If you caught Deadpool 2 this summer, you may have noticed, among the many jokes and jabs, some not so subtle shade thrown at Clint Barton, A.K.A. Hawkeye. At one point, Wade Wilson says, “With this collar on, my superpower is just unbridled cancer. Give me a bow and arrow and I’m basically Hawkeye.” This was one of many hilarious digs at superhero culture throughout the movie. But it got me thinking, Hawkeye is the butt of almost every Avengers joke. And It’s not exactly hard to see why. He’s a dude with no powers, he’s just really good with his bow and arrow. It’s absolutely absurd.
But at the same time, what Marvel character doesn’t come off as goofy in their most basic description? Captain America, a guy dressed as the American flag, taking on armed mercenaries with his…metal shield? Iron Man, a guy dressed in what looks like a garbage can in his first appearance and then later upgrades it to a flying McDonald’s add? Even Black Widow brings nothing more than her looks and some skilled fighting to a battle. Yet this kind of nonsensical fun is part of the great allure and fantasy of superheroes. Take it too seriously and you’re going to have a bad time. But still, the first thing most people will point out when talking about the Avengers is, “The dude with the bow and arrow has got to go, it just makes no sense.”
Of course, most people taking these jabs know Hawkeye and the rest of the Avengers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone. Hawkeye from Marvel comics is an all together different animal. So, let’s deconstruct just why Clint Barton has worked as a character in the comics since the 1960’s, yet falls short in the modern age of Superhero cinema.
And of course, spoilers from Hawkeye’s comic book and film history.
Let’s start by clarifying that there are two main versions of Clint Barton/Hawkeye in Marvel comics to draw reference; The 616 Universe and The Ultimate Universe.
The 616 universe, which is considered the primary Marvel universe, is where the character made his debut back in 1964. And his story continues in that same world to this very day. His first appearance was as an antagonist against Iron Man. But he wasn’t your run of the mill criminal. Clint Barton had grown up in the circus where he developed expert archer skills. When he sees Iron Man save a group of people in danger on Coney Island, Clint becomes jealous of the audience’s awe and attention for Iron Man’s heroics instead of his marksman show. From there, out of resentment, Clint gets to work on creating his own superhero persona, Hawkeye, equipped with a flashy purple suit and customized arrow tips. After a misunderstanding with the authorities, Clint is labeled a criminal, and even embraces that definition for a short time. That is, until he chooses to join The Avengers in hopes of clearing his name and earning a rank amongst Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Birthed during a rejuvenation period for Marvel, the Ultimate Universe was created in the year 2000 to explore a fresh, modern take of its classic characters. 2002 saw the introduction of The Ultimates, this universe’s version of The Avengers. The Ultimates were brought together by Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., as an American superhero strike-force team assembled to combat the ever growing threat of super-villains. Here, Clint Barton is a former Olympic archer turned black ops agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who is often partnered up with ex-KGB agent, Natasha Romanov, AKA Black Widow. This should all sound familiar to any Avengers film fans, as most of these elements were utilized in the first 2012 movie. What may not sound as familiar though is that in this universe, Clint has a wife and three children who are all murdered in front of him after a betrayal by his friend and teammate, Black Widow. Soon after, Hawkeye gets his revenge on Widow by shooting an arrow between her eyes. Yep, things got dark.
One of, if not, the best ingredients in Marvel’s cinematic universe are the stellar casting choices. From Robert Downey Jr. to Chris Evans, Marvel Studios owes much of its success to actors that seem born to play their rolls. Unfortunately, Hawkeye is an exception to this trend. And that is no knock at Jeremy Renner, he is a great actor in his own right, but Clint Barton is simply not a roll that fits him.
Renner first appears as Hawkeye with a quick cameo in Thor, but his true first outing as the character was in The Avengers. And it is here that I would argue Renner was not a poor casting choice in this specific movie. With an ensemble cast consisting of six comic book heroes, at least one would have to play second fiddle to the narrative. It was inevitable, and since Hawkeye was the one character that had no significant influence in the prior lead up movies, it was bound to be him. And this was fair. From a story perspective, writer/director Joss Whedon made the logical choice to draw from Marvel’s Ultimate Comics interpretation of the character. And Jeremy Renner was a solid choice for this version of Clint Barton. His acting responsibilities in The Avengers were straight forward; a skilled soldier of fortune manipulated into serving Loki. He was also used to build on and expand Black Widow’s arc, revealing two nuanced SHIELD agents with a complex backstory. Every scene Hawkeye was called for in The Avengers was hit well enough with Renner. It’s the character’s follow up appearance that doesn’t quite measure up.
