Review: A Tale of Two Hawkeyes

Of all the fine actors who have accepted employment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jeremy Renner has been the most ill used. He has called his character, the superskilled archer Hawkeye, a “utility guy.” But what he’s really been is a punching bag.

In the M.C.U. movies in which Hawkeye (civilian name Clint Barton) has appeared as part of the superhero ensemble — toiling in the shadows of Thor and Iron Man and Captain America — his luck has not been good. He was magically forced to do a bad guy’s bidding and had to be knocked cold to break the spell. When the Avengers needed a crash pad, they took over his farm. When he got caught in the line of fire, a promising young hero died protecting him.

And that was before his family vanished, along with half the life in the universe, in “Avengers: Infinity War.” That sent him into a tailspin during which he became a vigilante — and really, who could blame him? — a fall from which he emerged only to have another hero, Black Widow, sacrifice herself for him.

After all that guilt and grief and humiliation, it was nice to hear that Barton, and by extension Renner, was finally getting a title role, even if it was in the second tier of the M.C.U.: a six-episode series on Disney+. But hold on: “Hawkeye,” which premieres with two episodes Wednesday, has two Hawkeyes. And Clint Barton, even after helping save the world several times over, is not the lead Hawkeye. He’s playing second fiddle in the show that carries his name.

This wouldn’t matter much except that Renner has proved, in things like “The Bourne Legacy” and several “Mission: Impossible” films, that when he’s not limited to playing dour or flummoxed he can be a superior action star, of the subtle, self-contained variety. He deserves better than Marvel and Disney, with their industrial approach to casting, have given him.

There is a morsel of good news, though, based on Disney+’s usual scant allowance of episodes for review (two). “Hawkeye” does give Renner a little more range, and while doting father and crusty mentor aren’t necessarily what we’re looking for, they’ll have to do, at least until the action picks up, as it presumably will in later episodes. In the meantime he graciously and skillfully assumes the role of straight man to the show’s real protagonist, Hailee Steinfeld. She plays a Gen Z Hawkeye stan who has taught herself archery and martial arts but needs guidance when it comes to crime-fighting and general superhero comportment.

In the kind of narrative spackling that holds the M.C.U. together, we learn that Steinfeld’s character, Kate Bishop, was a young girl when the Battle of New York (way back in “The Avengers”) took place right outside her family’s luxurious Manhattan apartment. That’s where her Hawkeye fixation starts; now she’s a college student playing pranks with trick arrows and trailing the suspicious new boyfriend (Tony Dalton of “Better Call Saul”) of her widowed mother (Vera Farmiga).

There’s also some backfilling of Barton’s story line: During his vigilante phase, he assumed the persona Ronin and did brutal battle with New York’s criminal gangs. Now that his family is back (restored along with everyone else in “Avengers: Endgame”), he’s trying to do the normal-life thing and enjoy Christmas in the city. But as fate and screenwriting would have it, he finds himself tangled up with his biggest fan and some angry gangsters.

As developed by Jonathan Igla, a writer and producer whose credits include “Mad Men” and “Bridgerton,” “Hawkeye” in these early episodes is a light and pleasant watch, one that seems less concerned with Marvel pieties or high-concept games than with straightforward buddy comedy. Steinfeld and Renner are good foils for each other, as Bishop pushes Barton to relax and he tends to her like a fussy aunt. Her initial puppy-dog enthusiasm (“Are you assessing threats? Is that what you’re doing?”) is quickly tempered by superhero reality, such as when getting supplies means hitting CVS for Neosporin and rubbing alcohol.

Igla, and Renner, also make good sport of the inflated seriousness and overheated commercialism that can characterize the Marvel brand. The vacationing Barton family watches in horror as a frenetic Broadway cast powers through “Rogers: The Musical.” (The familiar-looking hoofer singing the praises of Captain America is the “Rent” star Adam Pascal.) Tracking down a lead, Barton finds himself amid a group of broad-sword-fighting role players; to get what he’s after, he has to not only join in but also agree to take a fall so that one of the LARPers can say he defeated an Avenger.

It’s a modest but promising start, and it seems likely enough that the show can carry its low-key comic energy through four more episodes. It’s less clear whether that will be enough time to wrap up a satisfying story. Two presumably prominent cast members — Florence Pugh, as Yelena Belova (the surviving Black Widow), and Alaqua Cox, as the deaf hero Echo — are barely present yet, and they will have to be shoehorned into the action. Here’s hoping there’s still room for Renner to have fun.

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