“Your problem is branding,” Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) tells Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the second episode of Hawkeye. “Your whole thing is that you’re low-key. It’s a very hard brand to sell.” She has a point with regard to Clint’s big-screen appearances, where he tends to be overshadowed by the super-soldiers and billionaires who are his Avengers teammates. But she’s wrong when it comes to Hawkeye, his first small-screen outing. Its low-key vibe is precisely what makes it feel special.
The series begins in a penthouse, where a 13-year-old Kate witnesses the Battle of New York (i.e., the climax to 2012’s The Avengers) — explosions, interdimensional aliens, giant green Hulk and all. But that’s about as much superhero extravagance as we get in the first two episodes of Hawkeye. After that brief prologue, the series skips to the present day, where both Kate and Clint are occupied by more ground-level concerns. Like Clint’s determination to make it back home to his family for Christmas, coming up in less than a week. Or Kate’s suspicions about the wealthy charmer (Tony Dalton) wooing her widowed mom (Vera Farmiga).
The Bottom Line
A refreshingly low-key outing for Marvel — at least so far.
Clint and Kate are strangers at the start. But by the end of the first episode their paths cross through a series of snowballing events involving an army of interchangeable goons, at least one high-society murder mystery, and the reappearance of a mysterious vigilante known as Ronin, whom Marvel fans will recognize as Clint’s alter ego from the time he went on an international killing spree between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
As the above paragraph suggests, Hawkeye rewards longtime fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In addition to storylines built on the ones that have come before, the series is littered with just-for-fun references like Rogers the Musical, a cheesy Broadway show that turns Captain America’s most famous catchphrase into a chorus.
But the series is welcoming to newcomers in a way that other Marvel Disney+ shows, like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, have struggled to accomplish. Any necessary exposition is baked into the dialogue or the setting, and the main narrative prioritizes character development and chemistry over intra-franchise connective tissue. You could probably enjoy the buddy comedy action beats of Hawkeye without much caring about what’s happening in the rest of the MCU, though all those Easter eggs can feel like pointed invitations to start.
As Clint, Renner gets to play up the harried-Everyman persona of a perpetual underdog — his Hawkeye might be an internationally renowned celebrity, but he’s acutely aware that most of his shine is just light reflecting off the even bigger stars surrounding him. It’s a quality that Hawkeye creator Jonathan Igla borrows from the celebrated run of comics by Matt Fraction and David Aja, and it’s one that helps unify the inconsistent characterization in the movies, where Clint has been painted variously as a wholesome dad, a jaded badass and an angst-ridden murderer. (Actually, the latter is still hard to square with the rest of it.) Seen through the eyes of a fan like Kate, he seems almost cool, even as he protests that Hawkeye toys and Halloween costumes are hardly flying off the shelves.
But it’s Kate herself who is the true star of Hawkeye, and who seems destined to emerge at the other end as a new fan favorite. A college-age troublemaker who’s as fast with a quip as she is with an arrow, Kate plays to Steinfeld’s strengths, previously explored on Dickinson and in The Edge of Seventeen, in conveying brilliance and determination through crackerjack comedic timing. She’s especially winning in her scenes with Renner, who parries her youthful enthusiasm with big-brother weariness: When Kate brags that “some people have actually called me the world’s greatest archer,” Clint shoots back with “Are you one of those people?”
In Kate, Hawkeye offers the ideal combination of snark and earnestness that nearly all Marvel projects seem to be aiming for, to some degree or other; this is a franchise where even a dimension-hopping magic war will grind to a halt for a who’s-on-first bit. Sometimes, those comic beats can feel like strained efforts to undercut the films’ own grandeur and self-importance, to insist to viewers that these gods or aliens are really very relatable, despite all evidence to the contrary. But Hawkeye comes by its irreverent sense of humor naturally, building a whole city around Clint and Kate populated by a “tracksuit mafia” who punctuate every sentence with “bro” and a very good mutt affectionally known as Pizza Dog.
Anyway, what is there for these two distinctly non-superpowered heroes to do in such a superpowered world, if not crack a wry smile and try to move on with their lives? Sure, Marvel being Marvel, odds are high that Hawkeye‘s first season will end as much of the franchise’s stories do — with a debris-strewn sky battle composed mostly of light beams, wherein our heroes are tasked not only with saving the world but also with setting up four more projects to be released over the next eight years. In the meantime, though, Hawkeye stands as a rare treat — a Marvel story worth saving not in spite of its humbleness, but because of it.