The Least Exciting Avenger

Hawkeye’s normalcy is what makes him interesting.

Clint and Kate look at each other while standing on a subway platform. Clint wears a backpack and Kate holds a bow.
Mary Cybulski / Marvel Studios / Disney+

This may sound harsh, but Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, was never the most exciting Avenger in the Marvel films. Next to near-invincible heroes such as Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, he just looked ill-equipped, wielding a bow and arrow against monstrous aliens and killer robots. One of the original six protagonists in 2012’s Avengers, the master archer (played by Jeremy Renner) gradually became an afterthought, not even appearing in 2018’s Infinity War.

But Hawkeye, the new Disney+ series, frees him from the pressure of appearing alongside his flashier colleagues—and, more important, frees his narrative from Marvel’s universe-expanding ambitions. Set in New York City the week before Christmas, the show, which starts streaming tomorrow, follows Clint as he teams up with a young archer named Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld); together they try to solve a crime connected to his stint as Ronin, the katana-wielding, vigilante alter ego he adopted in Avengers: Endgame. Since that film was released, the franchise’s scope has exploded, exploring new realities and dimensions in projects such as Loki and Eternals. Yet in Hawkeye, there is no bending of space-time or pruning of multiverses. Nor is there any wrestling with the legacy of a fallen hero, as in Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow. This show, at least in the two episodes screened for critics, seems to be squarely about Clint and Kate, and how these two regular people with impeccable aim can untangle a local conspiracy in time to unwrap their presents.

Hawkeye’s story is small-scale in focus, but not in ambition. It draws from the writer Matt Fraction and the artist David Aja’s critically acclaimed comic-book series, Hawkeye, which ran from 2012 to 2015. The comic redefined Clint Barton by exploring how he lived when he wasn’t on Avengers missions: He was a well-intentioned, if somewhat smug, Brooklyn bachelor doing ordinary things—like searching for the right kind of tape to label his trick arrows, or helping a neighbor move stuff out of his elderly father’s basement during a hurricane. Often this version of Clint was shown covered head-to-toe in bandages, still healing at the slow pace of a typical human. He knew that he was a superhero only because of his one major skill—being able to use, as he put it, “a stick and a string from the Paleolithic era”—so he tried to prove he had a life outside of being a nifty tool in the Avengers’ arsenal.

The Disney+ version counts Fraction as a consulting producer, and the comics’ influence is evident. Some characters have walked right off the pages, including members of a buffoonish, tracksuit-wearing gang, as well as a one-eyed, pizza-loving golden retriever. And the series places the same satisfying emphasis on everyday city life: Escaping from their tracksuited enemies, Clint and Kate don’t soar through the skies aboard the Avengers’ Quinjet; they take the subway. When Clint tries to track down his old Ronin suit, he discovers it’s being used by a LARP-er—a live action role-player—who’s wearing the outfit for a local tournament. In one scene, Clint teaches Kate how to properly clean and dress a cut on her head. It’s the kind of quiet moment that other action-heavy comic-book projects would eschew, but ends up underlining the humanity of both characters.

By showing Clint away from Avengers duties, Hawkeye has turned the character’s weaknesses across the films—his normalcy and vulnerability—into his greatest assets. Renner’s Clint is no longer the dutiful marksman who does whatever he’s told; now the actor captures the toll that years of firing arrows has taken on him physically and emotionally. He wears a hearing aid, having been close to one too many explosions. He often calls his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), to apologize for not being home with their kids. Clint seems weighed down by far more than the gear he lugs around in a backpack.

He also treats superheroism as a job—a philosophy with which Kate disagrees, forming an intriguing and surprisingly subtle conflict. Steinfeld imbues Kate with a charming mix of ambition and naïveté: As a wealthy 22-year-old, she sees being an Avenger as an opportunity for self-actualization, maybe even greatness. After witnessing the Avengers in battle as a child, she started taking karate, gymnastics, fencing, and archery lessons; she believes Clint should embrace his status more, and inspire people the way he inspired her. But Clint, having watched some of his teammates die, is not interested in lionizing their service. He just wants to get it done so he can go back to his family.

Hawkeye is still about superheroes. It’s still set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And there’s a chance that, after the first two episodes, a new villain or plotline will tear the fabric of reality apart. But for now, the show is about two people—one an idealistic newcomer, the other a practical veteran—debating, while fighting off bad guys, whether they should work to live or live to work. That’s a delightfully human (and pertinent) question to explore, and its answer thus far is deeply human as well. Sometimes, Hawkeye posits, being heroic just means doing what you can to solve the problem at hand. Or, in other words, hitting the mark that’s right in front of you.