“Your whole thing is that you’re low-key. It’s a very hard brand to sell.” The most by-the-numbers member of The Avengers is the first to get his own show this week in the two-episode launch of the six-episode “Hawkeye,” premiering on Disney+. The writers, led by creator Jonathan Igla, seek to counter the difficulty of selling the Hawkeye brand by balancing it with one of the most charismatic young actresses working today, but they forget to inject enough story, character, or world-building into these first two episodes to hook viewers. After “WandaVision” felt like it was trying something new in the superhero world, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” landed with more of a predictable thud, especially when it came to its questionable politics. “Loki” fared a little better in the creativity department and “What If…?” has the natural hit-and-miss nature of an anthology series. Where does “Hawkeye” fall on this spectrum? After two episodes, my biggest concern is that it will be the most forgettable. “Hawkeye” tends to be too thin, even with some of the best source material to work with for any of these shows.
When “Hawkeye” opens, Clint Barton is in New York City with his family in a universe where the Blip definitely happened but not COVID—Jeremy Renner does convey how tightly a father would hold onto children who literally disappeared for half a decade with some subtle beats. The Bartons—minus mom, who is seen in a few brief scenes on phone calls, again played by Linda Cardellini—go to a show of Rogers: The Musical, which appears to be a pretty dull recounting of the Chitauri attack on the Big Apple. Barton hates it. You probably would too.
Across town, Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) is a master archer cut much from the same cloth as Hawkeye. In fact, an early flashback reveals she was there in New York when Loki tried to take over the world, and even spotted the famous archer in a moment of heroism. Years later, she’s drawn into Hawkeye’s world directly when she happens upon the costume of Ronin, the identity that Barton took during the Blip, turning himself into a legendary vigilante. Donning the Ronin costume and getting into some trouble with a group called the Tracksuit Mafia gets Barton’s attention, and he sends the kids home to mom while he hangs back to see what’s up. Some action ensues.
Although not a lot. For its first two episodes, “Hawkeye” does a lot of wheel-spinning. We meet some other supporting characters like Kate’s mother Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) and her suspicious new beau Jack (Tony Dalton), but the tone is unmistakably low-key. After the first two episodes, the entire season of “Hawkeye” is a third over, and it feels like it’s just getting started, especially given the cast members that have been announced for the run of the show like Florence Pugh reprising the role of Yelena Belova from “Black Widow.”
It’s fine for a show to take its time in its early episodes but there’s a difference between setting the table (which “WandaVision” arguably did for a month before really serving the meal) and getting off to a slow start and “Hawkeye” is more like the latter. Renner is often a bit flat as Hawkeye, but he’s actually not bad here—he just hasn’t been given much to do. The Marvel Comics versions of Hawkeye often allowed for a more cynical, wise-cracking character—someone who was not only the best athlete in the room but one of the smartest guys too—and it’s like the MCU has drained him of some of that “Wolverine-esque” charisma. He has a couple of scenes here, mostly with his kids and later with Kate, that hint that he could become a more charming lead, but only time will tell.
With the possible exception of the scene-stealing, one-eyed dog Lucky (who fans of the Fraction/Aja comic will remember fondly and be happy to see here), the show definitely belongs to Steinfeld. It seems like the Disney+ shows are being used to segue between character phases of the MCU. The action of “WandaVision” will undeniably influence multiple characters; “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was really about handing Cap’s shield down to a new holder; “Loki” ended with the reveal of a villain that will certainly be seen again. But “Hawkeye” made me wonder how much these “transitions” are going to hold up on their own. Steinfeld could play Kate Bishop in a half-dozen more MCU projects and become a fan favorite, but that potential doesn’t make this introduction rich enough on its own.
I wanted a “Hawkeye” that translated the wit and creativity of the Fraction/Aja series into something that stood on its own instead of just echoing a better work on the page while previewing likely better works on the big screen. This series lacks the zip and polish that Kate Bishop and Clint Barton deserve (although, admittedly, that could come in the back four), pushing all the good stuff maybe not even to later this season but in later projects. In terms that the title character would understand, the arrow here doesn’t just miss the bullseye, it feels like it’s shooting at the wrong target altogether.
Two episodes screened for review.
Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
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