Episode 3 of Disney’s Hawkeye series opens with a sympathetic origin story for the villain Echo, whose father describes as existing “between two different worlds.”
It’s a trait she shares with Hawkeye, who is a sweet suburban dad at home, and a ruthless mass murderer at work; Hawkeye’s outsider status, however, goes far beyond what the show suggests.
Hawkeye has always felt out of place in the MCU, especially in the original Avengers roster; he was never given an origin story, or even a motivation, beyond “just doing my job.”
While the other Avengers get to learn life lessons through larger-than-life adventures, Hawkeye is left skulking in the shadows, doing the dirty work of an unaccountable intelligence agency, temporarily possessed with bloodlust after losing his family in Thanos’ snap, now haunted by the weight of his actions after the happy ending of Endgame.
Unlike his quippy companions, Hawkeye doesn’t get to enjoy the hero business, and his abilities are comparatively underwhelming, especially when standing next to, say, a Norse god; in no other “alien invasion” story would a character earnestly shoot arrows into the hull of a spacecraft. Of course, this is just the way of comic book movies, but it feels amusingly absurd in Avengers because of Renner’s grim self-seriousness.
It’s kind of unfortunate because Renner is a skilled actor, who imbues a shallow character like Hawkeye with gravitas and melancholy, but it’s a performance that feels far too dour for the MCU, adding to Hawkeye’s uncanny aura of displacement; he simply doesn’t belong in this world.
In contrast, Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) already feels like an MCU inhabitant; she’s introduced as the only person in the world impressed by Hawkeye’s shenanigans in the battle of New York, and quickly blossoms into Hawkeye junior, except she actually gets to have fun firing those arrows; she makes this stuff feel like Spy Kids, while Renner is trapped in The Bourne Identity.
This is highlighted during a memorable car chase scene, which introduces a handful of increasingly preposterous trick arrows, which shows how fun and inventive archery can be in a heightened world of superheroes.
It also shows how Kate can engage in mass murder, blowing up an entire van full of men, without being burdened by Hawkeye’s guilt. Kate gets to say “well, THAT just happened” and move on, the way that Peter Parker or Tony Stark would after accidentally dropping a drone strike. Hawkeye, however, gets saddled with PTSD and permanent hearing loss.
Hawkeye orphans children and murders fathers; his violence is visceral, gore-spattered, more “real” than the cartoonish combat of Thor, Hulk, and Captain America (who, as we all know, would never kill a nice person by accident). And if Iron Man did, he wouldn’t feel bad – he spent years being a war profiteer!
Only Hawkeye and Black Widow are doomed to understand the true horror of their actions, but at least the latter is supported by a steely-eyed family of fellow assassins; poor Hawkeye has to go home and act like the bang of his Christmas cracker didn’t spark a traumatic flashback.
Much like Josh Brolin in Deadpool 2, Hawkeye acts like a character conceived inside an intense action thriller, who finds himself trapped inside a silly superhero blockbuster by accident.
Unlike Brolin, Jeremy Renner isn’t in on the joke.