
I’m not sure the inclusion of Yelena – whom I’d forgotten would be in it, so she thus came as a surprise in the manner none of the other twists did – was such a positive. Interesting to see Florence Pugh and Steinfeld playing off each other, since they’re the same age, yet Pugh is playing the seasoned operative (in contrast, Steinfeld is much more convincing at anything remotely athletic). And if Pugh occasionally sounds like she’s about to overdose on her lyricised accent, she does bring a sense of fun to the part. Less so the rather tiresome “I must take revenge on Hawkeye until I mustn’t” revenge subplot, predictable in all the wrong ways.
Villains-wise, the MCU is now resorting to flagrant-yet-permissible national stereotypes of the John Wick variety – all Russians are inherently criminal. Which is fine. I mean, Disney will only ever offer a corporately-mandated approximation of the progressive, so we can’t be surprised when they reveal their true form.
There are some amusing beats with the Tracksuit Mafia, not least Kate offering relationship advice. Both Cox and particularly Fra Fee as fellow merc Kazi acquit themselves well in glorified henchmen roles. It’s nice to see Vincent D’Onofrio back – like Charlie Cox from the Netflix Marvel-verse – but it’s nevertheless difficult to pin Kingpin down as an intriguing character in his own right, for all his iconic stature (also notable is that his reveal at the end of 1.5: Ronin is a contender for the least dramatically executed cliffhanger ever).
Vera Farmiga as mum Eleanor was clearly going to be in on it from the first episode. Simon Callow is fun for all of the two scenes he’s in. Stealing the entire show, though, is Tony Dalton as Eleanor’s fiancé Jack Duquesne, the kind of borderline goofy, cartoon performance you might expect from a Joe Dante movie (possibly played by Robert Picardo). He takes the various repositionings of the plot in his stride – unwelcome potential stepfather; potential villain; framed innocent – before being revealed as a hilariously capable hero himself, hacking and parrying against the Tracksuit Mafia. If anyone deserves a spin-off show, it’s Jack.
There’s also a big thing with heroic LARPers which… well, I guess it’s sweet and inclusive of saddoes – by which I mean, that’s essentially the Disney+ messaging there – but it all becomes a little much by 1.6: So This Is Christmas? The festive setting makes for a nice background flavour, more in the Shane Black mode than over or underpowered dressing.
If nothing else, Hawkeye’s modest success suggests it may be hasty to write off the next slate of Woke Disney+ series sight unseen, however flavourless or cynical or opportunistic they may appear in concept form (the Moon Knight footage seen so far simply looked plain bad, however). As it stands, though, Hawkeye deserves credit for going some way towards retrospectively justifying Clint Barton’s existence.