For Joss Whedon’s sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was expectation for the filmmaker to expand upon Clint Barton. He was the necessary sacrifice of the first movie, but a sequel had every responsibility to double down on the golden archer. Whedon clearly felt this obligation and made a valiant effort to extend the character some justice. So he chose to dig even deeper into Barton’s ultimate universe interpretation and gave him a family. And with this, we were finally granted a clear notion of the character’s place on the team. He is, among a squad of broken and lonely individuals, the stable one of the group. He has every reason to retire and enjoy a quite life on a secluded farm with his family. Yet, Clint feels a parental-like obligation to look after his teammates. His pregnant wife insists that he retire, so Clint agrees to one last mission, a final battle against the antagonist of the film, Ultron. After barely making if out alive, and witnessing a fellow Avenger, Quicksilver, die on the battle field, Barton gives into his wife’s insistence and choses retirement from avenging at the end of the movie.
But here’s the problem, the most engaging aspect of Clint’s family in the ultimate universe is that they get taken away from him. We are not directed to care about Hawkeye’s family so much as we are meant to care about the effect their death has on him. Just like any great Marvel character, his life is endowed with terrible tragedy. His best friend and teammate betrayed him and took away what he cherished most in life. This would drive any normal person insane, but Barton uses it as motivation for his place in the Ultimates. His drive to prove himself amongst Gods and warriors is engaging and human. There is never a sense that Hawkeye needs to prove himself among his more powerful peers in Ultron. He has their approval, but his wife’s apprehension over his career choice is where his conflict comes in. Compared to the compelling internal conflicts the other Avengers have to deal with, Clint’s comes off as the least engaging. Whedon attempted to make Hawkeye a unique character in the MCU by shaping a hero without a tragic or misunderstood backstory, but this unfortunately resulted in a flatter outcome than intended.
Cue Captain America: Civil War, where the age of the Russo Brothers had officially assumed the MCU. Whereas Joss Whedon looked to the Ultimate Universe for Hawkeye inspiration, directors Joe and Anthony Russo chose to go classic and draw from the 616 Barton for Civil War. For the first time on screen, we see the more whimsical, witty natured attributes Clint was originally known for. His involvement comes about halfway through the movie when Captain America calls Hawkeye out of retirement to join his side in the fight against Iron Man’s team. His first mission; save The Scarlet Witch from Vision’s entrapment. Script wise, this was a great way to get Barton involved again. His choice plays on what had been previously established in the Avengers movies. He is addicted to the thrill of being a soldier, even at the risk of leaving his family behind, so of course he would jump at the chance to abandon his retirement. Age of Ultron also established a sibling-like bond between Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch AKA Wanda Maximoff, so it makes sense that he would answer the call to save her. But his choice to help Cap’s team gets him locked up by the end of the movie. Civil War was undoubtably the best use of Hawkeye on screen yet, but is also a display of the miscasting of the character.
As I already pointed out, Hawkeye is in full form in Civil War. He’s sarcastic and quippy just as the character was originally known for. But that version of Barton always came off as much younger to me. A daredevil, ready to stare death in the face, sporting nothing but a bow and arrow and a smug grin on his face, not an ounce of fear to show. These qualities naturally lend themselves to a young actor. The Renner version of Hawkeye seems to be at odds with its portrayal. On one hand he’s a weathered father and wise mentor to Wanda. On the other, he’s a soldier of fortune with a careless arrogance towards his fragile mortality. These are two apposing attributes. And it seems as though the former qualities were applied to the character by Whedon in Ultron to fit Jeremy Renner’s age, while the latter qualities were honed by the Russos to fit 616 Barton. Comics Barton is portrayed in his early to mid thirties at most, while Renner is in his mid to late forties. So, instead of downplaying Renner’s age, the MCU filmmakers embraced it. This was certainly the best option with what they had, but it forced an unnecessary dimension on Barton.
