Marvel may be the most successful franchise in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to the same tropes that have plagued the superhero genre for decades.
That includes the frustrating habit of injecting global — sometimes universal — stakes into nearly every story. Whether it’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or Eternals, the MCU’s titles nearly always end with its heroes fighting to ensure the planet isn’t destroyed. In a franchise-capping crossover film like Avengers: Endgame, that makes sense. But in a standalone origin movie like Shang-Chi? Not so much.
Predictably, Marvel’s unending reliance on massive, apocalyptic stories is having an increasingly negative impact on the effectiveness of its individual titles. When the world is always at stake, it’s hard to be intimidated by any new threats that arise. However, what’s worse is that the endlessly large scope of the studio’s projects has led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe being flattened and rendered one-dimensional. By zooming out so much and only focusing on the big picture, Marvel runs the risk of erasing the small details of its cinematic universe.
But that’s what makes Hawkeye, Marvel’s latest Disney+ series, a refreshing change-of-pace for the MCU. For the first time in a long time, we’re seeing Marvel heroes ride the subway.
Three episodes into its six-episode season, Hawkeye has yet to introduce any world-ending threats or alien armies. Instead, the Disney+ show has kept things small, telling a holiday story about its hero’s desire to get home in time to spend Christmas with his family.
The series has rooted most of its drama in the personal lives of its characters: Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) wants to uncover the secrets of her soon-to-be stepfather (Tony Dalton), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) wants to stay close to the family he spent five years without, and Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) wants to avenge her father’s murder. While the show is relatively small in scope, its characters’ problems feel just as dire as if a Celestial was trying to destroy the planet.
Outside of the narrative rewards that Hawkeye reaps by taking a more personal approach, the show’s smaller, street-level scale also helps it stand out from the other titles Marvel has released in 2021. While its action sequences have been uneven in their execution, seeing Clint and Kate walk around real streets and real apartments gives Hawkeye an enjoyably tactile feel. The show’s world seems lived-in because, well, a lot of it actually is.
Hawkeye is an example of what can happen when the biggest studio in Hollywood decides to zoom in a little bit and scale down the scope of its stories. And the good thing is that there’s reason to believe it won’t be the only street-level title Marvel releases in the coming years.
While nothing has been officially revealed yet, it feels like Marvel is currently in the process of bringing back several characters and actors from its short-lived Netflix series. That includes Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, who may have appeared briefly in Hawkeye Episode 3, and Charlie Cox’s Daredevil, who is heavily rumored to have a surprise role in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Assuming those rumors are true, D’Onofrio and Cox’s returns are worth celebrating. Not only are their respective performances as Kingpin and Daredevil layered and compelling, but their characters open the door for Marvel to tell the kind of New York neighborhood stories that have always served as the foundation of its fictional universe.
The MCU needs to tell stories of different shapes and sizes if it wants to remain compelling and, for all their faults, Marvel’s Netflix shows did just that. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Punisher told stories that felt markedly different from those playing out in films like The Avengers and Age of Ultron, and their cancellations have left a hole in the MCU that’s remained unfilled.
Thanks to Hawkeye, that may not be the case anymore.
The Inverse Analysis — For a franchise that’s thrived on the strength of its characters — and the performances of the actors portraying them — the MCU has held onto a misguided belief that its entries always need to end with oversized, CGI-heavy, world-ending set pieces. Sometimes those sequences are justified, but their inclusion in films like Black Widow and Shang-Chi tend to distract from what should be smaller, more personal stories.
That’s why, despite all the action sequences scattered throughout Hawkeye’s first three episodes, the show’s best moments have all involved Kate and Clint just, you know, talking. Whether it’s a diner discussion about costumes or working together to make sure Clint can have a proper conversation with his son, their relationship is the heart and soul of Hawkeye, and the show doesn’t need any CGI aliens or monsters falling out of the sky to make it feel important and substantial. The fact is, most stories don’t.
After all, who wouldn’t trade in some generic alien bad guys like the Celestials or the Dweller-in-Darkness for more quirky and memorable low-level criminals like those that make up the Tracksuit Mafia? Frankly, that’s a bit of a no-brainer, bro.
Hawkeye is streaming now on Disney+.