Hawkeye review: Hailee Steinfeld is on target in Marvel's comfort viewing
Hawkeye is a playful, freewheeling show from Disney Plus.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
This year has been a lot. That's why, this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for Hawkeye.
Marvel's latest Disney Plus series is a fun, free-wheeling action show energized by scene-stealing Hailee Steinfeld, who joins grouchy archer Jeremy Renner for some good, honest comfort viewing. Its snackable action makes it the opposite of Disney's other big holiday release, the super-long Beatles documentary Get Back.
The first two episodes of Hawkeye stream on Disney Plus on Nov. 24. The remainder of the six-episode series then arrive each Wednesday until Christmas, which means you could save them up for a festive binge. On the cozy side, Renner returns as archery-themed Avenger Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) just trying to get back to his loving family in time for Christmas. And if you're sick of your family's nonsense, maybe you'll vibe with the complicated familial dynamics encountered by his new sidekick Kate Bishop, whose fairytale life comes complete with a wicked stepfather.
The show opens with a focus on Kate, a new character to our screens who is already a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: She's one of the many unseen ordinary people whose lives have been touched -- and not for the better -- by the superpowered shenanigans unfolding on big screens through the past decade. Even the opening titles focus on Kate, deftly sketching in her backstory as she grows into Steinfeld, star of True Grit, Dickinson and Bumblebee.
On the scale of imagination from earthbound punch-ups to cosmic flights of fancy, WandaVision and Loki were dementedly ingenious trips to the more surreal reaches of Marvel lore, while The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was a much more meat-and-potatoes action story. Inspired by writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja's entertainingly grounded 2012 comic, the Hawkeye series is way down at the earthier end of the Marvel weirdness spectrum, dealing with all-too-human heroes, family politics and grubby street crime. The enjoyment comes not from brain-battering cleverness but from the show's energy: The fight scenes fizz with kinetic energy, and the whole thing is carried by lead actors sparking off each other.
Kate is a rich kid with a chip on her shoulder, much to the exasperation of her mom, played warmly by Vera Farmiga (last seen in Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark). Kate's also a talented martial artist and archer, not to mention a Hawkeye super-fan. The best thing about the show is the classic buddy pairing between the enthusiastic youngster and moody mentor, with Steinfeld and Renner sparking off each other to amusing effect.
Hawkeye himself, meanwhile, is drawn back into the violent underworld searching for the suit he wore while temporarily rebranding as violent vigilante Ronin during the Blip (the years when Thanos wiped out half of the galaxy's population, including Hawkeye's wife and kids). The New York setting flits from high-society murder mystery to street-level punch-up in a way that will strongly remind fans of a previous attempt to bring the MCU to the small screen: Daredevil.
Back in 2015, Daredevil was the start of an unprecedented and at the time pretty audacious experiment, ushering in a series of four interlinked Netflix shows starring Marvel heroes yet to appear in the MCU. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist (plus spinoff The Punisher) were gritty action dramas set in New York City's shadows, and Hawkeye is more like them than anything else in the whole MCU. There's even a long-take fight sequence that recalls the showpiece one-shot punch-ups in Daredevil (excuse me while I step out to watch those on YouTube).
Back again. In the first two episodes, Hawkeye is generally more lighthearted than the somber Netflix shows, which were absorbing but cumulatively became a bit of a drag. On paper, Hawkeye has a tortured-hero thing going on, but here's the thing about the whole Ronin business: It doesn't work. Clint's loss is supposed to have driven him to betray his morality as a vicious killer. Unfortunately, that isn't really what Endgame showed us. Thanks to Marvel's family-friendly tone and all the other massive amount of stuff that had to be fitted into the film, all we actually saw on screen was Clint getting a crap haircut and beating up some yakuza. Which is literally what a superhero usually does (dispatching gangsters, that is, although silly haircuts are also pretty common). OK, so he sliced people up with a sword, which is frowned upon in superhero circles, but we only know Clint was supposed to have crossed some moral line because he wouldn't shut up about it.
More affecting is Clint's sense of loss for Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, lost fighting Thanos in Endgame. This summer's Black Widow movie served as a belated moment in the spotlight for Scarlett Johansson, and it also adds a layer to Renner's relatively uncomplicated character. Which ties into Black Widow's post-credits scene, suggesting the series will bring together two scene-stealing new recruits as Steinfeld and Black Widow's breakout Florence Pugh are set to face off.
Overall, Hawkeye isn't a tortured antihero searching for redemption, he's still just affable Jeremy Renner trundling around looking grumpy. And the show mostly knows this, sticking him into action scenes that are more playful than perilous. Episode 2 in particular has both Clint and Kate engaged in mock combat that's fun to watch rather than hazardous to their health, a jaunty twist on the gritty action-scene-every-episode formula.
Combined with little snippets of silliness like the comical villains the Tracksuit Mafia and a musical about Steve Rogers and the Avengers (which gets plenty of screen time in episode 1), Hawkeye makes a fun festive treat. Comparisons with Daredevil and its ilk are a reminder that for many fans there were just too many of those shows, giving them the dubious distinction of making the MCU feel inessential. With a whopping 14 further Marvel series confirmed for Disney Plus, it feels like fans could be overwhelmed again.
But don't worry about that this holiday season. Just stuff yourself full of turkey and some warmed-up Hawkeye.
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