When it comes down to it, there are plenty of essential character attributes from 616 Hawkeye just waiting to be utilized for MCU Hawkeye. He’s a man with everything to prove. He was formerly a “villain” and has no power beyond raw skill. This results in an insecurity amongst his Avenging teammates. More specifically, the team leader, Captain America. If only because he wishes he had the power and authority Cap possesses. And in a backwards way, he wishes he could be Cap. Clint’s desire to be the best results in a real dramatic conflict amongst his teammates. He’s got some grit in the comics, some relatable human flaws, while his MCU counterpart comes off as vanilla in comparison. With the exception of Wanda, film Hawkeye feels removed from the rest of the team due to his familial duties. We are robbed of any dramatic conflict with his colleagues because he’s not a basket of internal problems like the rest of the Avengers are.
Perhaps one of the best uses of 616 Hawkeye was in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s 22 issue comic book run that starred the marksman himself. Here we got a TV series-like saga of Clint’s day to day life outside his job as an Avenger, with amazing artwork that lent an Edgar Wright-esque fun, frantic energy to the story. But among the many great uses of Hawkeye and his supporting characters in this saga was the expert depiction of Clint’s arrows in action. The fun of Hawkeye’s arrow “powers” are the different tricks he keeps hidden at the very tip of each one. This makes for some extremely amusing and unexpected action sequences that you wouldn’t think a guy sporting only a bow and arrow could provide. From explosive arrows to bola arrows, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had with Clint’s improvisation in a battle.
However, the cinematic universe has yet to pull off any legitimately memorable arrow moments for Barton. And that’s not to say some fun Hawkeye movie moments don’t exist, they just aren’t as memorable as most of the other hero’s spotlight moments. Who can forget Doctor Strange’s Groundhog Day time-loop, Peter Parker’s rubble escape, Thor discovering his Raiden-like lightning powers, Fury’s Hydra car chase, Hulk’s Loki smash? The list goes on, but a truly awe inspired Hawkeye scene just doesn’t come to mind. Ant-Man’s arrow ride in Civil War was a cool comic book team-up sequence, but that beat belongs to Ant-Man more than Clint. And It’s a shame that Barton is largely remembered for providing other hero’s their moments. Clint’s pep talk for Wanda in Age of Ultron is a lead up to her grand, slow motion display of power. But hey, If Captain America: Winter Soldier proves anything, it’s that any character can be retooled into an absolute badass. Many people forget that Cap had very little memorability in his first couple film outings, until Winter Soldier brought us some of the most memorable action scenes ever from a Marvel character. Unfortunately, four movies in and we’re still waiting for the golden archer to have a truly scene stealing moment.
But, there is some hope for Hawkeye in the currently untitled Avengers 4 release next summer. The Russo brothers have confirmed that Hawkeye’s absence from this year’s Avengers: Infinity War will be made up for in a big bad way. Clint officially hung up his arrow after the events of Civil War by copping a deal with the government to stay with his family under house arrest, as apposed to being confined to a cell. So long as he keeps his superhero career in the past. Well, my theory is that the Russo brothers will finally pull the Ultimate Hawkeye storyline we all want. In fact, they seem to have already pulled it. The end of Infinity War concludes with half of the universe dying as a result to Thanos’ ‘snap.’ I’m betting that Hawkeye got the short end of the arrow here and lost his entire family. If Clint no longer has a family, he no longer has a reason to keep away from the old bow and arrow. With this, we could get a true film interpretation of the broken soldier that lost his family, just as he did in the Ultimate universe. This situation would be ripe with scene steeling potential. And Jeremy Renner would now have the chance to deliver a much grittier, guilt riddled version of Clint Barton. Not to mention, the character would be out for a certain mad Titan’s blood. Just imagine if Barton ends up as the Avenger who delivers the killing blow to Thanos with an arrow through the eye. This would certainly bring a long overdue mainstream respect for Hawkey that comic book fans have been waiting years for.
To be fair, at the end of the day, these movies only have a couple hours or so to give an ensemble of characters a satisfying arc. An improper interpretation of Hawkeye in a television series or standalone movie would be a much more noticeable issue. Marvel Studios has done a spectacular job with the bulk of its characters, so Hawkeye’s treatment thus far is but a minor quibble in the grand scheme. And due to the limitations of the medium, the Marvel films have at least delivered a good-enough interpretation of Hawkeye. But when it comes to a rich character like Clint Barton, there is always room for greatness.