Hawkeye ends an exhausting year on Marvel TV

Hawkeye ‘While the holiday vibe is reasonably fun, it is not enough to distract from what has become a frustratingly formal approach to TV storytelling.
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios

Hawkeye, the latest Marvel TV show coming to Disney +, opens with a moment that unfolded 20 Marvel movies ago. In this iteration a look back at The Avengers’ Battle of New York is seen through the eyes of a young Kate Bishop, a character introduced to the television audience for the first time in this limited series, which begins streaming on Wednesday. While chaos dominates the city’s streets and skies, Kate, who follows in horror from her parents’ ruined penthouse, catches sight of Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton, who engages in battle against Loki’s Chitauri forces and fires an arrow in free fall. It’s a crucial moment for the young woman who, years later, as a 20-year-old played by Hailee Steinfeld, will become a skilled archer, fighter and potential successor to Hawkeye, in part because of what she witnessed on the violent day.

That opening sequence confirms it Hawkeye will do exactly what you would expect a Marvel series to do: look back at events previously covered by the multiverse; spray powerful, multiplexable action sequences across your screen; emphasize the inspiration that can be gleaned from superhero worship; and introduce potential new objects of worship that will inevitably appear in future Marvel movies and TV shows. (It’s unclear what Kate’s role will be in upcoming Marvel projects, but Steinfeld has hinted that she, not surprisingly, will have one.) Which is fine, I think. Based on the first two episodes shared with critics, Hawkeye is a reasonably entertaining series with a holiday vibe that makes it fun to watch at this time of year. Plus, Steinfeld – no surprise – is a fine, brave heroine. But when I think back to how strongly this year in Marvel TV began, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed where it ends.

When WandaVision fell on Disney + two weeks into 2021, it marked the beginning of Marvel’s Phase Four, the first chapter of storytelling in which Marvel’s Disney movies and TV projects would both serve as integrated, intertwined pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision was not originally intended to carry the ball first, but pandemic delays in production changed the carefully thought-out Marvel movie and TV board. Instead of Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuted as the first series in this new Marvel era, the credit went to WandaVision, for better or worse.

I say for the better because WandaVision was amazing and ambitious in a way that promised well for where this new era of Marvel TV shows could be heading. Under the supervision of showrunner Jac Schaeffer, this journey through classic sitcoms and personal grief was a departure from the usual Marvel in terms of tone and ambition, but still remained associated with the larger MCU narrative. Some Marvel diehards initially expressed frustration over it WandaVision spent too much time in comedy land and not enough time to chart the connections between Wanda’s enchanted New Jersey suburb and the wider world where SWORD was busy investigating. But many people (hand raised) appreciated the comedy tribute, the way Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany embraced them, and the fact that WandaVision let the mystery be for a few episodes before explaining what really happened in this literal bubble that Wanda had created.

For casual Marvel fans, WandaVision did something that Marvel creations currently cannot often accomplish: It paved the way for those who do not live, breathe, eat, and drink Marvel. By illuminating its highly conceptual premise at a measured pace, the show sparked curiosity and enabled us to invest in the characters. At the same time, it also did several of the things I mentioned earlier that we expect from a Marvel show: Refer back to events previously covered by the multiverse, serve multiplex-worthy action sequences, and plant seeds for future Marvel projects. WandaVision tees up what will eventually happen in Doctor Strange in the multiverse of madness, which opens in theaters in May, and has also inspired the spinoff Agatha: House of Harkness, centered on Kathryn Hahn’s witches, curious neighbor. For what kind of riff on sitcoms does not end with a spinoff? The fact that WandaVision made all this with natural ease a gold standard that any Marvel project should strive for.

From a TV critic’s perspective, WandaVision did something even more important: it embraced its identity as a TV show. Framing so many of its episodes around specific time periods and tributes gave the series a true episodic feel; when you try to remember what happened in the series, your brain can easily remember the one who was like Brady Bunch or Halloween that reminded me Malcolm in the middle. Each chapter was separate.

The second Marvel series with limited live action was released afterWandaVision has not resonated in the same way. (I do not What if … as it is animated and works more like a post-Loki thought experiment, though it deserves credit for also having an episodic approach and being the only one of these new Marvel shows trying to exist as a sequel rather than a one-and-done one.) The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki delivered strong “This is Really a Six-Hour Movie” vibes because their stories seemed less episodically shaped and more like long narratives that happened to hit the pause button on important points. They were wholes divided into sections rather than like WandaVision, separate pieces that also made a complete picture when locked together. Have only seen two of the six episodes of Hawkeye, it is difficult to say with certainty whether it will be registered in the same way. But so far, that’s how it is expressed.

None of these Marvel shows are badin itself. They all have strong acting. Loki, especially had smart and imaginative fun with time travel. It is obvious that there is skill and craftsmanship involved in making them all. Yet no one is as memorable or engaging as WandaVision, and it’s getting easier and easier to watch the Marvel formulas emerge The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Lokiand again, as far as I can understand, Hawkeye. When someone speaks in one of these series, you can feel the moment when what they say turns into an exhibition dump. The fight scenes and action sequences may be compelling, but they do not necessarily feel unpredictable, in part because we have all seen so many damn fight scenes in Marvel productions at this point. When someone says something funny, or at least something that is meant to be funny, you can feel the author’s impulse to insert something fooled to keep things light. Much of the dynamic between Kate and Clint, not unlike the dynamics between Loki and Mobius or Sam and Bucky, is rooted in teasing, but this current kind of teasing needs fresh oxygen – there is an exchange between Clint and Kate in Hawkeye which ends with her saying something along the lines of, “It’s wrong on so many levels,” a joke construction that Thanos should have ruined years ago.

An element of Hawkeye What makes it stand out from the second Marvel TV in 2021 is that it is much more rooted in recognizable reality. Its New York City is similar to our New York City. The lifestyle of its rich people – Kate’s mother, played by Vera Farmiga, is loaded – seems just as unattainable there as here. So far no one was able to send in the perfect solution, which is not strange. Yet it is still challenging to see without feeling distanced from what is happening. Like Falcon and Loki, Hawkeye is emotionally impenetrable, even if the talented actors do their best to make you feel something.

Maybe it’s hard to feel strong Hawkeye for the most obvious and basic reason: There’s just too much Marvel “content” for any of it to be fully recorded unless it goes out of its way to do something really different. Consider this: Phase one of MCU rolled out six films over four years. Phase two gave us six films in just over two years. Phase three: 11 films in just over three years. By the end of 2021, Phase Four, which has just begun, will have given the world nine projects: four films and five TV shows, almost as much “content” as the last phase delivered in three times as long. I understand that some people love Marvel and can not get enough. Cash figures certainly support that. But by any reasonable creative standard, this is too much.

From the start, my concern was to make Marvel TV more central to the MCU, that the series would be treated less as opportunities to tell new stories and more as placeholders designed to keep Marvel’s interest awake until the next movie arrives. When WandaVision arrived, I was glad to think the assumption was false. I’m less satisfied now that it looks like I was closer to right. I would not go so far as to believe The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye as mere placeholders, but more and more Marvel shows are starting to feel like television lessons that need to be performed dutifully so I do not fall behind in the Marvel class, rather than shows that I look forward to experiencing.

2021 started with a Marvel series that featured tropes and formulas in so much of the older TV that came before it. Now it ends with the sinking feeling that Marvel shows are succumbing to their own tropics and formulas – and unlike Wanda, they may never get out of it.

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