Jeremy Renner Is Hollywood’s Greatest Negotiating Tool (But He Deserves Better)

Photo: Mary Cybulski/Universal Studios

Somebody needs to figure out what to do with Jeremy Renner. By which I mean, something to do with him in addition to temporarily substituting him into existing film franchises as a feint toward replacing the franchise’s existing star. When Matt Damon, along with director Paul Greengrass, walked away from the Bourne franchise over creative disagreements, the producers looked to reboot with Renner as their new Jason Bourne. Except he wasn’t Jason Bourne, he was — what was his name again? (Aaron Cross — to paraphrase the current Bourne posters: You Don’t Know His Name.) Similarly, back in 2011, Renner was plugged into Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise for film number four, Ghost Protocol, with the implication being that he’d be inheriting the mantle. (“That’s certainly the idea,” Renner told MTV News.) But by the time Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation rolled around in 2015, Cruise was still front and center, shirtless as ever, with Renner relegated to the Greek Chorus along with Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. Renner’s also, of course, featured in those semi-successful Avenger movies you may have heard about — as Hawkeye, the Avenger who’s apparently least likely to ever get his own standalone film.

Every movie needs talented supporting players. Yet eight years after his Oscar-nominated breakout role in the Best Picture–winning The Hurt Locker — which he followed up with a terrific, icing-on-the-cake Oscar-nominated performance in The Town — Renner has not yet ascended to a level of stardom that two back-to-back Oscar nominations would seem to portend. It’s an easy comparison, but an apt one: If Hollywood movie stars, as a whole, are the Avengers, Renner is kind of, well, Hawkeye. He’s in the group, definitely, but he’s the one you always kind of forget is there.

Renner’s plight might speak to Hollywood’s current storied difficulty in minting new male superstars. (Ask yourself what’s become of Taylor Lautner.) Or maybe it’s the paradoxical curse of getting too much Oscar attention too quickly. Renner — intense, gifted, recognizable — now seems like the perfect candidate to front a prestige cable series; the critic Andy Greenwald even nominated Renner and his Hurt Locker co-star, Anthony Mackie, as his dream True Detective season-two duo. But after two successive Oscar nominations, you have to imagine movie stardom is your destiny, and after two showcase rolls in two successful franchises, even more so. Maybe Renner simply wasn’t born for these times — his fantastic acting in The Hurt Locker and The Town aside, Hollywood doesn’t routinely make films like The Hurt Locker or The Town anymore. The critic Darren Franich likened Renner to a modern-day Steve McQueen — before pointing out that McQueen, too, would likely have trouble finding a niche in the modern Hollywood landscape.

Or perhaps Renner’s midair stall is simply due to the unforgiving machinery of the box office: If The Bourne Legacy had performed better, we’d no doubt be seeing Renner lined up for The Bourne FallacyThe Bourne Apostasy, and The Bourne Philanthropy. His Bourne film was hardly a flop and a new Aaron Cross film was in development before Universal lured back Damon and Greengrass. Still, the very fact that you’re talking about an “Aaron Cross Bourne film” underscores the awkwardness of the premise. It’s like saying, “Come see the new James Bond film, featuring superspy Lance McGee!”

In analyzing his herky-jerky career, critics often cite Renner’s looks, which are routinely described as unconventional; even Renner says he has “murderous resting face.” (Renner grew up in the inland city of Modesto, California, and I like to think of him as the hardened, grown-up version of Ryan Atwood, Benjamin McKenzie’s Chino-born character on The O.C.) Yet Renner’s career in some ways mirrors that of a famously pretty, similarly Icarus-like actor who was once predestined for stardom and who also seemed to stall out — in fact, the very actor who got the True Detective season-two role that Renner might have excelled at. Colin Farrell was groomed for stardom; rose fast; had high-profile supporting roles in various blockbusters; and was handed the keys to potential franchises. Then he suffered some box-office disappointments and seem to temporarily disappear. Then — and here’s the uplifting part for Renner — Farrell returned and did some really interesting movies in which, freed of the pressure to prove his blockbuster bona fides, he could let his acting skills shine. He took a high-profile TV role that let him beef up, wear a pornstache, and generally remind you why he caught everyone’s attention in the first place. He seems to be having much more fun now that he’s out from under the mantle of the Next Big Thing. It might not be a useful blueprint for Renner, but it could be an escape hatch. The odds of another Aaron Cross film are now about as likely as True Detective: Season 3. But it would be much more fun to see Renner full-on rocking a pornstache than lugging around a bow and arrow.