REVIEW: ‘Hawkeye’ Misses The Spirit Of The Comic But Is On Target With Its Cast

Hawkeye feels too safe in all the ways the comic it’s trying to adapt is not.

The Marvel Studios adaptation of the celebrated Matt Fraction and David Aja comic doesn’t quite live up to the comic’s panache and ends up abbreviated in more ways than one. Omitted from the show are two of the comic most vibrant traits: the quaint slice-of-life window peering into the life of an Avenger and the unique aesthetic crafted by Aja. Despite this, the show manages to stay fun thanks to a solid cast.

As the premise goes, Clint Barton’s stint as the mass-murdering Ronin is a secret known only to the Avengers. So when Ronin memorabilia hits the black market, Clint is drawn into the orbit of the underworld where Kate Bishop has been doing some heroic sleuthing of her own. When their paths intersect, Marvel Cinematic Universe history is made as one of comics’ greatest partnerships comes to life in front of your very eyes. 

There’s really not much left to be desired from the nuts and bolts of Hawkeye’s mechanisms, apart from the hope of seeing a certain crime lord behind the curtain, as the first two episodes repeat the same hypotheses over and over that you’ll be no further from the first clue Kate Bishop finds by the time the credits roll an entire later. Perhaps by no coincidence, writer Jonathan Igla and director Rhys Thomas wanted to evoke the Marvel-Netflix shows’ signature trudge.

Hawkeye is the first Marvel Studios TV show to look wholly unremarkable. Gone is the ambition of Loki’s otherwordly design and WandaVision‘s retro aesthetic. Even as grounded in real-world architecture Falcon and the Winter Soldier was, the show compensated for the blandness of its concrete and steel sets by elevating the action sequences. Hawkeye has neither of those, failing to look even as remotely interesting as some of the Marvel-Netflix shows did. The fights don’t look memorable. The compositions looks wildly uninspired making it quite possibly the show’s biggest misfire, a massive step down from the self-contained world David Aja made so iconic. The show nonetheless and deservedly pays homage to Aja’s work in its credits sequences but it doesn’t make the show’s lack of any aesthetic any less glaring.

Just like the Netflix shows, Hawkeye hits the mark in assembling a fantastic ensemble. Newcomers Vera Farmiga and Tony Dalton add a very vicious sexiness to the otherwise homely and wholesome dynamic brought on by leads Renner and Steinfeld. Farmiga plays Eleanor Bishop, a New York socialite with some obvious skeletons in her closet. Her performance is deliciously sassy and quickly proves to be a great foil for Steinfeld’s own brand of snark.

Dalton is Jacques Duquesne, a character known to Silver Age readers as the fallen Avenger Swordsman. Better Call Saul fans familiar with Dalton as Lalo Salamanca may quickly brush off his MCU debut as the same character and for good reason: Dalton doesn’t really drop the slimy grin Lalo for a distinctly new performance. Yet the way he commands a scene with a mere grin highlights his gravitas. He brings a playful impishness to every moment that’s adjunct to the real darkness underneath. It’s a familiar schtick but works consistently no less.

The titular archer finally gets his name on the marquee, a novelty that is smartly channeled into the character’s own pathos. Seeing your family vanish into thin air, turning into a mass murderer, journeying to the edge of the universe only to see your best friend die in your place is never good for one’s mental health and Hawkeye peels those layers for Clint Barton in various ways. He pities himself for not being as celebrated as his colleagues on the team yet is dismissive of respect given to him. His legacy as an Avenger is soured on a deep level for him because of his actions as Ronin.

Renner portrays this modern-day Barton as someone on the brink of collapse. It’s a performance so subdued that you might think Renner isn’t putting in the work but it’s also reflective of the deepness of trauma and PTSD. Trauma is, oftentimes, invisible and forcibly buried under layers of disguises, and the way Renner underlines all of Barton’s wholesome facades with pain is so fascinating to watch. So while the performance is lacking the whimsy of how Fraction’s own vision of Barton, it’s also not without weight and merit.

Sometimes, a project just needs one person to bring the magic and elevate it to the next level. For the 2011 Hawkeye run, it’s David Aja, whose minimalist yet innovative eye for sequential storytelling gave the comic its distinct personality. Without Aja, the comic would not be the success it is. For this year’s Hawkeye series, a loose adaptation of the said comic, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who brings the magic, allowing the show to rise above its restraint. 

Hawkeye wastes no time in positing the POV of Kate Bishop as the focal point of the show, opening with a prologue that would make all the Marvel-Netflix shows filled with envy as the Battle of New York, or as those shows would eye-rollingly call it, The Incident, is on full display in all its horrific glory. The incident serves as the impetus for Kate Bishop’s eventual path to becoming the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Archer, instilling in her a sense of stubborn determination that Steinfeld proudly wears in her performance.

Steinfeld is a godsend in the role, turning in a charming performance that would’ve turned her into an overnight sensation if True Grit didn’t already do that. Her take on Kate Bishop is wonderfully her own yet already like feels like the blueprint of all the Kate comics before her. Her Kate is frisky and brings a warmness that dyes the somber performance of Renner with color, making their dynamic feel alive. There’s also a staunch fierceness to the way Steinfeld portrays some of Kate’s rougher edges that allows her to be contentious but never abrasive. Kevin Feige and co. have stated that an adaptation of the Fraction/Aja line was always in the pipeline but Steinfeld’s performance proves that this project wouldn’t work without her.

Hawkeye won’t make the same level of impact the Fraction/Aja comic did when it first hit shelves. But the stellar cast and allure of seeing a certain Marvel villain behind the curtains of this otherwise pedestrian crime story will make this a worthwhile watch for any fan.

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