Two heroes have long been kept on the sidelines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – always there to help others clean up their messes, but never with a mess of their own. For Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow and Clint Barton’s Hawkeye, they were always the bridesmaid, never the bride. The two even managed to bond over their supporting roles, always discussing imaginary adventures in Budapest and shooting love eyes at each other.
But 2021 is flipping the character hierarchy upside down, and these two couldn’t be happier. At long last “Black Widow” saw Scarlett Johansson’s assassin take center stage, and now Jeremy Renner is hot on her tail with his very own “Hawkeye” series, which debuts on Disney+ on Nov. 24.
As the fifth and final MCU show to hit the streaming service this year, “Hawkeye” is liable to fall victim to Marvel fatigue – especially considering three big screen movies have already come out this year, too. But at the risk of sounding cliché, “Hawkeye” doesn’t feel like your normal MCU project.
Saying something doesn’t feel like the MCU is the latest buzz word surrounding the world’s biggest franchise, as films like “Eternals” have attempted to buck the usual blueprint, and shows like “WandaVision” and “Loki” have tried the same to varying results. But with “Hawkeye,” the phrase actually carries some weight.
To start, Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, has no super powers. The bow-and-arrow-wielding marksman is the most down to earth Avenger of them all, using good old fashioned hand-to-hand combat to take out his bad guys when arrow aren’t available. As a result, through its first two episodes, “Hawkeye” is easily the most grounded entry to date for the franchise that features talking raccoons and living planets.
Instead, Hawkeye looks poised to dive into the crime underworld of New York City – something many of Marvel’s canned Netflix series once did. With Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop by his side, the two archers must team up to uncover a criminal conspiracy revolving around the resurfacing of Clint’s former alter-ego, Ronin, all in time for him to make it home to his family for Christmas.
When it comes to why the character Hawkeye has never been front and center, there are a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, the whole no super powers thing is a serious detriment when fans are used to repulsor blasts and big green monsters. But beyond that, Renner has never seemed to be leading man material. After starring in 2008’s “The Hurt Locker,” Marvel hitched its wagon to Renner, who has since struggled to find his footing as a movie star.
To help solve that issue in “Hawkeye,” Steinfeld has come to the rescue. The young, comical burst of energy brings charm and charisma to the screen – and a proven track record of blockbuster success, with the likes of “Bumblebee” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Steinfeld’s enthusiasm plays well against Renner’s indifference to everything and borderline grumpiness. After two episodes it’s clear the two are on the verge of going full speed down the unlikely duo/buddy cop route, with a bit of mentorship sprinkled in, of course.
The New York City setting at Christmas time is another big factor in the unique look and feel of “Hawkeye.” Rather than green screen sets and flashy visual effects (although they certainly still play a part), the world is largely lived in and authentic. References are made to other MCU events – the series opens circa 2012 at the Battle of New York – but for the most part, this feels fairly self contained.
As the clock ticks down towards Christmas, it will be interesting to see if the holiday elements play a larger role in the final four episodes. While they’re certainly present in the set decorations and the musical queues, the actual contents of the show were not as heavily influenced by the holiday season as the trailer made it out to be.
Perhaps the biggest differentiator for “Hawkeye,” though, comes through its combat. While explosions are bound to come (“You have trick arrows?!”), everything so far has been gritty street fighting influenced by Clint and Kate’s martial arts backgrounds. With gangs from around the city chasing the duo, it doesn’t look like any extraterrestrials with massive weapons will be in the cards this time around, which is a welcome change of pace.
Beyond its two stars, “Hawkeye” features a handful of supporting players, including Vera Farmiga as Eleanor Bishop, Kate’s mother, and Tony Dalton as Jack Duquesne, the sketchy soon-to-be stepfather who is most certainly involved in whatever conspiracy is happening here. But the only supporting cast member who truly matters has yet to appear, as Florence Pugh’s scene-stealing Yelena Belova is set to make her Disney+ debut after breaking out in “Black Widow.”
Through its first two episodes, “Hawkeye” has done more than enough to pique viewers interest. The decision to debut two episodes together is a wise one, as the first builds the sandbox before the second lets us play in it. But then again, nearly every Marvel show has started off strong – but few have stuck the landing.
If “Hawkeye” can continue to tell a grounded, self-contained story that lets Steinfeld shine, then it’s well on its way to doing just that.
“Hawkeye” premieres with two episodes on Disney+ on November 24, 2021.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.