About 10 TV shows and 25 movies into Marvel’s grand world-building experiment, many are still enjoying it. But even hardcore fans may admit to some fatigue with save-the-world formulas. This year alone, the mega-franchise has had three theatrical films, four big-budget live-action series, and three additional animated entries.
Enter six-episode event series “Hawkeye,” which promises to solve inevitable exhaustion with apocalyptic disasters. It starts out as a low-stakes story about Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) trying to get home to his family for Christmas. Least known of the “Avengers” from the 2012 blockbuster, he faces a unique mid-life crisis of being hero-adjacent but without superpowers.
Before Barton dwells much on past exploits not getting their due, he’s paired up with a young woman named Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). The determined bow-and-arrow sharpshooter in need of a mentor gets tangled up with some low-rent Russian thugs called the Tracksuit Mafia. (While set in New York City, don’t expect Doctor Strange or Spider-Man to show up here.)
Episodes one and two set in motion the essential trackwork of the dramedy series. Clint and Kate share light banter, he introduces her to “Avengers” gadgets and hero moves, they have a dog sidekick, and there’s a ticking clock element where his wife and kids check-in from the family farmhouse asking if Dad will make it home for Christmas.
Bad blood lingers from Hawkeye’s past run-ins with NYC’s resourceful but bumbling gang. But to get a handle on the dynamics at play, there are about 10 minutes in 2019’s three-hour movie “Avengers: Endgame” that require re-watching (DVD chapter title: Ronin). Such is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — all threads loosely tied together and ever introducing the next hero.
It’s a feat of storytelling and corporate synergy unmatched prior to this franchise. I confess, I want to keep watching these new-Marvel-TV-dinners-every-week. But perhaps to the chagrin of people more invested in this whole endeavor, I’ve not read any source comics or even watched any of the darker Netflix Marvel shows. Now the fan chatter indicates one really needs to.
Note: light spoilers ahead for episode three, and speculation about the series direction.
That’s particularly the case with episode three, “Echoes.” It opens with an extended backstory of Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), aka “Echo,” a deaf Native American martial arts expert who appeared to be the boss of the Tracksuit Mafia. But she’s no simpleton. Viewers find it’s her personal tragedy that has driven the Russian gang to seek out Hawkeye/Ronin/Clint Barton.
On the hero side, character motivations feel muddled here. Barton intentionally got captured in episode two, so the urgency to escape isn’t entirely clear. Regardless, it leads into a car chase that revs up the tension — scenes expertly realized without relying mostly on green screen.
“It’s not done with a bunch of editing,” said Renner in a recent interview. “It’s all done in one shot, the camera is sitting there in the car right between us on this pivot. All the action, all the players of this car chase sequence, it’s all happening in real-time.” Kudos to the production team, because their work shines here.
This sequence highlights how Renner’s character seems to take inspiration from past Bruce Willis roles, the scrappy everyman who gets more bandaged up as it goes along – and you kind of like him for it. Considering all the Christmas call-outs in this series (the criminals’ hideout is a shuttered KB Toys superstore?!) it feels like watching a PG version of “Die Hard.”
If Marvel producers are worth their hype, “Hawkeye” surely has a few trick arrows yet to come in its meandering heroes’ journey. To its credit, it’s perhaps the most family-friendly of the recent Marvel shows. Barton’s moving interactions with his son, following a bout of worsening hearing loss, serve as an emotional core of the series.
Other MCU series have demanded a lot from viewers: “WandaVision” with psychological and reality-bending themes, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” tackling race and justice issues, and trippy science-fiction concepts in “Loki.” With “Hawkeye,” the show’s accessibility is a strength yet viewership so far reveals it’s also a weakness. That could change as buzz builds.
Rather than merely comical thugs, a rogue’s gallery of villains will emerge by the end of this series. Teased at the end of this summer’s “Black Widow” film, Natasha’s sister Yelena Belova has Hawkeye in her sights. Somehow she’s also connected to Kingpin, the Mafia boss from Netflix’s “Daredevil” serial who will cameo. And that’s not counting the Swordsman or Echo.
Alas, casual viewing rarely works with the MCU. Maybe between lighter holiday fare with the family, some late-night Marvel homework TV is in order.
Rated TV-14 for action violence and some language, “Hawkeye” is now streaming on Disney Plus.