This holiday season, the best gifts come with a bow.
“Stakes” is an interesting concept. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was built on gradually escalating stakes — Iron Man (2008) was basically about a corporate takeover in terms of plot, but the emotional stakes were about Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark learning not to be a self-absorbed douche — a lesson he had to keep learning and learning until it killed him, but that’s another story. When it did kill him, the emotional stakes were very high indeed — Avengers: Endgame (2019) is not a perfect film, but it did exceptionally well in terms of giving more or less everyone a big emotional payoff (there are notable exceptions) and leaving us with the satisfying feeling that This Was What It Was All Building To. And the tangible stakes? Half the sentient life in all the universe? Off the charts, baby! How do you top that?
Well, you can’t, really. Because it’s not important. When we talk about stakes in those terms, what we’re really talking about is scale, and all the scale in the world doesn’t matter if your emotional stakes aren’t well delineated, and there’s a concrete answer to your core question at the end: did the protagonist get what they want or not? And what did they learn? If you fumble that or mute it in service to setting up other stories down the track, the story at hand doesn’t tend to resonate. This has been an increasing problem with franchise-minded Disney/Marvel since the end of Phase Three (And before then, too, but now it’s really obvious): catharsis has been sacrificed in favor of setting up dominoes, and while we’ve been promised a big climax, probably involving Kang (I don’t care) or the multiverse (I still don’t care) or possibly even Kang and the Multiverse (are we supposed to capitalize that? I still don’t care) but probably not Mephisto (that was pretty funny, though), it’s hard to get too excited. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the 22 Marvel flicks up to and including Endgame “lightning in a bottle” because, really, who even makes bottles that big, but holy fuck, they are not pulling off that trick twice. Believe.
Eternals (2021) is probably the poster child for confusing stakes and scale (or stakes and worldbuilding) in this context, but it’s affecting all of Marvel’s recent efforts to one degree or another, including their Disney+ offerings — what we used to call TV. Last year’s WandaVision is a concept looking for a story, and so too is Loki, but they’re both buoyed to no small degree by some really charming performances (Kathryn Hahn is so fucking charming that most people don’t seem to realize that Agatha is barely a character). The Falcon and the Winter Soldier fares better but is hobbled by some truly mealy-mouthed political posturing that is scared to death of actually saying anything meaningful lest it alienate an audience quadrant. So, much to my surprise, it’s Hawkeye that’s the champion Disney+ Marvel show of the past 12 months. Indeed, it might be, narratively speaking, the MCU’s best effort overall in 2021 (of the nine Marvel series and movies this year, only Spider-Man: No Way Home gives it any competition).
Why? Clear stakes for pretty much everyone.
Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) is an aspiring superhero whose father died in the Battle of New York all the way back in The Avengers. She wants to be a hero, just like her hero, Hawkeye — she saw him on that day and was struck by how a normal(ish) guy with some sticks and a string would help fight off an alien invasion. She’s studied the bow just like him, and more than anything else, wants to be his protégé.
Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), on the other hand, wants to kill Hawkeye, blaming him for the death of her surrogate big sister, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson — not appearing here). What she really wants is catharsis, some kind of release of or relief from the emotional response to Nat’s death, but that kind of thing is hard to come by when you’re an absolute murder machine, so his death will have to do. Pugh brings a really fun energy to the role, balancing a goofy “I yem a straynger to your cauntry” earnestness with cold ruthlessness, and her scenes with Steinfeld’s Kate are a blast. The pair obviously like each other and share a kind of joy in being part of the superhero subculture but find themselves on opposite sides of this whole Clint Barton question, so there’s a real frenemy thing going on.
And as for Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? He just wants to spend Christmas with his kids and maybe deal with the mental and physical trauma the past several years of his life have left him with (he has a hearing aid due to one too many close explosions, plus clear PTSD), but that’s not on the cards. Thanks to his Ronin costume showing up at a shady collector’s auction, he’s drawn into the action and finds himself Kate’s reluctant mentor.
