Back when I smoked weed, there was no more cherished feeling than baking a small tray of cookies, taking a big ol’ rip of a classic strain, and flipping on one of the two media properties I had discovered in the depths of my stoned haze: Star Trek and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both are casual, chatty, occasionally transcendent. They depend a lot on acting and character work, and tend to live and die on the strength of whatever hero they’re centered around.
In the last year, the MCU got even Star Trekkier by adding a series of Disney+ shows based on secondary characters in the movies’ orbit. This was a terrible idea on paper but ended up working out quite well. They’re leaner, stranger than the movies, with (mostly) lower-stakes plots. They focus on the actors, the hangouts, and idle chatter of those shows while parsing out the action a little more conservatively. On Wednesday, the last episode of Hawkeye, the latest in the MCU’s second-rate TV character franchising scheme, aired on Disney+.
I don’t think Hawkeye is the best of these shows—Loki was excellent—but it’s the one suffused with the most little pleasures, fun performances, and nutty sequences. The finale is a wire-to-wire action-fest, anchored around a wild sequence where Hawkeyes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) dispatch like a hundred tracksuited thugs with a variety of trick arrows. It’s a moment when the pure, silly ecstasy of the comic books gets transmuted onto film sans the pretense of reality that’s usually imposed on adaptations of these stories.
Over the years, Marvel has done a better and better job of letting these superhero sagas be superheroic, instead of grounding them in too much realism. If there’s one downside to Hawkeye, it comes from an unfortunate choice that was made early in the MCU project, reducing his arc to: “Will Hawkeye get home in time to celebrate Christmas with his family while not getting killed for going on a five-year-long killing spree after his family got dusted by Thanos?” The answer to both of these questions was always going to be yes.
Social media entrepreneur Jeremy Renner has always been a limited actor, and the movies really double down on the “badass bow-and-arrow operative” shtick that originated in Mark Millar’s extremely gritty and underwhelming “Ultimates” series. This Clint Barton is a straitlaced bow-and-arrow black ops fella who wants to get home to his family because he’s tired of New York. Lame. In the main comics, Clint isn’t a grim killer. He was an orphan raised in the circus with his dirtbag brother Barney and taught the ways of combat by an eccentric swordsman. Eventually, he graduates from the circus to being a bow-and-arrow superhero who takes too much Advil and is perpetually weaving a basket of disappointment for the women in his life.
But Marvel went with this bullshit version of Clint, and there are scenes where Renner truly looks tired as hell. The show dealt with the intense aura of disinterest that is suffocating Renner’s Hawkeye by minimizing Clint’s role in the show and distributing his time and energy to a series of more interesting women..
Hailee Steinfield, the poet laureate of precocious tomboys, is perfectly cast as the other Hawkeye Kate Bishop—a bratty rich girl, champion college athlete, and devoted sword fighter who gets in over her head and improvises her way out with money and grit. She is excellent—much closer to the spirit of Clint and Kate in the comics than the ol’ sourpuss Renner, and will hopefully be the future of bow-and-arrow action in the MCU. Speaking of the future, watching an actor as magnetic and skilled as Florence Pugh ply her trade on a superhero TV show is nearly as unnatural as watching the same person opt to date a washed Zach Braff. But here she is, reprising her role as Yelena from this year’s Black Widow movie, yakking about in a terribly convincing Russian accent and beating the crap out of guys while hunting for Clint, who she believes killed her adopted sister. Will Clint convince her that he and Natasha were friends, actually, and that he tried to sacrifice himself to the pit to obtain the soul stone? He does, of course. It’s nice. I’m glad they worked it out.
Pugh and Steinfeld share several scenes, including an inspired sequence in the finale where Bishop tries to slow down an elevator Yelena is taking to go kill Clint and a brawl in an office cubicle shot via lengthy pan. They crackle together on screen in a way that maybe no other actors have managed in the history of this project, as Yelena’s elite-killer confidence grinds against Bishop’s newfound bravado. It’s safe to assume they’ll reunite at the earliest convenience.
“They crackle together on screen in a way that maybe no other actors have managed in the history of this project, as Yelena’s elite-killer confidence grinds against Bishop’s newfound bravado.”
The last episode featured the return of Vincent D’Onofrio, reprising his Daredevil turn as a sensitive, deeply frightening Kingpin—an event the fans have been “buzzing about” for weeks. Hulking and sporting a white suit with a red aloha aloha shirt, his Wilson Fisk appears to tie up some loose ends involving Kate’s mom Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga, not given enough to do), and also gets done dirty by ten trick arrowheads Kate sets off in a toy store.
Kingpin appears to get revenge-murdered off screen by Maya “Echo” Lopez, the MCU’s new deaf superheroine played by deaf actress Alaqua Cox, who will be starring in her own Disney+ show next year. Cox is enormously watchable in her first-ever on-screen role—a vision of pure leather-clad intimidation stalking Marvel-New-York on a motorcycle, consumed by damaged sensitivity that she’s clearly trying to compensate for. Her show will be one to watch, though I do hope she didn’t really kill Kingpin since D’Onofrio’s take is so nutty and unique.
Also nutty and unique: Tony Dalton as Jack Duquesne, “The Swordsman” in the comics and perhaps here, playing a fiftysomething oblivious weirdo who loves sword-fighting. The show has teased the audience for five episodes, giving you little taunting glimpses of their cool-ass sword guy, making you wonder if he’s good or bad. In the finale, our man finally gets the opportunity to unleash a saber and use it on some thugs. He also roasts a tuxedo’d child for shitting himself. The man is a delight!
Look, I enjoy this big, dumb, unceasing, culturally oppressive MCU offering. It’s good fun, and the last episode in particular, featuring D’Onofrio and Dalton, is overloaded with big and little pleasures alike.
But it could have been better. A lot of this MCU project could be better. A little extra visual flair here (seeing Sam Raimi, whose Spider-man movies are some of the most visually distinct blockbusters ever made, tasked with next year’s Doctor Strange movie has given people some hope on this front), a little less cringe there, and this whole thing would be a lot more fun to talk and think about. But Hawkeye in particular vibrates with potential it doesn’t seek to manifest, leaving a whole mess of interesting ideas off the table. And Renner’s Clint Barton really needs to lighten up.