Remember 2020, when Marvel Studios didn’t release anything new all year? Before there was ever a TV show that connected to the sprawling superhero franchise? It’s hard to recall a year later. As 2021 comes to a close, Disney is back in the Marvel business, with three new MCU movies out and a fourth still to come. And, after the January debut of Wandavision, Disney Plus has unleashed multiple MCU shows including Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and What If...?. But while you might have some very reasonable Marvel fatigue, the studio’s final 2021 show, Hawkeye, is here to charm and delight even the most cynical viewers.
Based on the fan-favorite comic series by David Aja and Matt Fraction, the fun-filled first two episodes of Hawkeye introduce viewers to Hailee Steinfeld’s magnificent new MCU hero, Kate Bishop. She’s key to what makes the show work, and is very much the star. While we get some really great Clint moments in these episodes (no, seriously), Jonathan Igla (Bridgerton, Sorry for Your Loss) has created a show about passing the torch from one generation to the next, and at the heart of that is Kate Bishop. Kate has been delighting comic-book readers since she debuted in 2005’s Young Avengers #1. And if the opening episodes of Hawkeye are anything to go by (Marvel only provided the show’s premiere for an early look), Steinfeld’s version of the character will only widen the younger Hawkeye’s fanbase. Playing things relatively safe by MCU TV standards, the show has a simple setup: at a vital moment in MCU history, a young Kate was inspired by a personal tragedy and Hawkeye’s heroics.
Years later, Kate’s a privileged rule-breaking upstart who’s accrued an impressive amount of martial arts and archery skills in a clear attempt to model herself after her hero. After meeting her new would-be stepfather, Kate quickly becomes entangled in New York’s criminal underworld. It’s a world away from the high-concept meta storytelling of WandaVison or the dimension-hopping sci-fi of Loki, but the series feels stronger for it.
That’s mostly thanks to a dynamite leading turn from Steinfeld and her co-stars, particularly Vera Farmiga as her mother Eleanor, and Tony Dalton as her ultra-smarmy, enigmatic new stepfather, Jack. Their dysfunctional family dynamic adds a rough, intriguing layer to our hero: Kate gets to be prickly and confrontational in a way female heroes rarely do. But her rebellion isn’t the empty “don’t tell me to smile” Captain Marvel version; Kate feels real and relatable. She cares about her mother even when her gut instincts revolt against Eleanor’s choices. She saves someone we saw her verbally spar with earlier — and who may be a huge danger to her — simply because it’s someone her mother cares for.
There’s a messiness to her that feels right.
Kate breaks into the MCU in a way that feels organic and groundbreaking. She sets a new precedent for a generation of heroes who lived in the shadow of the Avengers, whose lives and losses were shaped by them. The ease with which she enters the already-overstuffed Marvel Universe feels refreshing. And her inbuilt knowledge of the world — because she grew up in it — frees the audience of exposition. Steinfeld is charming and rude, funny and heartbreaking. She parries with Dalton perfectly, bringing fight and fury to the interloper in her house. There’s no feature-length origin story needed here; Kate shines in her world, and she’s easily one of the most engaging MCU heroes we’ve had yet. Even with her privilege and immaturity, Kate is never annoying. She’s smart, dressed immaculately, and needs no validation from any of the annoying men around her. Basically, she’s the hero the MCU has needed for a while, especially since there’s no hint of male love interest yet.
Of course, Kate isn’t the only Hawkeye. Jeremy Renner is back as Clint Barton. It’s hardly the kind of news to make anyone other than Barton diehards excited, but the show is surprising once again. Not only is Clint thankfully not the show’s star, but the team behind the series use the first two episodes to reimagine the character, softening his serial-killer edges after Avengers: Endgame. This Clint is a man on a mission to finally be a good dad. There’s heart here we’ve never seen before, and seeing him through Kate’s eyes endears us even more.
The character work Renner manages with the help of Igla and the writing staff is easily the best he’s ever done as the world’s least favorite Avenger. There’s a humility here that has been missing in previous iterations. Renner brings life to a broken man, in a way that’s far deeper than the abstract violence of Endgame. With the cultural impact of Hawkeye in the MCU and the way he’s perceived key to his journey in Hawkeye, he gets to be part of an interesting, fun bit of meta-commentary that also adds layers to Clint.
