Hawkeye Works Because It Understands Its Own Stakes

Hawkeye is an entirely pleasant TV-watching experience for many reasons. Jeremy Renner appears to be having fun for the first time in a long time as battle-hardened assassin-turned-Avenger Clint Barton. Hailee Steinfeld is a breath of fresh air as young archer Kate Bishop. And the entire thing is saturated with copious amounts of Christmas cheer. The six-episode series, four of which have now aired, is just fundamentally good superhero storytelling. The real key to Hawkeye’s success in the context of the larger MCU, however, is that it perfectly understands what is asked of it. This is a low-stakes side quest within the MCU before the real danger gets rolling again. That’s not only acceptable – it’s essential to Marvel’s ability to continue on for years to come without burning out.

Granted, Hawkeye never loses sight of the fact that it’s part of the larger world. The series actually opens with a flashback to one of Marvel’s biggest action setpieces with the Battle of New York in 2012. Then, throughout the show’s present day narrative, the trauma of what Thanos did to the universe is ever present. Clint sees “Thanos was right” as graffiti scrawled onto a urinal when sneaking out of a showing of Rogers: The Musical. Later, in episode 4, Clint and Kate borrow a “Thanos Was Right” branded mug from Kate’s aunt’s kitchen. 

The effects of Thanos’s snap and the ensuing “Blip” still loom large on Hawkeye and the world isn’t fully ready to move on from then. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, however. And it does so beautifully in this show. While Marvel’s three most recent cinematic efforts, Black Widow, Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings, and Eternals, deal with truly apocalyptic threats, all Hawkeye is concerned with is cleaning up some loose ends. 

Clint Barton’s only goal in this series is to finally close the book on Ronin and then get back home for Christmas. Kate Bishop’s only goal is to figure out what’s up with her mother’s (almost literal) mustache-twirling boyfriend. Hawkeye is laser focused on those two low stakes goals and is all the better for it. There is very little sense that any actual death, danger, or dismemberment can befall these two lead characters. Clint’s supernaturally patient wife Laura (Linda Cardellini) periodically checks in on his progress but is never concerned that he’s in over his head. The biggest tension in the series is the clock ticking down to Christmas. The show has even gone out of its way to have diegetic sources proclaim how many days left until the holiday, with a radio program loudly announcing we’re three days out in episode 4

Also in episode 4 is a moment in which Kate’s mom Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) asks whether Kate is helping Hawkeye with “an Avengers-level threat.” Clint responds with a “well, not exactly,” laying Eleanor’s concerns to rest. Of course, Clint Barton would not let a teenager tag along on an actually dangerous mission. Fighting Thanos is a grown up job, but the Tracksuit Mafia? Sure! Come along, young archer, this should be a good training exercise. 

Despite having decidedly lower stakes than your typical Marvel fare, Hawkeye doesn’t feel any less essential. That’s the secret to good drama. When contextualized and executed with care, getting home in time for Christmas can feel as urgent and difficult as going back in time to retrieve all the Infinity Stones. Hawkeye’s lower stakes also frees up some space for the show to really invest in its two lead characters. If a Young Avengers team up is in the MCU’s future (and it almost certainly is), this time spent characterizing Kate Bishop is truly invaluable. 

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