I really like Renner as an actor, and I like his work here. He’s kinda been done dirty as Hawkeye: bit part in Thor (2011), brainwashed into henchman-hood in The Avengers (2012), and generally given short shrift from then on. For sure, he gets a family, with Linda Cardellini playing his wife, Laura, which gives him some depth, but even when he lost them to the Blip or the Snap or whatever we’re calling it now, his five-year hitch as a vengeance-crazed vigilante got glossed over. But Hawkeye’s function is important — he’s the grounding element, providing the human-level view of all this epic action. Audience surrogates aren’t always necessary (remember how they shoehorned ol’ whatsisface into Del Toro’s first Hellboy?), but there’s something to be said for having a non-powered hero in the mix, giving us an angle that even Spider-Man can’t provide (yes, yes, anyone could be Spider-Man, but let’s not forget he can lift 15 tons).
Renner’s best moment across the entire sweep of the MCU up to this point is when he gives Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch a pep talk mid-battle in Age of Ultron (2015), giving her and the audience a moment of clarity in the middle of all the mayhem, and that’s his function here: he’s a no-nonsense, rather avuncular figure who wants to do the right thing by his family, his friends, and the people he finds himself charged with protecting. He knows he’s a supporting character in the grand scheme of things, and a lot of the fun is watching him grapple with being thrust into the spotlight.
Not that it’s much of a spotlight; as a series, Hawkeye is decidedly and defiantly street level and deals with lower case h acts of heroism, and that’s fine — in fact, it’s kind of perfect. With its Christmas setting and bickering buddy banter, it feels like a Shane Black joint, and I’m actually a little surprised the Iron Man 3 (2013) shot-caller wasn’t drafted in for this one. Instead, we have showrunner Jonathan Igla, Mad Men (2010-15), and key directors Rhys Thomas and Bert & Bertie keeping things on track. The tone is light, even though there’s violence and the consequences thereof. The whole thing draws heavily on Matt Fraction and David Aja’s acclaimed Hawkeye comics series of a few years back, and while it doesn’t hit the formally daring heights of its source material, Hawkeye the TV show just about replicates the glib, self-effacing style and imports some fun iconography (Lucky the Pizza Dog and the Tracksuit Mafia, but sadly not the sobriquet “Hawkguy”, unless I missed it).
The villain is actually a Daredevil import (that’s comics Daredevil, not screen Daredevil) in the form of Echo (Alaqua Cox), a deaf crime boss with an axe to grind because Ronin — who is Hawkeye, don’t forget — whacked her dad during the five years between Infinity War and Endgame, giving her a very solid reason to want him dead. There are other forces at work, and they circle around Kate’s mother Eleanor (a welcome but underused Vera Farmiga) and her impending marriage to possible bad guy Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton), but the emotional thrust is very much Echo’s vendetta against Clint. Cox is a captivating screen presence and it’s going to be worth tuning into the upcoming Echo TV series just to see what she can do with the character when not beholden to other characters’ stories.
Which is a problem common to the MCU — so much of any given work is in service to setting up future instalments and spin-offs, or paying off set ups a couple movies back, that we can sometimes feel short-changed as the actual story at hand takes a backseat to this big interlocking orrery of a thing that producer Kevin Feige and the gang have set spinning. Hawkeye actually has a lot of that when you run the numbers, throwing out callbacks as far back as The Avengers, bringing in a character from Black Widow (2021), and setting up Echo for her series, plus a few other things besides. But it tells its story, and never forgets the core motivations of its characters: Kate wants to be a hero and Hawkeye’s protégé, Clint isn’t sure he wants to be a hero and he sure doesn’t want to be a mentor. Can these two get along? Cue The Odd Couple theme.
It’s simple and it works, and it works because it’s simple, and that’s something Marvel needs to get a handle on. You’re going to have to do a lot more legwork to get me to give half a fuck about Kang (or Mephisto) and stories cannot run on Easter eggs alone. But a grumpy, put-upon second stringer contending with a sunny, optimistic wannabe sidekick who thinks he’s the bee’s knees (or the dog’s pizza, perhaps)? I can get behind that. It helps that the chemistry between Steinfeld and Renner is off the charts (and Steinfeld and Pugh and, well, Steinfeld and anyone, really) but it’s the solid writing by Igla and his team that bring this one home.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson