Last year may have been hell, but it had one thing going for it. For the first time in more than a decade, everyone got a breather from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cut to 2021, and you can’t move without stubbing your toe on a Marvel release: there’ve been three live-action Disney Plus series, an animated anthology and three theatrical films, with another (Spider-Man: No Way Home) coming in December. Now there is the premiere of Hawkeye, a new six-part series focusing on the Avengers’ ace archer Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), the most blandly human member of the crimefighting troupe.
But Hawkeye’s Christmas-set story isn’t just Barton’s; half the stage is yielded to the young Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). Modelling herself on Hawkeye, she is a proficient archer and fighter, with a reckless juvenile streak. “Young people think they’re invincible and rich people think they’re invincible, and you have always been both,” her mother (Vera Farmiga) scolds her. It is this recklessness that gets her into trouble with a New York gang known as the “tracksuit mafia”, prompting Renner’s jaded Avenger to step in and take her reluctantly under his wing.
In any other context, a series starring Steinfeld, Renner, Farmiga, Tony Dalton, Linda Cardellini and (in later episodes) Florence Pugh would sound like a tantalising proposition. But Marvel isn’t exactly known for letting actors off the leash, despite luring a Who’s Who of cinema’s biggest and brightest to its shores over the past decade. Renner is capable as Barton, but is eclipsed by Steinfeld, who doesn’t need to work hard to imbue Kate with the requisite pluck and charisma. Cardellini, as Barton’s wife Laura, is all but sidelined completely (an MCU tradition by now), while Dalton offers only a much-diluted imitation of his Better Call Saul character Lalo Salamanca (one of the best TV villains in years) in the sinister swordfighter Jack Duquesne.
There are positives to Hawkeye. The fight choreography is snappy enough, while there’s no dawdling over the plotting. Marvel releases are often numbingly indulgent in their maximalist save-the-world scope, but this is mercifully pared back. That said, there are plenty of recurring MCU bugbears. Visually, it’s drab and abjectly characterless, with the glittery aesthetic potential of its Christmastime-in-NYC setting utterly wasted. Frustrating, too, is its lack of ambition: yet again, here is an origin story, built on tired character types and motivational platitudes, as familiar as your own thumb (which is likely to be hovering over your mobile screen for much of the duration of this series).
Taken by itself, Hawkeye is a perfectly serviceable action romp. But when there’s so many of these things saturating the market, it needs to work a little harder to justify its own existence. Ultimately, then, Hawkeye misses its mark.