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Hawkeye's premiere is a Christmas treat

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Photo: Mary Cybulski/Marvel Studios

In their own ways, the first three live-action Marvel Disney+ shows each felt like they were aiming for something epic. There was the genre-bending, death-defying sitcom premise of WandaVision; the establish-a-new-Captain-America worldbuilding of The Falcon And The Winter Solider; and the explosive multiversal antics of Loki. Across its first two episodes, however, Hawkeye takes a decidedly different approach. This is much more of a small-scale Christmas romp than a world-changing epic adventure. It's got the stakes of a Marvel Netflix show mixed with the comedic tone of an Ant-Man movie. Coupled with some charming central performances, that makes for a refreshing change of pace, not to mention a fitting tonal match for a low-key street-level Avenger who lacks a clear brand.

What writer/creator Jonathan Igla smartly realizes is that the show's grumpy, grounded title character works best when he's bouncing off someone—whether that's making small talk with Natasha Romanoff mid-battle or taking on a mentor role to Wanda Maximoff, also mid-battle. Here his new partner in crime is Hailee Steinfeld's Kate Bishop, one of the most immediately likable additions to the MCU in ages. Steinfeld doesn't bow to the MCU's quippy house style so much as fold it around her own unique deadpan timing. And that lends Hawkeye a comedic flair that feels totally unique, even amongst Marvel's goofier entries—one helped along by Saturday Night Live and Documentary Now! director Rhys Thomas, who helms both of these episodes.

Plotwise, there's not a ton to these first two entries, which are more about establishing a world and creating a vibe than laying out some big complicated central mystery. Clint Barton, for one, would prefer to put the mysteries behind him and just spend a nice Christmas with his newly un-dusted family. He is—as Roger Murtaugh famously put it—getting too old for this shit. And it's clear he'd rather put the superheroing aside and just enjoy a simpler life (at least as long as it doesn't involve going to see more than one act of Rogers: The Musical).

Unfortunately, while Clint may be through with the past, the past isn't through with him. He's specifically haunted by the time he spent murdering crime lords as a vigilante named Ronin during the Blip. It was a big part of the reason he thought he should be the one to sacrifice himself to get the Soul Stone in Avengers: Endgame. Natasha fought to selflessly taking that plunge instead, however, which clearly weighs heavily on Clint's conscience. So even though the public doesn't know that Hawkeye and Ronin are one and the same, Clint can't just ignore it when a new figure pops up wearing the Ronin ninja costume. He feels duty bound to step in and clean up his old mess.

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Which is what connects him to Kate Bishop, who's really first and foremost the star here. Since we already know what Hawkeye's whole everyman superhero deal is, the bulk of these first two episodes are dedicated to fleshing out Kate—who's basically got Batman's backstory mixed with Spider-Man's personality. Growing up megawealthy didn't protect her from pain, as she learned when her beloved dad was (seemingly) killed during the battle of New York back in 2012. But Kate's wealthy lifestyle did allow her to pursue an impressive list of extracurriculars (archery, fencing, martial arts, gymnastics, etc). Plus she owns her own apartment and a custom purple archery suit, not to mention all sorts of fancy tracking tech thanks to her mom Eleanor (Vera Farmiga), who runs a high-end security company. Not too bad for an aspiring 22-year-old superhero.

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Yet Kate isn't defined by the brooding burden of Bruce Wayne or the entitled arrogance of fellow wealthy superhero Tony Stark. Instead she's a bubbly, sarcastic, impulsive young adult—one who's as comfortable leaping into battle as she is asking Clint to sign her bow and arrow. Steinfeld gives Kate a charmingly guileless confidence, like when she avoids getting caught during a makeshift undercover mission by pretending to be offended that the manager doesn't know her name. We don't often see superheroes at this over-confident college-age young adult stage, and it makes for a good match for a superhero origin story. These episodes also strike a nice balance between making Kate a fallible rookie and giving her some solid skills as well—like when she holds her own against some Eastern European gangsters long enough to barricade herself inside a car.

Equally importantly, Steinfeld and Renner have wonderful chemistry together too. Kate doesn't let her Hawkeye fandom stop her from giving Clint notes on his branding (or lack thereof) and sending him negging text messages. Clint, meanwhile, treats her like an overeager kid on the high school softball team he's coaching. He'll grumble about her, but he cares enough to lend a hand when she bandages her wound incorrectly too. It's all very endearing. So even though it's a pretty big coincidence that a Hawkeye superfan just happens to unknowingly don the one suit that would get her idol to track her down, it'd take a real Grinch to get too bothered by those sorts of contrivances. We're here to have fun, not parse plot mechanics.

Even the fact that the bad guys are just called the Tracksuit Mafia suggests that Hawkeye doesn't plan to get too bogged down in complicated mythology building, which definitely feels like the right choice. (Beyond the Ronin suit, the series' other MacGuffin is a watch that was found in the wreckage of Avengers Compound.) While there's clearly something going on with Eleanor, her fiancé Jack (Tony Dalton), and Jack's uncle Armond III (Simon Callow), it seems like that's going to be rooted more in the show's central family theme than in some giant global conspiracy. Really, the biggest stakes here are whether Clint is going to be able to wrap up this mission in time to make it back home for Christmas with his family. (Good to see you again Linda Cardellini!)

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Overall, these first two episodes do a nice job teasing some mysteries while putting character and comedy front and center. The action is solid, if not particularly superb, with the wine bottle fight as a highlight. But it's the Yuletide joy that takes center stage here—with Kate saving and then adopting a one-eyed, pizza-loving dog, and Clint making a LARPer's day by agreeing to "fight" him in ritual combat. As part of her branding advice, Kate tells Clint that cynical, self-serious stuff is out, and sincere, heart-on-your-sleeve stuff is in. That's obviously a meta statement of purpose for Hawkeye as well, and that makes it a perfect treat for the holidays.

Stray observations

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