It’s a rare feat to make an audience feel for such a bland character after nearly a decade in the game, but Hawkeye manages it. While his quest to be a better father might not be off to a great start, it gives Clint depth and emotional resonance he’s never really had. Less is more with the elder Hawkeye, and the first two episodes sprinkle him in just enough to make an impact. He’s a reluctant mentor to the young woman who could be his daughter, and eager to make amends to his family, although his choices constantly contradict both of those statements. Digging into the more intimate dramatic elements of both Clint and Kate’s familial units grounds Hawkeye. This opens it up to a wider swath of viewers who might not be otherwise interested in the MCU and the superhero-focused stories it tells.
Creating a smaller-scale, lower-stakes tale, the show introduces the ground-level version of superheroics Marvel is so well known for. It’s a new horizon for the MCU, which turned its most famous street-level hero, Spider-Man, into a high-concept, high-tech Tony Stark mentee. In that way, Hawkeye feels most like the Netflix Marvel shows, but with a family-friendly twist. Quick-witted banter is thrown around as regularly as Molotov cocktails, and cozy homes and snowy streets are more common than high-tech HQs. It’s grounded without being overly gritty, and while it leans on the MCU’s past, it’s not too lore-heavy. All those things make the first two episodes of Hawkeye the most accessible MCU show yet.
The show even plays nicely with its Christmas-time setting. Hawkeye’s first episode is attractively scored with enjoyably recognizable seasonal music, and stuff with plenty of fun holiday-movie tropes. (For example, Clint is definitely going to struggle to make it home for the holidays.) In that sense, it often plays like a PG-13 Shane Black movie, mixing action and twinkling lights with aplomb. Both are treated with equal thought; the holiday setting feels textured and lively, and the action sequences are intricately choreographed and engaging. Kate’s fighting style in particular is brilliant to watch. The show builds in enough narrative reasoning for her technical skill to go unquestioned, and it’s really enjoyable to see a hero who’s just immediately great at what they do, if not immediately great at how. So seeing Kate cartwheel and flip her away across a taxi-packed NYC street as a giant Christmas tree glows in the background feels nothing short of joyous.
Hawkeye’s most powerful secret weapons are production designer Maya Shimoguchi and set decorator Missy Parker. Each setting in the first two episodes is a living, breathing space that not only feels lived in, but also tells us so much about what we’re seeing. There’s an attention to detail that goes beyond the usual MCU dedication to Easter eggs or the shiny New York City of the Avengers. No matter where we follow Kate and Clint, we learn something new, feel something different, and get lost in the thoughtful mise en scène.
That’s another way Hawkeye stands apart from what’s come before. It’s less obviously intentional and pointed than WandaVision, but far more lived-in and appealingly messy than the clinical “real world” tone of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Saying all of that, though, if the ambitious sci-fi storytelling of those and Loki is what draws you in, then the sillier, sweeter, lower-stakes ground-level tone of Hawkeye might leave you wanting.
How much you’re willing to lose yourself in that fun tone will likely define how much you enjoy it. Early on, we get to see that much-talked-about musical number from the Avengers Broadway show Rogers: the Musical. It’s cheeky, meta, and a certified musical banger that laughs at the Avengers, as well as poking fun at Clint himself. It’s the polar opposite to the dark Ronin era of the hero from the MCU. But it’s incredibly in line with the whimsical tone of the comics that inspired the show.
As a comic-book fan, it’s hard to watch Hawkeye — as delightful as it is — and not think about the people whose work so obviously was used to ground the series. The big inspiration here is Aja and Fraction’s 2012 Hawkeye series. Everything from the logo to the promotional materials through to the character representations, story, and tone of the show comes from that series. It’s one of the closest adaptations we’ve seen.
And while Fraction was brought on as a consulting producer, Aja only gets a “special thanks” credit. and has tweeted about wanting Disney to pay him instead of thanking him. It’s an especially grim example of creator exploitation in Aja’s case, as his art has been directly lifted for the credits of the series and all the PR for the show. And that’s before we get to the characters that he took part in creating, or the aesthetic of the entire series. That aspect makes the sweet morsels that are the first two episodes of Hawkeye slightly bitter.
While that aspect of the creation of the series might not matter to some viewers, it is still important to note, especially as pretty much every Marvel and DC production suffers from this same issue. That said, this adaptation of Aja and Fraction’s Hawkeye is smart, silly, and wonderfully shot, and it manages to reframe the worst Avenger in a way that works. Plus, it promises us a new generation of heroes who might just be able to be better than the ones who came before. And isn’t that just what the world needs?
The first two episodes of Hawkeye premiere on Disney Plus on Nov. 24.