Hawkeye’s first season is a welcome holiday surprise

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Hawkeye is the most unassuming of the Marvel shows on Disney Plus so far.

It doesn’t have the immediate hook of Loki’s time-bending story or WandaVision’s surreal take on sitcoms. It also stars arguably the most forgettable of all the Avengers, one who is getting a big spotlight while other, more notable characters get movies that come years too late. And yet… there’s something about its blend of detective story, MCU action, and charming Christmas vibe that just works. Across its six episodes, Hawkeye manages to balance being a superhero show that doesn’t take itself too seriously with all of the complex storytelling elements that come with being part of the Marvel universe. The fact that it pulls it all off so well is something of a Christmas miracle.

This review contains some light spoilers for the first season of Hawkeye.

Despite the name, Hawkeye isn’t a show just about Jeremy Renner’s take on the bow-wielding hero Clint Barton. He’s a big part of it, sure, but the story is just as much about his wannabe protégé Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). The two are forced together after Kate dons the costume of a vigilante known as the Ronin — formerly worn by Clint — putting her in the crosshairs of some very dangerous people. Clint just wants to be left alone to spend time with his family over the holidays, while Kate, who grew up idolizing Hawkeye, couldn’t be more thrilled about being forced together.

The show’s main strength is how the two play off each other. Kate is exceedingly charming, a playful mess who is constantly in over her head, and yet usually able to talk her way out of it. Clint is the opposite: sullen, pessimistic, but prepared like Batman. The story is structured a bit like a detective story, at least at first, with the two investigating a bunch of shady people connected to the Ronin. Oh, and also, it’s Christmas in New York. This all lends the show a gritty-yet-playful vibe that suits it well, where gunfights are interrupted by quips about USB standards. It doesn’t take too long before the show intersects with the rest of the MCU — and it does so from a few different directions.

Image: Marvel Studios

One of the main connections was teased at the end of Black Widow: Yelena (Florence Pugh) vows to avenge her sister’s death by killing Clint. When she does show up to do just that, she’s equal parts menacing and hilarious (much like in Black Widow), a trained-from-birth killer who is also trying to do some normal human stuff now that she’s (sort of) free. Pugh and Steinfeld have incredible chemistry — Steinfeld seems to have great chemistry with just about everyone — and it’s a lot of fun to watch them talk life and death over a pot of macaroni and cheese, discussing everything from a planned killing to Rudolph, the “super-powered reindeer.” Later on, the two can’t stop complimenting each other in the midst of a brutal fistfight, with Kate telling Yelena, “Stop making me like you.”

While Marvel fans knew that one was coming, the other big connection is much more unexpected. The big bad of season 1 is the criminal overlord Kingpin, and in this case, he’s played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who also had the role on Netflix’s Daredevil. It’s unexpected primarily because, since the launch of Disney Plus and the new wave of MCU streaming series that came with it, the fate of the Netflix shows and characters has been a source of much debate. All I’m saying is, next time an MCU character needs some help with an investigation, Jessica Jones is right there.

These kinds of crossovers are common for Marvel, and for the most part, they don’t feel too obtrusive here. (Nothing is as bad as, say, Jonathan Majors’ monologue at the end of Loki.) The reveals hit a little harder if you know what’s already happened — I would recommend at least watching Black Widow first — but otherwise, the background knowledge isn’t strictly necessary to understand that Kingpin is a mob mastermind, and Yelena is a charming assassin. Hawkeye balances things nicely, making it work fairly well both for the die-hards and those coming in fresh.

Image: Marvel Studios

There are maybe a few too many threads happening concurrently, though, particularly towards the end. There’s an important villain reveal; the inevitable showdown between Clint and Yelena; the debut of some much-teased superhero costumes; a pivotal moment for Echo (Alaqua Cox), a future hero who starts out as a criminal; Kate’s seeming ascendance to Hawkeye-level hero; and of course, a tease for what comes next, which in this case appears to involve Clint’s wife, Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini). (Surprisingly, Hawkeye doesn’t have the traditional MCU big reveal after the credits; instead, viewers get to watch a full-song performance from the goofy Avengers musical from the first episode.) There’s a lot going on — at one point in the finale, there are three pivotal fights happening concurrently — and the last episode rushes through some of them without giving much time for the heavy moments to land.

This kind of balancing act is, of course, key to the whole Marvel machine, where every story is just one cog in a much bigger machine. Hawkeye pulls it off as well as any of its contemporaries. It works as a standalone story, a fun romp through Christmas in New York, while also weaving in multiple threads from various other Marvel stories and setting up at least two more. All that in just six episodes — and while rehabilitating Clint Barton into a hero you finally care about.

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