Not as ambitious in terms of creative storytelling or theme as WandaVision or as wildly fun as Loki or What If?, Hawkeye is equally good in a different way, though it’s not without its flaws and the ending had its own set of issues. Despite those problems, it may be the most consistently enjoyable of the Marvel shows to date. Spoilers to follow.
Hawkeye tells a much smaller, much more grounded story than its counterparts, with no superpowers, time traveling, or universe hopping, and with relatively low-key stakes focused more on a personal level and with a limited geography versus the world or universe-threatening stakes of other shows. In that way it’s a nice change of pace, catch-your-breath kind of show. Not everything needs to be world-shaking after all; it gets exhausting. After Loki and What If? on TV, the recent Spider-Man film, and the trailer for the universe-spanning Doctor Strange movie, I found Hawkeye’s restraint welcome.
The smaller scale of the show’s plot, I think, allows room for the characters to shine without the distraction of car chases and explosions. Well, OK, Hawkeye actually has car chases and explosions, but only a few cars crash, and the explosions only cover a few yards; we don’t get entire blocks destroyed or cities dropping out of the sky. The point is, we get more time focused on just hanging out with the main characters, and honestly, they’re pretty fun to hang with. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfield) have fantastic chemistry with each other from their first moment together. The banter is fun and quippy, as TV/film buddy-buddy banter generally is, though there’s an ease and naturalness here that isn’t always present in other such pairings. More importantly, there’s also a warmth at the center of it that adds a sense of depth and allows it to transcend the sort of cheaply cynical or jaded tone banter sometimes falls into. Part of that is the age difference, which together with the plot details, creates a father-daughter/mentor-mentee connection that enhances the buddy-film relationship. I’m pretty sure Hawkeye has always been planned as a single season show, but I’d easily watch a second season to see how this relationship develops.
Similarly, I’d put my money down now for a more typical buddy pairing between Kate and Yelena (Florence Pugh), because the few scenes those two shared with each other absolutely shone. The two character styles are the kind of perfect mismatch, a contrast in personality and delivery that mixes wonderfully and creates a whole greater than the sum of its (already good) parts. If Marvel/Disney didn’t already have plans to team those two up, I have to imagine someone sent a text out midway through their first scene saying, “Get these two a show, now!”
On an individual level, outside the relationships, Renner stands out for his portrayal of a man worn down by events — still heavily grieving the loss of his friend Natasha, haunted by his past as The Ronin, fearful of watching someone not much older than his daughter getting embroiled in potentially lethal situations (due, at least, in part to his actions), someone who moves and heals a little slower than he probably once did. All of this is written across his (often bruised and bloodied) face, in the slope of his shoulders, in the weariness of his voice. All he wants to do is be with his family, an aching desire that his sense of responsibility does not allow to be fulfilled. On the flip side, though, he also does a nice job with wry humor, as when, just before he has to let himself be “killed” by a LARPer in order to retrieve the Ronin suit, he sighs to himself, “I fought Thanos.” This is the best work I’ve seen him do, in Marvel or other films.
Steinfeld, meanwhile, is absolutely charming and does a nice job of conveying a mix of overconfidence and vulnerability. And her sense of comic timing and delivery is impeccable (watching her in this at the same time as we’re watching her in Dickinson makes her all the more impressive). Pugh is vivaciously funny and energetic, but also heart-breaking. The other characters/actors are excellent across the board, but especially Tony Dalton as Kate’s mother’s charmingly goofy fiancée, Alaqua Cox as the haunted Echo, and Aleks Paunovic as the oh-so-enjoyable leader of the Tracksuit Mafia.
The plotting is fine. The reveals on the villains won’t come as a surprise to a lot of viewers, but the story doesn’t hinge on it being a shocker, so that’s fine. There’s a nice balance of action (a great car chase, for instance, a wonderful four-person fight on a rooftop) and more quiet moments, along with a pervasively humorous tone, again nicely balanced by moments of sorrow and tension that never threaten to overbalance the light silliness (as when a villain minion interrupts a fight to thank Kate for her relationship advice or when another minion complains about how hard it is to find a good lair with gentrification). And for the first five episodes, the pacing is briskly fluid, which makes it stand out amongst most of the Marvel shows which have had, in my mind, a lot of problems with pace.
The show, as mentioned, wasn’t flawless (spoiler for the finale here). The final episode felt like it tried to pack too much in. Usually I’ve felt the Marvel shows went a little long (particularly the Netflix ones), but here I think the show would have been served with 7 or 8 episodes. The climactic fight scene went on a little too long, though it had two great payoffs—one a highlights bit of comedy regarding some Tracksuit Mafia and an owl, and one an emotionally charged scene between Renner and Pugh.
The biggest issue with the finale, though, was the introduction of Kingpin. While his character had been pretty strongly implied (“the big man”), and it was almost impossible to ignore media speculation about Vincent D’Onofrio reprising his Netflix role, the character was a huge tonal shift. The Tracksuit Mafia were dangerous to a point, but also heavily played for laughs, as noted in the examples above. One never really had a sense of them as any true threat no matter what was said about them. Kingpin, though, and particularly D’Onfrio’s portrayal of him, is a character rife with the threat of uber-competent violence and wicked (literally) intelligence. He was always going to be a mismatch once it was decided to make the Tracksuit Mafia somewhat cartoonish, but it would have been far more effective had we seen him built up over 1-2 episodes not in dialogue via offhand references but in action. As it is, he shows up, throws around a teen girl a few times, loses to the teen girl, then, well, I won’t go into the final details. Overall, he felt shoehorned in and the attempt to make him a “big reveal” worked against his role in the story.
Finally, the other issues I had were more thematic. One is that the series ends with a speech about taking personal responsibility and paying for one’s choices, but that doesn’t hold up too well in the context of Hawkeye’s actions as The Ronin. Sure, he gets beat up a lot over the course of this episode, but he also gets to go home to his family for a nice Christmas with a charming young protégé and a great dog in tow. I would have liked a bit more exploration of the way that role (Ronin) haunted him. You get that idea here, it isn’t like it’s completely glossed over, but it feels unfulfilled. A scene with him and Pugh, for instance — two assassins with shared loss — might have been interesting. I also felt there was something to be said about family and found family here that was on the edge but not quite delivered. There’s just a sense that the show is a little muddy or timid with regard to theme, unlike, say, WandaVision or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (which had their own issues, but also some clearly focused “things to say about ‘this’”).
Outside of the Kingpin problem, those issues, while noticeable, didn’t really detract at all from my experience watching the show; they were more points I thought about afterward. But within the time period of the show itself, it really was nearly non-stop enjoyment. Creatively, I loved what WandaVision did, thematically I liked what that show, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were trying to do even if they weren’t fully successful, but as I said at the start, I think Hawkeye is the show I most happily enjoyed moment to moment.