All I want for Christmas is for Marvel to stop treating its TV shows like filler. After an intriguing start with “WandaVision,” Kevin Feige’s debut MCU entries for Disney+ have been erratic, at best. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” dive-bombed from a missed opportunity to outright infamy, before the overstretched “Loki” offered a few enamoring moments amid an onslaught of over-communication. Debating what’s gone right and wrong with Marvel’s transition to TV has followed a similarly long-winded journey, but it’s hard to argue every episode so far is indispensable; fans will be able to follow the movies just fine if they skip the Disney+ originals, and what does get examined in each six-hour show hardly feels worthy of all that time — which leads us to today.
“Hawkeye,” the fourth live-action MCU series to debut on Disney+, has all the trappings of a sought-after seasonal present: an O.G. Avenger at its center, three Oscar nominees leading the cast (plus “Better Call Saul’s” Tony Dalton!), and a genre at least as popular as superheroes laced into its six-episode season. In case its not clear from Disney’s marketing, the photo above, or this merry introduction, Jeremy Renner’s first standalone story as Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) is also a holiday story, filled with steady snowfall, family bonding, and more gleaming evergreens than you can count.
Yet anyone expecting to unwrap an adventure on par with any of Renner’s past outings as the bow-wielding sharpshooter will be in for a blue Christmas. “Hawkeye” isn’t the year’s primo gift so much as the cheap socks or oversized t-shirt stuffed thoughtlessly into your stocking. Merely there to take up space on Disney+, the first two episodes are so low-stakes and nonsensical it’s hard to believe they’re backed by millions of dollars and one of Hollywood’s most successful studios. But then again, we’ve been here before — all year, in fact. Throughout 2021, Marvel has stoked the inviting fire of hope only to douse it with inattentive execution. Why should a bit of holiday trimming change Marvel’s way of doing business?
Chuck Zlotnick / Disney+
Like “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” without the common courtesy to put its second star in the title, “Hawkeye” opens on Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee for “True Grit” — and unjust snub for “The Edge of Seventeen”), then spends a majority of the pilot introducing her backstory, and builds to a predictably fateful meeting between the up-and-coming archer/fencer/karate kid and her childhood hero. Back in 2012, when Loki & Co. attacked Manhattan, Kate was just an adolescent, living with her fighting parents (Vera Farmiga, an Oscar nominee for “Up in the Air,” and Brian d’Arcy James) in a massive Manhattan penthouse. Despite Hawkeye saving the kiddo with a well-timed exploding arrow, wayward blasts from alien warships resulted in the loss of dear old dad, and Kate vowed to protect her mother just like Hawkeye protected her.
Cut to nearly 10 years later and Kate is a medal-winning fighter and decorated marksman, but she’s also adrift. After an innocent bet involving an arrow and a clock tower results in a costly repair bill, her mother, Eleanor, scolds the 22-year-old Kate for acting like a reckless teen. “I know that young people think they’re invincible and rich people think they’re invincible, and you have always been both — so take it from someone who hasn’t been: You’re not. And you will get hurt.” Marvel seems oddly proud of this knotty bit of exposition (it’s included in Episode 2’s “previously on” montage), but the convoluted guidance only illustrates two things: that Kate’s family is rich, and that “Hawkeye” is mistakenly deferential to coherence over complexity.
Yet when Renner’s Clint enters the picture, things do get confusing. The father of three takes his kids on a trip to the Big Apple, starting with “Rogers: The Musical”: an Avengers-themed Broadway show that this actual Avenger can’t stomach. Every time the actor playing Black Widow high-kicks across the stage, Clint gets all misty-eyed and uncomfortable. Later that night, when a grateful restaurant owner comps the family’s dinner because Hawkeye “saved our city,” Clint again gets uneasy, which makes sense: He’s conflicted over enjoying his status as a hero when a) it led to his best friend sacrificing herself on his behalf, and b) he spent a good chunk of time after Thanos’ snap breaking his moral code by murdering any bad guy he deemed bad enough.
Chuck Zlotnick / Disney+
All of this backstory is only accessible from watching hours and hours of movies (“Hawkeye” doesn’t bother with a flashback to Black Widow’s death or say much about Hawkeye’s time as “Ronin”), which could certainly prove confounding for casual fans who didn’t pay too close attention to Renner’s hero’s journey thus far, but that’s not really the root of the laziness plaguing “Hawkeye.” Part of it is attention to detail: The visual effects are way off the mark, from penthouse damage in the opening scene to fake fire later on; hand-to-hand fights are stilted and slow, with Steinfeld’s first big melee relying way too much on sound effects to convince us she’s kicking ass; and like the routinely disappointing banter in “Falcon and Winter Soldier,” “Hawkeye’s” dialogue can contradict itself in obvious, easily avoidable ways. (Clint asks Kate why people are suddenly saying “I love you” all the time, only to then tell his kids the same very common sentiment a bajillion times.)
But it’s also difficult to understand the series’ core components, like Hawkeye’s emotional arc and basic motivation. In Episode 2, after Kate meets her idol, she offers some unprompted advice about his “image,” implying Clint isn’t happy with how Hawkeye is perceived in the world — that people think he’s forgettable, especially compared to his fellow Avengers. Given the scene is shot in front of the Disney store in Times Square, that’s not a hard opinion to swallow: In reality, Hawkeye is not a top-tier Avenger. He doesn’t have superpowers, he’s not consistently funny or charismatic, and he’s not a Russian spy played by one of the planet’s biggest movie stars. The whole raison d’être for “Hawkeye” is to prop up an otherwise overlooked member of Marvel’s most bankable supergroup — maybe sell a few of those leftover Hawkeye action figures from 2012.
But none of that matters within the show. If the MCU wants to go meta by making its issues selling “Hawkeye” the same as Hawkeye’s issues selling himself, series creator Jonathan Igla needs to include reasons for Clint to worry about such things. As is, there’s nothing to back up Kate’s argument. Hawkeye is recognized everywhere he goes; he’s getting free meals in New York and selfie requests in the men’s room; even during that (terrible) musical, one of Clint’s kids says his character looks “cool” — an opinion that seems to be echoed when another kid beams at Hawkeye from a few rows back.
Based on what the characters actually experience, Hawkeye seems to be doing pretty well in the brand department, particularly since Clint is actively not seeking the spotlight. He just wants to have a nice Christmas with his family, and all that’s standing in his way is… well, that might get into spoiler territory, but let’s just say it’s not a huge obstacle. “Hawkeye” is clearly more concerned with setting up Kate Bishop for future MCU phases than creating a problem worthy of two heroes’ time. And at six hours, it’s certainly not worthy of yours. There are better ways to make the most of this holiday season, even if it’s just begging Marvel to stop using such lavish boxes for the dinkiest of gifts. It doesn’t take much shaking to tell what’s inside isn’t what we’re hoping for.
“Hawkeye” premieres its first two episodes Wednesday, November 24 on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly through the finale on December 22.