“Hawkeye” is the fifth series to debut on Disney+ from the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year, arriving with two episodes streaming just in time for the Thanksgiving holidays. As the last of a rush of content after 2020’s enforced year off (the MCU is on track to debut nine titles across big and small screens by year’s end), the show has to keep the streak of hits alive as Marvel rounds into year two on the streaming service. Lucky for it, it centers on one of the brightest talents to join the superhero world so far, Hailee Steinfeld, whose enthusiasm is infectious enough to power an entire standalone franchise.
The two characters and their “old school dad/whiz-kid daughter” pairing would work in just about any TV series scenario Marvel dreamed up.
The series is named for the last of the six original heroes from “The Avengers,” the hit 2012 film that established the crossover “franchise universe” blockbuster model. The five others have all had solo big screen adventures (though Black Widow’s came only just this summer); Hawkeye, real name Clint Barton (played by Jeremy Renner), will have to settle for the small screen. That’s partly because the character is the least glamorous of the bunch. He’s not a billionaire, a god, a World War II hero, a Russian assassin or a hulk. It’s a fact the show is deeply aware of and plays up as part of the humor. Everyone else has superpowers or at least the grace to be interesting. Hawkeye has a bow and arrow.
As in the Disney+ shows “WandaVision” and “Loki,” the character comes with an unexplored backstory to lean into. Clint Barton is the only one of the original six heroes who was already married with kids when he was introduced, which the movies have referred to only in passing. As Disney+ is all about the family-friendly content, one might think a “Hawkeye” series would be happy to home in on the home life. But Barton is once again separated from his kin and paired up with a found family, instead, a surrogate daughter of sorts, Kate Bishop (Steinfeld). Bishop is a rich Manhattanite whose father was one of the many nameless civilians killed in the famous “Battle of New York” scene in “The Avengers”; she has idolized Hawkeye since she saw him fire arrows from the tops of the skyline that day. When circumstances lead the two into each other’s path, she’s like an eager puppy, ready to be mentored by a guy whose big dad energy can’t help but let her follow along.
The two characters and their “old school dad/whiz-kid daughter” pairing would work in just about any TV series scenario Marvel dreamed up. Renner and Steinfeld have great chemistry together, and their odd couple/buddy cop routine is delightful even when they’re not embroiled in action sequences. But the MCU has thrown in an extra twist in a bid to make this a show for the ages: It’s a Christmas story. Barton’s low-key persona and his family make him the perfect vehicle for the traditional trope of trying to get home for the holidays, just as soon as he’s dealt with these bad guys. Call it “Die Hard With an Avenger.”
Since Netflix discovered the holiday market with the success of 2017’s “A Christmas Prince,” streaming has gotten into the holidays in a big way, including Disney+. As the family-friendly streaming service you can trust your kids with, it specializes in holidays. Last year, the House of Mouse dug into its other hit studio franchise, “Star Wars,” adding a brand new addition to its growing catalogue with “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special.” This year, it’s Marvel’s turn to bring the stuffing, and it does so by going back to the original formula that made its first streaming TV series work.
It brings tons of small delights in each episode, from characters larping in Central Park to Broadway performances.
Since the MCU’s debut on Disney+, the company has seemingly worked to keep the new lineup from anything that might invite one-to-one comparisons with Netflix and Marvel’s canceled “The Defenders” franchise of “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” and others. “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki” all created situations and settings that were as far from these shows and their “vigilantes running around New York City” vibe as possible. But with “Hawkeye,” the MCU runs right at it. The NYC setting, the street-eye-level problems, the introduction of multiple comic book antiheroes on which to hang more franchise titles are all straight from the “Daredevil” playbook. There are no global crises or end-of-time scenarios here, just small-time rich people abusing their positions for illegal gains and a couple of people with a lot of martial arts training to stop them.
But “Hawkeye” does its predecessors one better by correcting all of Netflix’s old mistakes. Instead of bloated 13-episode runs with no established conclusions, this series is a clipped six-episode limited series. Instead of attempting too many twists, it sticks to the straightforward adventure advertised. And most important, it brings tons of small delights in each episode, from characters larping in Central Park to Broadway performances. In one of its best moments, the series lampoons its own material (and its parent company’s habit of remaking its content for the Great White Way) with “Rogers: The Musical,” quite possibly the most delightful and deliberately memeable scene in any streaming series this year.
But the key to making this show tick is Steinfeld, who has already delighted streaming audiences twice this year with two seasons of “Dickinson” over on Apple TV+. The reason Marvel returns over and over to the origin story is the wide-eyed wonder of the not-yet-jaded hero exploring the possibility of what could be for the first time. Even though “Hawkeye” is yet another entry in that category, as Bishop takes up the mantle so Barton can go home for Christmas, she makes the tropes feel fresh all over again. Perhaps it’s the lights over the city, the spirit of the season or the Christmas soundtrack. But in Marvel’s closeout for 2021 (the finale will stream just before Christmas Eve), Steinfeld makes the Marvel world seem magical once more.